“I wanted to work with more purpose.”

Image of Patrick Ellen
From Consumer Goods to Social Impact

Patrick Ellen had a challenging and enjoyable role. But when the pandemic hit, he found himself re-evaluating the impact he wanted to have in the world through his work. Here, he shares how he found help to explore and de-risk a move into a new, more purpose-driven sector.

What work were you doing previously?

I worked at Unilever.

I'd been working there for about five years in a variety of commercial roles within the Beauty and Food & Drinks space, building relationships with a range of retail customers.

What are you doing now?

I work at SYSTEMIQ, a systems change company looking to create positive systems change in the environment.

I’m working in the food and agriculture practice there on a new advisory project to help rapidly decarbonise the fertilizer sector.

Why did you change?

I quite enjoyed what I did in my role with Unilever.

I found it challenging and collaborated with interesting people.

But with the pandemic, my mindset completely changed. I felt that I wanted to work with more purpose.

When was the moment you decided to make the change?

It was early on in the pandemic, around the time of the first UK lockdown.

Quite quickly I knew that I needed to do something different. While my job was quite secure, as I sat at home working on my kitchen table, I knew other people were losing their jobs and struggling at the front line.

I just felt like I needed to do something with more impact.

How did you choose your new career?

I don't think choose is the right verb here for the process I went through.

It was more like exploring and it's something I hope I continue to do as it makes the world of work much more fun! 

I knew that I wanted to work in a role where I felt like I was having more positive impact then my current world at the time, and that I also wanted to learn new skills. Ideally I wanted to get some exposure to new work environments and organisations like start-ups, public sector, social enterprises, charities and so on. 

Are you happy with the change?


I’m on a career path now where I'm acting out my purpose and I feel like I’m making a positive contribution to the world.

What do you miss?

I miss getting free ice cream! (And cheaper laundry detergent from the staff shop.)

But I also miss the people who I naturally spent a lot of time with and made good friends with.

How did you go about making the shift?

I applied for, and was accepted onto, the On Purpose Associate Programme.

I'd had my eye on the Programme for a little while, and when I saw applications were opening again I joined one of their info webinars and then submitted my application. It was in the middle of the first lockdown, so I had very little else to do at the time.

Once I went through the recruitment process and was offered a place, I submitted my notice to leave my old job on the same day (as I was on a very long, 13-week notice period). I think I was offered a place about 12 weeks before the start date so I used most of my annual leave allowance that year to bring the leaving date back and take a few days off before the start of the programme.

I would advise anyone making any sort of career change to try to give themselves at least a week's break in between, just to have the mental and / or physical reset before starting something new. 

The programme helps people to explore and make a shift into the social impact space, and every week was centred around learning and development. It also allowed me to work at two placement organisations.

My second placement has been a long term partner with On Purpose for some years now and many people on placements there have ended up staying, either permanently or to do some contractual work at the end of the Programme. As such, by about halfway through my placement period I was already having discussions with my development manager as to whether I had aspirations to stay or not. In my short time there, SYSTEMIQ had already ticked a lot of boxes for me, such as constant learning and the chance to work on a global level, systemic challenges, so I kicked off the process to become a permanent member of the team.

After some conversations with HR and a final partner interview, I rejoined SYSTEMIQ a month after the On Purpose programme ended, as I decided to give myself a month's break to make up for the break I had wanted but not been able to have before joining the programme.

How did you handle your finances to make your shift possible?

The Associate Programme included a salary which facilitated an easier career transition.

What was the most difficult thing about changing?

Leaving the sense of security I had.

I didn't entirely dislike my job or what I was doing, and having done it for many years I felt like I knew how things worked.

I had a few doubts whether I was making the right decision, even right before the On Purpose programme started, which was challenging. But as soon as the programme started, those doubts went away and I haven’t looked back since.

What help did you get?

I received lots of support from my cohort during the programme.

We set up small accountability groups, which allowed us to connect with and reach out to people all the time.

What have you learnt in the process?

Other people have so much wisdom.

Especially in a career transition, with a new role, leaning into a support network is so beneficial.

I've learnt that being able to continue to explore, learn and innovate are going to be important for the rest of my career. If I don't have a combination of those three factors, I'm unlikely to thrive.

The importance of people, community, and culture are paramount for me, and how they come to life will be an important factor in staying in any organisation – when you're working on social or environmental impact it means you are generally trying to fix 'bad' things, and that can be really draining if you don't have the right energy around you.

Finally, I think I've gone through a personal journey of having very strong opinions based on little substance to having a more nuanced view of the world whilst still holding true to my core beliefs.

What would you advise others to do in the same situation?

I would say do your research.

For me, joining a structured programme was the best way to get into the impact sector and live out my purpose. However, this may not be the case for everyone, so make sure to think about what's right for you.

When it comes to career change more broadly, I don't think there's a single formula that works for everyone in making this happen. Indeed, some people have much higher structural and emotional barriers to overcome to be able to leave behind the safety and security of an old career. 

Work out what are your boundaries and limits in trying to make a change and then to try to work out a solution within these, even if it is small incremental steps. 

Thanks to our friends at On Purpose for sharing this story. Find out more and register your interest for the October 2022 Associate Programme at www.onpurpose.org.

What lessons could you take from Patrick's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below.

Plus, if you know someone who's made a successful shift into work they love, we'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line at [email protected]. and you could win a £25 / $35 voucher in our monthly draw.