Extraordinary Days: A Life in the Making

Mike Del Ponte

The question that dominated my early thoughts – “What do you want to be when you grow up?” – sounds naïve to me now when I reflect on my unconventional career path as an aspiring priest, marketer, peacekeeper in the West Bank, microfinance consultant, and now social entrepreneur.

As I child, I was sure I wanted to be quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. In high school, a career in law, medicine, and eventually Congress looked realistic. Then, in college, after very intense discernment I felt I should become either a Catholic priest or a theology professor, a decision that led me to Yale Divinity School.

All these plans and predictions proved to be far off course from the work I do now as an entrepreneur and marketer. My idea of vocation changed and deepened, setting me on a path I wouldn’t have dreamed possible a few year before.

When I made my childhood plans to become the 49ers’ quarterback, I based my decision on one factor: my dad loved Joe Montana, the Niners’ star QB at the time. My dad and I spent many hours tossing the football around in the backyard and watching games on Sundays to cheer on Montana.

Then, when I was twelve, my father died of emphysema, and the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news was my career. In that moment, I told myself that I am now the man of the house and need to take care of my mom and sister. I wasn’t even a teenager yet, but my plan was to get into a good college and make a lot of money, thinking money would solve any problems my family encountered.

So I executed on my plan – made my college applications as compelling as possible, took honors classes, jumped into varsity sports, leadership programs, and volunteer work. Finally, the day I was waiting for arrived. I was accepted into a private university on the East Coast, actually more than one. In my young mind, I was well on my way to getting a high-paying job, taking care of my mom and sister, and living a happy and fulfilled life.

Tuition Blues

There was just one problem. My family could not afford the high tuition. With the small amount of financial aid I was offered and the prospect of taking out a daunting amount of student loans, I realized that going to one of these schools was not an option after all. My plan was spoiled. After six years of hard work, everything was out the window. Discouraged and now unsure how I would fulfill my promise to provide for my family, I decided I would wrap up my time at high school and then go to a local community college.

One day, a few weeks after my disappointing realization about college, I decided to drive to the library to do homework. As I backed my car out of my driveway I saw a handful of letters in the mailbox. So I pulled the car over, grabbed the bundle of mail, and tossed it onto the passenger seat.

Seeing one letter addressed to me, I tore it open. “Congratulations, you have been selected as a Frank H. Buck Scholar,” it read. The Buck Scholarship, provided by a family foundation in Northern California, goes to a few students annually in the region between Berkeley and Sacramento. I had applied for it months before. But knowing how competitive it is, I never dreamed I would be selected. When I got the news I was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude: I knew the scholarship covers tuition, travel, room and board, books, computers, study abroad, and other expenses for undergraduate and graduate studies. In other words, the Buck Scholarship suddenly made it possible for me to fulfill my plan of going to a school that would change my life. I was back on track, I thought.

Liberating News

When I got to Boston College for freshman orientation, we were told right away that, regardless of our majors, we could do “anything and everything” professionally. This news liberated me, shaking me out of my childhood goal of making money strictly to “take care” of my family. It launched me on a new path of serious vocational discernment, which as a result has given me a very fulfilling career and allowed me to have a positive impact on the world. Ironically, this path will most likely lead to more money than I would have ever made if I followed my more conventional plan.

At Boston College we were given many resources to help us discern vocation. There were retreats, courses, office hours, counseling, and endless conversations. I got clarity on the distinction between discerning vocation and finding a job: the former is about answering God’s call for your life, the latter is about deciding how you want to make money. When you ask people about their careers, they tell you what they do. When you ask them about their vocation, they describe what they were put on earth to do. Armed with this insight, I have been sustained on the journey ever since. But the process has not yielded one specific answer, like “you should be a pediatrician for the rest of your life,” which is what most people expect. The conventional approach is to get locked into trying to answer the question “What career will I choose?” I have found that the more important question is “What is God calling me to do now?”

Two sets of vocational questions have helped me. I learned the first set from the Rev. Michael Himes, a theology professor at Boston College: “What are you good at?” “What do you love to do?” and “What does the world need?”

When I was at Boston College I became preoccupied with a new stirring: I believed I was being called to become a Catholic priest. This was around the time of intense coverage of the sexual abuse scandal. The American church already had a drastic shortage of priests, and the scandal only made this problem worse. I figured the world needed more bright, young, energetic, and moral priests, so I convinced myself that I was being called to become one. And I went to Yale Divinity School with this goal in mind.

But at YDS I concluded that the prospect of being a celibate priest and taking a vow of obedience were things that I neither loved nor would be good at. Similar discoveries came about with my second option, a theology professor. I did not love the endless hours of reading and writing, and I couldn’t say I was particularly good at academics. So I ruled out a scholarly vocation as well. That set of three discernment questions – “What are you good at?” “What do you love to do?” and “What does the world need?” – were serving me well as a test and guide. I recommend them to anyone.

Global Expedition

While at YDS I discovered another set of helpful vocational questions, which propelled me into a rich, unpredictable career marked by humanitarian work on four continents, meetings at the White House, coverage on CNN, and international awards. Those questions are “God, what do you want me to know?” and “God, what do you want me to do?” I ask these questions regularly in prayer and then record the answers in my journal. They help me refine my answers to that initial set of three questions.

I’ve learned another important element about discernment: you can’t do it simply with prayer and introspection. You have to go out and try stuff. Be- fore matriculating at YDS, I spent a year exploring. I volunteered locally, started a nonprofit organization, worked a horribly boring office job, went on a ten-day silent Buddhist retreat, and served as a Christian Peacemaker in the West Bank, documenting human rights abuses, protecting Palestinian children, and protesting military occupation.

Between my first and second year at the Divinity School, I worked as a microfinance consultant in Western Nepal, gathering data for a Yale Law School professor and providing strategic advice to NGOs in Nepal.

Using my discernment questions, I finally discovered my first true professional calling. At Yale I was meeting many aspiring social entrepreneurs – smart, young, passionate students who had ideas to change the world, but lacked the resources to get their ideas off the ground. This was just when social entrepreneurship, the idea of using business principles to solve social issues, was becoming more popular. Muhammad Yunus had just won the Nobel Prize for his microfinance initiatives with poor people, which inspired more young people to enter the field. I saw that these young social entrepreneurs needed funding, advice, and other crucial resources in order to have impact and success, and I found that I was good at connecting them with such resources and I really enjoyed the work.

So, still at YDS, I launched a pilot program for what later became Sparkseed, a global nonprofit organization investing in the world’s most promising young social entrepreneurs. Sparkseed provides mentoring, consulting services, investments, convenings, and connections. The pilot proved successful.

Branching Out

After graduating, I moved back to California to run Sparkseed full-time. The first sixteen months were difficult. I did not take a salary and had to work side jobs to make ends meet, doing everything from project management consulting to bartending to pushing gurneys at a hospital.

Finally, Sparkseed reached an inflection point and became a leader in early-stage social entrepreneurship. The company was featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Inc. Magazine, Fast Company, and Financial Times. In a very short time we helped launch fifteen social ventures and won an international Social Innovation Award for our work.

In 2010, I left my post as founder and CEO of Sparkseed to oversee its merger with Mobilize.org and pursue a marketing role at BranchOut, a Silicon Valley tech startup. I was hired to create all of BranchOut’s marketing programs, including branding, public relations, enterprise sales, college marketing, partnerships, and our CEO’s thought-leadership efforts. I felt called to the position because I knew it would teach me how to build big companies that could improve millions of lives.

BranchOut proved to be the right place to learn. It grew from ten to fifty employees and from 10,000 to ten million users in one year. We also raised $24 million in venture capital in a matter of months, a rare feat in the startup world. At BranchOut, I learned much about social media and marketing, as well as how to run a company. I was lucky to spend a lot of time with Rick Marini, BranchOut’s founder and CEO, who is well-respected in Silicon Valley.

I’ve taken these lessons with me now that I’ve left BranchOut to start a new company that uses e- commerce to drive funding to lifesaving charitable efforts.

There are many Biblical examples of people who have gone on unconventional journeys to follow God’s calling – Abraham, Moses, the disciples, Mary mother of Jesus. God called each person, and that person followed the Lord. Today we are faced with career advice, job fairs, and resume critiques. These ordinary tools produce ordinary results. But if we are to live extraordinary lives and build the kingdom of God, the key is to listen for God’s calling and have the courage to follow. 

Mike Del Ponte ‘08 M.A.R. is a social entrepreneur based in San Francisco. He blogs at www.mikedelponte.com.