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What is Opportunity? Part II

In my previous blog post, I made the case for thinking about opportunity in more nuanced terms and the importance of higher education as a launching pad. To be clear, there is nothing magical about a college degree—it is only a credential that signifies that the bearer ostensibly possesses certain knowledge and skills. But the value of higher education also lies in the generation of experiences, relationships and the capacity to cultivate relationships. These are sometimes called “soft skills,” an unfortunate choice of words that make them seem less important than they really are.

Higher education only provides an entry point. Doing well in the classroom is no guarantee of doing well in the boardroom, the courtroom or other spaces of professional life. Many doors to professional success, such as those leading to top executive positions in the private, public and non-profit sectors, are unmarked and are difficult to access without social capital—a set of assets that, in the words of business historian Pamela Walker Laird, “exist in and flow through personal connections and individuals’ potential for making connections.”

One kind of social capital required for success in the professional realm is provided by mentors—trusted advisors who can show you the way and the ropes, to tell you how things really work, to teach you what attitudes and behaviors are necessary to succeed in professional environments and in the words of SEO alumna and longtime board member Carla A. Harris “provide trusted feedback on the good, the bad and the ugly of your career.” Social capital is also created and sustained through networks of relationships with a broad array of colleagues and contemporaries. As Laird, Harris and others have noted, social capital is a critically important, although often underappreciated part of the opportunity structure of modern American society.

But opportunity is not merely a function of what you know and whom you know, but what you choose to do with these assets. The most latent dimension of opportunity, and the most challenging to appreciate, measure and master, isn’t about finding the unmarked doors, but pushing beyond the obvious to discover doors that no one else knew were there or making doorways (and stairways, whole rooms, entire floors, new buildings) where they could or should be, but don’t yet exist. Arguably, one of SEO’s most significant achievements has been in encouraging and empowering alumni from all of its programs to be opportunity makers as well as opportunity seekers, not only for themselves, but also for others. This latter statement is italicized with good reason for perhaps the most critical and consistent value that links members of SEO’s extended family across generations and geographies has been the drive to lead and to give back.

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