April 25, 2016

The Privilege of Taking Risks

The Scoop

Last Thursday’s MITX Influence(her) panel, Why It’s Worth Taking Risks, was a platform for an enriching two-way conversation between the audience and four esteemed women who have taken risks in their careers – risks that have propelled them forward in their journey of professional success.


The discussion was almost entirely centered on “knowing that the world won’t end if you take a risk,” “going for it,” and “doing what will be most fun”—which was great. It was encouraging to learn that risk taking as it relates to your career sometimes has a huge, often unforeseeable payoff. It really was. Sitting in the audience as a 22 year old woman starting my career—learning that there’s power in making the decision to take a risk—it really, really, really was!

The Missing Piece

Got Privilege

But, something important was missing from the discussion—until Ellen Chisa, VP of Product at Lola Travel Company was prompted to speak on her notion of “the privilege of taking risks.” She only spoke to this notion briefly, and although her discussion of it lasted probably less than 5% of the total length of the panel, I found it to be the most valuable and upsettingly almost-missed key takeaway.

You may be trying to connect the dots right now, figuring out how taking risks is linked to privilege. Let me put it this way: while the world may not end if taking a risk doesn’t pan out particularly well, for some people who lack the security and comfort of guaranteed support it may as well. Ellen attributed things like financial security, which allowed her to take risks as large as quitting a coveted position at Microsoft as a recent graduate and more recently dropping out of Harvard Business School, to particular circumstances like not having the burden of student debt thanks to a free-ride during undergrad.

Other marks of privilege in addition to financial security include economic mobility, emotional support, and societal acceptance. Without at least one or all of these things, taking a career risk suddenly becomes a lot more difficult to justify. And in a society where systematically oppressed groups are more likely to lack these pillars of privilege, that justification becomes even harder to provide. How can you justify forfeiting the security of a job that makes you miserable for the unknown outcome of starting your own business when your family is relying on you to pay rent? Sometimes you physically cannot afford to take a risk, even if it is the most foreseeably beneficial thing to do.

Ellen closed out her brief, but important discussion of the privilege of taking risks by saying “Don’t ever judge someone who appears not to be taking risks to better their career, for you never truly know if they are in a position to do so.”


So, yes, I think it’s great to have a go-getter mentality; to seek out and create opportunities for yourself, to go for them with everything you’ve got. I’m all for it. But I also think it’s important not to discuss taking risks without sufficiently addressing the reality that not everyone is in a position to take one. It’s not only important to understand this reality, but also to encourage the privileged population to supplement those missing pillars of support for others lacking privilege in any way they can, even if it’s just a “Hey, I believe in you.”

Topics: Blog