Propel Impact

Canada-wide • 2018-2022
Team: Cheralyn Chok, James Tansey

I wished I had a community of peers who were equally curious about using business as a force for good. There wasn't one, so I co-created it.

Propel Impact logo


User interviews
Service design
Start-up operations



The challenge

In business school, if you aren't interested in accounting, investment banking, or consulting, good luck - you'll have to to carve your own path. It was even more isolating if you, like me, were interested in a nascent field such as impact investing.

Problem discovery

I interviewed 40 students to understand how they think about using what they're learning in school to effect change.

Do students prioritize working with impact organizations when they start their careers? 

We asked students to categorize potential employers in two ways. First, how impactful is the organization? Second, would you like to start your career there if given the opportunity? We found weak correlation between a student's perception of an organization's impact and their desire to work there as the launching pad of their careers (r=0.2871, p=0.2081).

What are the reasons students don't pursue careers with social enterprises?

We heard were three recurring themes: 
• Skills development is the most important factor for students' career decisions
• Unlike accounting or consulting, there isn't a clear career pathway working in sustainability
• It seems like everyone needs to work in a "traditional" job before qualifying for social impact jobs.

Based on these initial findings, we ran a summer internship pilot with 12 students.

To better understand what constitutes a learning environment that is conducive for students to develop the skills required for impact careers, we ran a pilot in the summer of 2019 in four locations (Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver).

Through the pilot, we made two key decisions: First, we narrowed our scope to developing programming focusing on two career pathways: impact investing and impact consulting. Second, the value of an apprenticeship model became clear - having a pre-internship training program would best set students up for success on the job.

Problem definition

Unlike medicine, law, or accounting, navigating a career path in climate change, poverty alleviation, education, and other impact areas can feel like a maze. At the same time, while students do care about creating social or environmental impact, skills development is a higher priority early on in their careers. The murkiness of a social impact career coupled with a perceived lack of skills development discourages students from pursuing such an alternative career path.

How does Propel work?

Propel is an experiential learning program that prioritizes building the critical and transferrable skills, and offers a clear career path towards working with impact investment funds and social enterprises.

The model begins with an 8 month fellowship program that is styled like an apprenticeship. Each cohort of 50 fellows learn the fundamentals skills of changemaking, and put these skills to use by working with real-life social enterprises to tackle operational challenges, or by managing a micro investment fund to invest in locally-based impact ventures.
Graphic describing how Propel programs work: First, join a consulting fellowship or investing fellowship. Second, intern with a social impact organization.
During the summer, fellows are selected for paid full-time internships with impact funds, advisory firms, and social enterprises in the Canadian impact ecosystem.


112 participants (2019-2021), now at 400+
84% of summer interns were retained by their employer
77% working full-time in social innovation and impact investment roles
$750,000 raised to support our mission

Incorporating storytelling into hiring decisions

We were able to:
Ensure 84% of our participants were retained by their employer

Imagine if, prior to hiring a new employee, you were able to work with them for an extended period of time to understand how they work and think.

The fellowship program allowed us to exactly that - by working closely with students for 8 months, we were able to identify who raised their hand to volunteer for a difficult task, who took the lead with organizing the team, who navigated ambiguity with courage and creativity.

We were able to help our employer partners see past the surface level. Instead of using only resumes and cover letters to assess a candidate, we told stories like when a fellow called in to listen an group's presentation while hiking a mountain in Indonesia, or when another fellow who was deathly afraid of Excel volunteered to try building a financial model. By doing so, we were able to help employers make decisions with a more holistic understanding of an individual's multi-faceted talent.

Designing a curriculum is rooted in proper change-making principles

We were able to:
Help 77% of our participants continue working in a social innovation or impact investment role

So often in case competitions or class projects, students are expected to solve a big problem like food insecurity or electrifying our grid within a limited timeframe and limited (or no) consultation with community stakeholders. Although there is certainly educational value for its participants, these experiences fail to emphasize the importance of community-led engagement.
Instead of designing a solution in a vacuum, the Propel curriculum was intentionally grounded in change-making principles. If we think of the curriculum as a pie, these principles form the crust, within which the rest of the toolkit (knowledge, frameworks, and technical skills) are filled in.

Learn more

Screenshot of Propel Impact website