Is Impact for You?

By John Collery on December 09, 2013

John Collery is a Global Fellow working at Avani, a company that creates pine needle gasification power projects for remote communities in northern India. Acumen is currently accepting applications for the next class of Global Fellows, application deadline is December 13th! 

As part of a recent interview, I was asked what advice I would give to business school students who are looking to make a move into impact investing or the social impact world more generally. Having made that move relatively recently, its advice that I hoped I could give.

Racking my brain I quickly answered, talk to mentors, talk to friends, talk to professors. Read. Read a lot. Join clubs, befriend people in the industry, go to conferences. Build yourself a rock solid twitter feed and begin to get an understanding of one or more areas of development. Pretty standard stock answer but giving nothing that most people would not already have figured out.

Thinking about the question over the past few days, my answer should have been more straight forward. Kind of.

Ask yourself, how much can you give? I don’t mean this in a simple way and the answer should not be ‘a lot’. I mean it much more broadly and far more seriously – how much of the life that you have now are you willing to give away? Throughout my time at business school I made a conscious effort to put myself into the world of social impact. What does that mean? For my internship I worked with an agriculture focused PE firm in Delhi, while most of my peers were in Chicago, New York, or San Francisco. It was hot, dusty (see below), frustrating, and a little unnerving at times, but ultimately a huge learning experience.

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I put myself forward to lead a project that took me back to India and back to agricultural technology during my second year and which, to be honest, consumed about 50% of my time during school. I dealt with all the things that a manager on a product design project has to deal with while not getting paid. It was invaluable.

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When everyone else was spending their post business school summer chilling out before starting work, I was humping the Metra at 6.45am from Evanston to Chicago to work with an awesome impact PE firm for experience, exposure, and little else. The contacts I made were worth more than sitting on a beach somewhere. I’m still doing work with the company and will continue to seek guidance and advice well into the future.

And then Acumen. Flung to the farthest corners of India, working in a harsh environment, being generally uncomfortable, but genuinely happy about it. Tonight I won’t watch a game, see friends at a bar, indulge the food geek in me, or go catch a show. Even if you are based in the office in New York, travel is a mainstay. And thats not unique to Acumen. I think of the team I worked with in Chicago – Peru, Eastern Europe, India, Sri Lanka, Mexico – non stop travel. Early mornings, late nights, and weekends. Non stop.

This is not a poor me story. I love doing what I do. I write this simply as a reference for others.

The common denominator across all of the people I’ve worked with is a deep commitment to building strong businesses that serve the interests of the underserved. Businesses that return profit, certainly, but just as importantly, businesses that build for a better future. No one is here for a notch on the resume. No one is here for plaudits. Of course, there are no selfless acts but in our industry, the rewards are the colleagues, the intellectual, moral, and business challenges, and ultimately, the outcomes we are working towards.

If that’s something that drives you, something that gives you energy, then this work will not feel like giving up anything at all. At Acumen, Jacqueline talks about living a life of immersion. If that sounds like giving up too much, it probably is, and maybe impact work is not for you.

If not, now’s the time.

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