In celebration of Soukup Strategic Solutions’ 10th business anniversary, we sat down with Sheryl to learn how she transitioned from a scientist to a nonprofit guru, and to see if she has any advice for nonprofit newcomers.
Sheryl Soukup’s professional experience covers multiple industries and disciplines, with work in nonprofits, small businesses, and corporate environments. She holds a degree in Microbiology from the University of Massachusetts. Before delving into the nonprofit world and founding Soukup Strategic Solutions, she worked as a scientist. Her background in science was the foundation for her expertise in data collection and analysis. This unique set of skills allows her to help clients develop strategic goals and effective strategies for measuring success.
We sat down recently with Sheryl to find out how she made the transition from scientist to nonprofit expert.
You have flourished in the nonprofit world as a consultant, founding your own company in 2012, but that’s not where it all began. Take us back to the beginning of your career.
Sheryl: I started my career as a scientist with my career all mapped out. I was a staff scientist for a materials engineering firm doing research for NASA and the Navy. I knew exactly where I was headed and was looking forward to a rewarding career as a researcher and scholar. God laughed at that plan. I gave birth to my daughter, Eva, who has complex medical needs. Her arrival changed everything for me. After Eva was born, I wanted to learn as much as I could about how to help her reach their full potential. As I learned more and more about how to help children with complex medical needs, I began volunteering to help parents expand their knowledge and acquire services for their children with special needs. Volunteering truly helped me cope. Assisting other parents who had children with special needs made me feel like I wasn’t alone.
Volunteering eventually turned into a part-time job at a nonprofit. This led to a part-time job at another nonprofit, which evolved into a full-time job, and thus my nonprofit story began. The work I was doing at nonprofits was so rewarding. Looking at the work I had been doing, and how the birth of my daughter impacted my family, I found that my priorities and what was important to me had shifted. Ultimately, I decided to switch career paths permanently.
How did you develop the knowledge base necessary for a career serving nonprofits?
Sheryl: I’m one of those people that just fell into the nonprofit world. I knew that I had gone to school for a completely different discipline, and I needed to fill in some knowledge gaps. So, I started going to workshops and seminars, then a little bit down the line, to conferences. I signed up to attend many conferences! Going to those workshops and seminars gave me the opportunity to learn from experts. I remember how exciting it was; I learned so much.
My next step was going to the local university library, where I requested a card for community members. I would sign out ten books on nonprofits at a time on topics like nonprofit management, governance, grants, fundraising – you name it. After finishing ten books, I returned them and took out ten more, over and over. This cycle, on top of working in a nonprofit at the time, allowed me to gather a large body of knowledge.
Looking back on ten years of serving the nonprofit community, what advice can you give to someone just starting out?
Sheryl: It was hard work, but deep down, I was committed. Continuously building my knowledge base while simultaneously putting that knowledge into practice working in nonprofits was the perfect combination. At that early stage, I recognized how vital the contributions of nonprofits are and how much more there was to learn about them. This led me to make an oath to myself. I made an oath never to stop learning about anything and everything nonprofit, and now decades later, I have kept that promise. Also, I was blessed to have many brilliant mentors along the way who were generous with their time, expertise, and introductions. So, a bit of advice is this: Be dedicated, find a mentor, make a promise to yourself to learn as much as you can, and stick to it – you have no idea the impact you will make on our world.