Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Sheila Sarem of Basta Is Helping To Change Our World

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Careers are long. You are picking your first job, not your forever job. I see the anxiety in young people’s faces every day at Basta. They are putting so much weight on selecting their first job, and I always use myself as an example. I’ve had seven jobs, and my career has spanned the private sector, politics, education, nonprofit, Europe, and America!

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheila Sarem.

Sheila Sarem is the CEO and Founder of Basta, a non-profit committed to bridging the college-to-career gap for first-generation college students of color. Sheila and her team are dedicated to securing great jobs and internships for students through rigorous career-prep programs and building relationships directly with employers to serve as a talent pipeline.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a first-generation American, I didn’t have many examples of what careers could look like while growing up. My dad believed that only hard science majors were worthwhile, and business majors were useless. So, until I founded Basta, my career was a series of trial and error, or you could call it a process of elimination. Two pivotal moments happened accidentally. In 2008, I volunteered on the Obama campaign, and they were looking for a staff person to open a new office. That job launched me into mission-driven work. Later, in 2010, I happened to get a job in the hotbed education reform in DC Public Schools. It was there that I realized I needed to launch my nonprofit, Basta, and help first-generation students secure well-paying jobs.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

For me, the most fascinating aspect of this journey has been building authentic relationships with individuals and organizations that share our vision for the world. As someone who teaches young people in the fellowship that “no one is self-made and that everyone has help”, it’s ironic that I had to learn that lesson myself as a founder and entrepreneur.

After seven years, I feel like I’m in cahoots with so many of our funders, employers, and supporters. It’s a reminder that it’s easier to give advice than to follow it. I founded an organization that emphasizes the importance of networks and relying on others, yet I still have to remind myself of that lesson as we continue to grow. Basta is always offering me some valuable meta-realizations.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Oh, people love sharing advice with entrepreneurs about strategies and tactics that worked for them. And, as a new founder — it can be super tempting to simply try to emulate other people and hope for the best! I’m a super relational fundraiser and rarely (read: never) have those cliche moments where I lean forward across a table and make a $1M ask. I was meeting with a fellow male founder who did use that more direct approach, often and successfully. So I thought I’d give it a try with a great Basta supporter. I walked into a coffee meeting with my best “Wolf of Wall Street” energy and boldly made an ask. The supporter looked at me like I had grown a second head, and we had a good laugh. It was a reminder that we need to lean into our authenticity!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Yes! Our singular focus at Basta is to help individuals secure jobs that require a BA degree and enable them to earn a family-sustaining wage. We’re proud to say that 86% of our Basta Fellows are achieving this goal, complete with benefits and career advancement opportunities. In fact, our fellows are starting with salaries of $63k per year, with some starting as high as $90k (typically those in tech or finance majors). We believe that earning a salary that provides financial security from day one not only changes the life of an individual, but also has a positive multiplier effect on their entire community. As a result, we’re proud to be making a difference in the lives of first-generation students in New York, many of whom are CUNY graduates.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Just one? That is really tough. We have worked directly with over 1,000 young people and each of their stories and experiences drive me every day.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Absolutely. Firstly, we need to rethink college rankings to include job attainment by socioeconomic status and make that information widely available like nutrition labels — students deserve to know what they are buying. Secondly, we should remove GPAs from resumes as they are an incomplete proxy of success, not accounting for the various factors that affect academic performance. For example, if one student works a full-time job while studying and has only 8–10 hours a week to study, while another student has 30 hours a week to study, what exactly are we measuring? These two changes are crucial and should be prioritized above any other systemic shifts we need to make.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership to me is loving candor. It is believing in others’ potential and capacity for growth enough to be honest with them.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.

Careers are long. You are picking your first job, not your forever job. I see the anxiety in young people’s faces every day at Basta. They are putting so much weight on selecting their first job, and I always use myself as an example. I’ve had seven jobs, and my career has spanned the private sector, politics, education, nonprofit, Europe, and America!

It’s okay to make decisions based on what matters to you. Others can provide input, but they aren’t living in your shoes. As a first-gen child of immigrants, I am acutely aware of the need to fulfill your parents’ vision and dreams for my life. And at some points in my life, that is what I chose to do. Many Basta students identify as both first-gen Americans and first-gen college students, and they are weighing their passions and interests against those of their families and communities. I like to remind them that there’s no right answer.

Courage is not the absence of fear. Carving a path and the journey of self-discovery is full of risks and bets. When I left the private sector to volunteer on the Obama campaign, I had no idea where that would lead. It was a leap of faith. And when I left a full-time job to launch Basta, that was another leap of faith. Both moments were exciting and scary!

The first three years of adulting may feel hard (and so will your mid-thirties!). The first three years of being in a post-college career can feel like a massive transition for a lot of people. Work feels different than school. Some people love it. A lot of people need to adjust to it. Within the first three years, I see that a lot of young people have a little quarter-life crisis, and I think it’s best to normalize that experience so that young people realize they aren’t alone.

Everything is unfolding as it should, even when it is not immediately apparent. Navigating early career comes with moments of feeling entirely lost. Note those moments, journal, give into them. I don’t mean sit on the sofa and stream Netflix, but be open to the possibility of those moments and see where they take you! Some of my biggest breakthroughs in self-discovery came in moments where I felt really lost.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Teach real history in schools. Growing up in the South, I feel we focused more on indentured servitude than on slavery. I learned way too much about indentured servitude, which is not the main aspect of how free labor looked in the South. I’m not sure if we were explicitly taught that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but my lasting memory from my Texas education is that the reason for the Civil War is debatable. I now realize that this is ludicrous and feel cheated. As Americans, we can be patriotic and learn from our history at the same time. Other countries have done that, such as Germany and the Holocaust. Until we come to terms with our past, we cannot move through the stages of healing, nor can we fully understand how to solve the inequities we see and experience today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I am a firm believer in mantras! For nearly a year — especially as I was launching Basta — I repeated the following mantra which I first heard from Brene Brown at a TEDTalk: “I will allow myself to be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen and to love with my whole heart, even though there’s no guarantee.” Launching Basta was an exercise in having my most deeply held beliefs manifest as an organization, and that required an immense amount of vulnerability!

Most recently, I’ve adapted a Thich Nhat Hanh quote: “relate to practicing what you want to be.” So, in my current context, I have a few mantras that I am working on:

“To live a joy-filled life, I have to practice living a joy-filled life.”

“To be active, I have to practice being active.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Ruth Wilson Gilmore. If you don’t know her, don’t walk, run(!) to learn more about her. In my opinion, she is the smartest person alive. She has the most beautiful vision for what our world can be, and listening to her is the most exhilarating experience of intellectual and emotional discovery.

How can our readers further follow your work online? and on LinkedIn at

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Sheila Sarem of Basta Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.