"The impact I hope to make is to make life easier for people who are overlooked," says Sonia Khan, an alum of the Certificate in ESG Strategy executive program.
Sonia Khan completed the Certificate in ESG Strategy executive education program in spring 2023 with a group of colleagues from the HR tech company Checkr. She recently spoke with CESR about her role as a CSR Manager, transferable skills for social impact jobs, and how the program helped her to build confidence and understand the foundations of ESG.
CESR: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Sonia Khan: Social impact is the third career I’ve embarked on, but the impact I want to make on the world has been a common thread through all of them; retail banking, recruiting, and now social impact. I’m the child of immigrants and navigating my career path has been really challenging because I lacked resources. The impact I hope to make is to make life easier for people who are overlooked. In all of these roles, I’ve been able to serve people in that situation.
CESR: How did you find the Certificate in ESG Strategy program? What attracted you to it?
SK: I’m on the Checkr.org team, Checkr’s social impact arm, and we took the program together. Learning and development is huge at Checkr. All employees get a yearly stipend to invest in their growth. The VP of Checkr.org found the program and encouraged all of us to participate. We see this as a huge year for growth at Checkr.org, since we’ve hired more staff than in previous years, and we wanted to make this investment in our knowledge to fuel that growth.
“It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been working in ESG; everyone is on the same journey. Everyone is getting up every day and trying to find ways to do better for the communities they serve and for the world,”
CESR: Tell me about your current role at Checkr.
SK: I’m the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Manager for Checkr.org. I started in a temporary capacity in December, and I’ve been full-time in the role since February. My role involves both strategic thinking and execution at the same time.
I’m responsible for managing all our Pledge 1% initiatives. We’ve committed to giving 1% of employee time, product, equity, and profit to the mission of enabling fair chance hiring, the practice of employers hiring people with arrest or conviction records. Right now, I’m focused on time, which means volunteering and giving back for all our employees in the U.S. and globally. Employees at Checkr have 20 hours of volunteer time off (VTO) per year to spend giving back to the community. One of our current key focus areas is to partner with nonprofits who provide employment training and support for justice-impacted individuals.
Our mission focus on Fair Chance is material for us as a background check company. Typically, background checks are used to screen people out based on arrest or conviction records. Because of this reality, it can be very difficult for people who have an arrest or conviction record to get hired, even when they have the relevant skills. What makes Checkr different is that we provide transparency and advocacy for the potential new hire through the background check process. We want to screen people in and give applicants a fair chance at the roles that they are qualified for.
“To do social impact work well, you need to align what’s important to employees and what’s important to the business,”
CESR: How did you make the transition from a career in technical recruiting to working in CSR?
SK: Last year, Checkr posted an opportunity to join the social impact team in a temporary capacity. I applied and advocated for myself to be selected. I looked at my recruiting skills and saw that they were transferable into social impact. In both roles, you need to have a deep understanding of the business, including the mission, the product, and the impact the company wants to make. This is how you engage candidates and employees. It’s always changing and evolving, so you’re always learning. To do social impact work well, you need to align what’s important to employees and what’s important to the business.
I always called myself an empathetic, data-driven recruiter, and that link between empathy and data has transitioned well into social impact work. When you’re talking with a candidate, you’re understanding their journey and who they are. Backgrounds aren’t always linear, and many factors impact each person’s growth. You must really listen to the candidate and understand their background. Then you work with hiring managers to ensure that all candidates have a fair chance when it comes to interviewing. Hiring managers are asking both does this person have the skillset, and what did they have to overcome to get there? Then it’s using data to drive decisions, identify problems, make changes, and improve.
CESR: Tell me about your experience in the Certificate in ESG Strategy program.
SK: It was great to have my team in the class with me. We would have discussions as a team the day prior to the class to talk about the readings and key takeaways. Plus, simultaneously while we are learning in class, we were doing the work. I learned about how ESG elevates the strategy of a business when it’s done well. I was grateful for the class because I learned the basics of ESG, like materiality and reporting standards. Now, I know what people are talking about in meetings because I have that foundation.
“Start now. There's no perfect timing in life,”
CESR: What is your most valuable takeaway from the program?
SK: All the guest speakers were awesome. To this day, I go back into the recordings to listen to the speakers. I still talk to my instructor, Pete Dignan. He’s been a great thought partner when I’m trying to figure out the next step in a project. I enjoyed having my team in the class with me, discussing the readings ahead of time and talking about how to apply our learnings to our work. Plus, most of my classmates were in ESG in some capacity, but across industries, so we could learn from each other.
CESR: How has your experience in the program impacted your work?
SK: I gained more confidence in my role. I learned that no matter where you are in ESG, every company is trying to figure it out. There’s no playbook. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been working in ESG; everyone is on the same journey. Everyone is getting up every day and trying to find ways to do better for the communities they serve and for the world.
CESR: What advice do you have for people seeking a career in ESG?
SK: Start now. There’s no perfect timing in life. Even if you’re not in an ESG role, you can still learn about what companies are doing and what kind of impact you would like to make. Reach out to people who are doing work you’re interested in. In this space, a lot of people are welcoming and want to provide advice and help.
Meet other alumni, faculty, and guest speakers by exploring other articles about sustainable business executive programs at Leeds.