“A-Ha!” moments and values-in-action: a glimpse of work at Acumen Fund
A version of this post appeared previously on the blog of the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.
Every Monday morning, I sit with the rest of the office for an all-staff meeting. Each team shares updates from the past week and summarizes important upcoming meetings and deliverables. This doesn’t seem unusual. These types of Monday morning meetings happen in companies everywhere.
But then, I participate in a weekly Acumen Fund tradition: the sharing of personal “a-ha” moments regarding our work and stories of people living Acumen’s values (“values-in-action”), such as empathy and dignity. This is what energizes me in a way no other job has. Here is a smattering of conversations that took place during (and sometimes continued long after) these meetings:
- Discussion about NYTimes article by John Githongo called “In Africa, Wealth Breeds Wage,” which describes how economic growth has taken place but that increasing wealth disparity and rising social media exposure to higher living standards abroad have changed aspirations of the poor and caused anger. We discussed the notions of fairness, dignity, and empowerment of Base-of-the-Pyramid (BoP) populations through social impact investing.
- Dialogue about Chimamanda Adichie’s great TEDTalk, The Danger of a Single Story. We talked about how it is critical for Acumen Fund and others involved in social enterprise to share stories about the people we encounter and our experiences in the countries where we work, and that we need to be careful about how we share these stories. Simplifying issues into digestible sound bytes is tempting, but runs the risk of misrepresenting the manifold challenges of development.
- Conversation about a theory David Brooks shared at Aspen Ideas Festival that American culture has shifted over the past fifty years from a culture of self-effacement to a culture of self-expression, and how that has changed leaders’ attitudes and values. We reflected on what this means for leadership development programs such as Acumen’s Global and Regional Fellows programs.
- After we celebrated World Metrics Day, we discussed the critical and complex task of measuring social impact. In particular, we talked about a unique metric that Bhutan uses to measure quality of life: Gross National Happiness (GNH). This prompted discussion about what sort of information different metrics capture – or leave out – and reflection on which metrics we should track as impact investors. Should we track a few key metrics, or many? Could one metric capture the impact that we and our investees are trying to make? That’s a very difficult question. For example, I met with my Leadership Fellow Delano Brissett ‘11, who is working at Robin Hood Foundation this summer. He mentioned that Robin Hood Foundation tracks over 170 metrics when deciding how to allocate their funds to anti-poverty programs in NYC. Imagine collecting that amount of data for rural programs in developing countries that do not have the benefit of sophisticated computer systems to track data.
My summer internship
As a graduate student, I am interning with Acumen Fund through the Stanford Management Internship Fund. Acumen funds businesses that address critical needs of BoP populations (i.e., people living on less than $4 per day). Our investees have high potential for growth and often have financing needs that position them between what traditional philanthropists and commercial investors can provide. We call this philosophy of investing “patient capital.” Acumen Fund helped define impact investing as one of the first organizations to focus on investments in businesses dedicated to social impact in the developing world, rather than philanthropic contributions to organizations involved in traditional approaches to aid and development.
I have been interested in working at Acumen Fund since about 2005, when I spoke with a friend who worked for Bain & Company. She had interned at Acumen Fund between her two years at business school. I was immediately struck by the significant shift taking place in our conversation about development. When we discussed Acumen’s approach, we were not talking about aid, charity, or inefficiency. Instead, we spoke about scaling businesses that create jobs in low-income areas and provide critical products and services to low-income populations. Putting capitalism to work for good. Perfect.
This summer, I am working with Acumen’s Portfolio team in New York, which collaborates with our Portfolio teams in Nairobi, Mumbai, and Karachi. In New York, our team sources opportunities, conducts due diligence, and undertakes strategic analysis of sectors and geographies we currently prioritize or might focus on in the future. Having worked in Swaziland and Kenya in 2009-2010, I was eager to work for an investing fund organization in the US to see what it feels like to work on development challenges remotely.
I am currently working on a variety of projects, which include conducting social impact analysis for a potential investment in Pakistan, facilitating a 16-person strategy offsite to help chart a critical part of Acumen’s vision over the next five years, and developing a point-of-view on a subsector of the Health portfolio.
I am excited to be working with an extremely talented team of people who have strategic and analytical acumen, and in an environment where people are passionate about contributing to an important cause.
Clare Hunt is a student at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and is an Acumen Fund Summer Portfolio Associate.