Acumen Blog

Philippe Petit

Man on Wire: A Social Entrepreneur’s Delicate Balancing Act

Question: What do a 24-year old French performance artist and a 35-year old Indian electrical engineer have in common?

Answer: Each has mastered a delicate balancing act, integral to his survival.

In August 1974, a young French high-wire artist named Philippe Petit performed perhaps the most astounding stunts in modern history: he covertly strung a tightrope between the two towers of New York’s World Trade Center.  For more than an hour, he balanced 1,350 feet above the ground, evading arrest and capturing the attention of millions of New Yorkers.  Quite literally, Petit’s balancing act was his career – his life depended on its successful execution.  His story was re-told in the Academy Award-winning 2008 documentary, Man on Wire.

Fast forward to 2005; Gyanesh Pandey had heard “no” before.  They said it was impossible. They—the scientists at India’s premier research institutions—told him that rice husk waste was chemically unsuitable to be used as a fuel. Sugarcane worked; bagasse too, but the predominant agricultural waste of India’s poorest regions didn’t burn hot enough, or clean enough, to power electricity generators.

Pandey, however, was not one to take no for an answer. An electrical engineer working in the semiconductor industry, he spent his weekends building a series of test gasifiers, each version more appropriate for the rice husk fuel he knew was out there. Finally, after a seemingly endless series of dead ends, he arrived at a design that could work. Excited at the potential of his creation, he looked for money to build it out in his family’s native village, Tamkuha, in the northern Indian state of Bihar. Finding no takers, Pandey liquidated his 401(k)—paying a penalty —and set up the gasifier, filtering system, retrofitted diesel engine, and wiring scheme with the help of his partner and college friend, Ratnesh Yadav. In August 2007, they inaugurated the plant and brought electricity to Tamkuha for the very first time.  With a second plant in a nearby village, Gyanesh and Ratnesh launched a new company, Husk Power Systems.

Gyanesh is a charismatic leader with a mission he calls “power to empower.” He has used his increasingly public profile and the power of his mission to raise a substantial amount of philanthropic funding. This funding—which has come from foundations and business plan competitions—is crucial to Husk Power as scales its business model. The company also benefits from offers of volunteer support from all over the world, including people willing to travel to Bihar to work for free. The mission of providing affordable, renewable power in communities that otherwise lack access to formal energy services clearly is compelling.  Staying mission-focused – and pursuing the money that comes with it – is a priority.

But the company’s operating margins are also quite attractive. The village power plant systems should pay for themselves within two to three years; with that in mind, the business has attracted risk capital from Acumen Fund and investors like Bamboo Finance and Draper Fisher Jurvetson.  Of course, the projections depend on good management – especially from those at the top.

Making things even more complicated, enter the government.  In 2009, India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy granted Husk Power a capital expense subsidy, making the company’s financials economically compelling for investors, even impact investors. But even more exciting is the fact that Gyanesh and his team are working with the government of Bihar to write the regulations for how rural biomass gasification can benefit from these exact government subsidies as they scale. If successful, the mandate for government funding will grow these systems more rapidly than either the compelling mission or the attractive margins would by themselves.

Without grants and private investment, Husk Power would not have gotten started, but without the mandate from the government of Bihar, the company is unlikely to scale.

Managing that balancing act, even with both feet firmly planted on terra firma, is as harrowing for the social entrepreneur as it is for the tightrope walker.  A few false steps – should I meet the government?  Which is the wrong funding?  Is the volunteer really going to add value? – and the show’s over.

At Acumen Fund, we’ve walked the tightrope to scale and sustainability alongside more than 50 firms in the past 10 years.  Some have made it; others have not.  One thing we’ve learned along the way, is that there is no single path to scale for the successful impact investee.  Rather, social entrepreneurs must purposefully navigate the path to scale keeping in mind three diversions: mission, margin and mandate.

To learn more about the paths to scale, pick up a copy of the newly released SOCAP11 special edition of Innovations Journal, focused exclusively on the impact investing space.  You’ll find an essay (page 69!) entitled Mission, Margin, Mandate: Multiple Paths to Scale.

Rob Katz is a Portfolio Manager, Knowledge in Acumen Fund’s India office.  This post originally appeared on


Four Emerging Leaders Building the Future of Pakistan

With 60% of Pakistan’s population living under less than a dollar a day, the external narrative of Pakistan is characterised by what the country lacks; a lack of security, a lack of women’s rights, a lack of access to education, and the list goes on. What this narrative ignores are the individuals who work tirelessly to plug those gaps. From human rights to education to food security, Acumen Pakistan Fellows are affecting change through organizations committed to tackling poverty. Their work is truly inspiring, promising a hopeful future for Pakistan. Here are four fellows that are building this future for Pakistan and come together periodically to share learning experiences and grow as leaders. Through five seminars, the fellows have strengthened skills of adaptability, communication, empathy and problem solving through listening. If you are committed to creating change in your community, apply now to be an Acumen Pakistan Fellow. The deadline is 29 September. [Read More]

Acumen Partners with AlphaSights to Better Access Global Expertise

In our work investing in social enterprises that deliver critical goods to the poor, there is a substantial amount of work to evaluate each investment opportunity. A critical part of the diligence process, particularly when it comes to emerging markets, is speaking with industry experts who can provide reliable information about sector trends, market dynamics and public policy – all of which affect our evaluation of potential investment opportunities. [Read More]


Our manifesto begins, “it starts by standing with the poor.” Yet for good reasons, the sector has found it challenging to measure which customers are actually being served through social impact investments – getting accurate data on incomes is notoriously difficult and the logistical challenge and cost of conducting surveys in person prohibitive. [Read More]

Questions for Aspiring Leaders

Bavidra Mohan, Acumen’s India Fellows Manager, attended this years Aspen IDEAS festival as a Scholar. The Scholarship program was established to invite guests from around the world to bring a diverse set of experiences, voices and perspectives to the rich conversations that take place at the IDEAS festival each year. [Read More]

Give Impact Investing Time and Space to Develop

Impact investing has captured the world’s imagination. Just six years after the Rockefeller Foundation coined the term, the sector is booming. An estimated 250 funds are actively raising capital in a market that the Global Impact Investing Network estimates at $25 billion. Giving Pledge members described impact investing as the “hottest topic” at their May 2012 meeting, and Prime Minister David Cameron extolled the potential of the sector at the most recent G8 summit.  Sir Ronald Cohen and HBS Professor William A. Sahlman describe impact investing as the new venture capital, implying that it will, in the next 5 to 10 years, make its way into mainstream financial portfolios, unlocking billions or trillions of dollars in new capital. [Read More]

10 Books We’re Reading This Summer

What are you reading? It is a common question here at Acumen, an organization full of avid readers constantly trading favorite book titles that discuss leadership, impact, development and branding. Here are 10 stellar books we’re reading this summer. These books and others provide a framework of thinking, a spark of new ideas, a platform for debate. So, what are you reading? [Read More]

How Acumen Brought Back my Fire

Eda is an East Africa Regional Fellow from Nairobi, Kenya and is the Founder and Director of Halisi Trust, an organization that seeks to challenge the vices that plague society and encourage transformational development in Kenya’s youth. When Eda applied for the East Africa Fellows Program, she felt disillusioned and stuck. Below, Eda discusses how Acumen’s Regional Fellowship Program brought back her fire. Now, Eda has engaged nearly 6,000 people through outreach events and the Mkenya Halisi movement continues to grow. Acumen is currently accepting applications for the next class of East Africa Fellows. APPLY TODAY! [Read More]

Imagining the world as it could be

Christine Gitau is an East Africa Fellow and an enterprise coach at Craft Afrika, which provides business support services to craft entrepreneurs, enabling them build viable and thriving businesses in Kenya. At Acumen we often use the term “Moral Imagination” when talking about leadership. Christine wrote a reflection on how this concept has shifted her thinking. We could not be more proud of what she is building! [Read More]