How are We Standing with the Poor?

“The more someone identifies with a profession or an “accomplishment” such as an award, the less human he will be (in the classical sense). In virtue ethics, the only “excellence” worth attaining is that of “being human”, with all what it entails (honor, courage, service, satisfaction of public & private duties, willingness to face death, etc.); “achievements” are reductions and alienations for lower forms of life.

IN ANCIENT ROME this was a privilege reserved for the patrician class. They were able to engage in professional activities without directly identifying with them: to write books, lead armies, farm land, or transact without being a writer, general, farmer, or merchant, but “a man (*vir* rather than *homo*) who” writes, commands, farms or transacts, as a side activity.

TODAY, as humanity got much, much richer, one would have thought that everyone would have access to the privilege. Instead, I only find it in minimum wage earners who just “make a living” and feel forced to separate their identity from their profession. The higher up in the social ladder, the more people derive their identity from their profession and “achievements”. – Nassim Taleb

When I was with Acumen Fund, we would ask ourselves: How are we standing with the poor? And quite frankly, I wasn’t sure if I even really knew what that meant. For the longest time, I thought it meant putting myself into another person’s perspective, trying to see the world through their eyes and “speak up” for those who didn’t have a voice. And then I came across this posting by Nassim Taleb, who separates out identity and accomplishment and really got me reevaluating my definition. It also made me realize how hard it was, as the higher up the social ladder you are, the harder it is to distinguish between identity and accomplishment, the harder it is to relate.

Standing with the poor is about looking beyond profession. Beyond awards and accomplishments. Beyond first impressions. Standing with the poor is a reminder to oneself to separate the way you look at yourself and others around you; between their accomplishments and identity. Standing with the poor is about understanding self-worth, regardless of what situation/career/social status you are in.

And at the end of the day, it all comes back to valuing human dignity.

My Week’s Discoveries: Malaysia

So, I’ve been in South East Asia for the past three weeks, namely Malaysia and Singapore. The trip has been long time coming as I haven’t been back to my home country in over five years, and boy – am I ever glad I did. I have never been so inspired, humbled and proud of my fellow countrymen for the incredible work that they are doing in South East Asia. If you have the privilege to be involved with their organizations or have a coffee with these remarkable individuals, I assure you that it will be time well spent. Also, given that today is Independence day in Malaysia, thought it would be timely to share a few of my discoveries with you.

1) Malaysia Social Enterprise Alliance

This is a Malaysian organization for social enterprises and entrepreneurs with solutions to some of the most urgent social problems in Malaysia and globally. One of their more notable endeavors is ChangeWeekend, a 9-10 month program as a facilitative platform that would equip organizations with design thinking and developmental skills. Even more incredible is the driving force behind all of this is a wonderful lady, Ellynita Lamin, who has a heart of gold and is trailblazing her way in this part of the world. Don’t just take my word for it, check out what one of the local newspapers has to say about her work too!

2) Teach for Malaysia 

Teach for Malaysia (TFM) enlists Malaysia’s most promising leaders to improve education in Malaysia. It models after Teach for America, where it is a two-year, fellowship program where fellows are placed in local schools. Besides the fellowship, the team has not only enlisted an incredible amount of support from private and the Ministry of Education, but clear strategy and vision in how fellows can transform Malaysia’s education system from inside out. Change is on the horizon. This initiative is particularly close to home for me as I went through the public education system in Malaysia (yes, just like the adorable kids in the video!) and to get a glimpse of what TFM is up to, check out the video below.

3) Weekend: The Weekend Movement 

This is a community of people that is creating a weekend movement where they come together to build projects, create solutions and bring great ideas to life. So far, their weekends consist of Hack Weekend, Make Weekend and Change Weekend, and I’m sure it doesn’t stop there. The weekends are designed to kickstart innovation and new projects. If you ever are in Malaysia for a weekend that coincides with one of their workshops, definitely don’t hesitate to check it out!

4) Malaysia Design Archive 

This is a beautiful project combining design, history and preservation of culture. The project traces, maps and documents the development of graphic design in Malaysia to protect our visual history. Malaysia’s historical design influences are particularly fascinating as this is a meeting point and cultural crossing of the East and West – from ornate Islamic texts, to Chinese calligraphy and European engravings. As you browse the site, the graphics tell a wonderful story of Malaysia’s cultural transformation. I highly recommend you start here.

5) Other notable mentions:

  • SOLS 24/7: education program in Cambodia, Laos, East Timor, Malaysia and Thailand that has educated over 80,000 youth.
  • Gawad Kalinga: Building communities through tourism, social enterprise, disaster relief, reconstruction and development to end poverty.

Thanks to Ellyne, Shie Haur, Nicole, Tasnim and John for inspiring this post.

Matters of National Pride: When All is Said and Done

I have long since desired to write about this topic to some degree, but it was only after a series of recent conversations and following the Olympics Games that called forth an unexpected wave of patriotism towards my country.

I grew up as a Malaysian, through and through. Born and raised in Sarawak, educated in Malaysia’s public school system and seen first hand my country’s political and racial stance. The older I became, the more I came to understand the indoctrination of nationalism that the country has imposed on its citizens, the more I concluded that we were made to love! From standing in the equatorial heat during assembly saluting our “Jalur Gemilang”, singing the different anthems: Negaraku and Sarawak, Ibu Pertiwiku on a daily basis to memorizing Malaysia’s geography and history everyday in our public school system. The older I grew, the more I questioned the underlying racial intolerance in our country, the more I heard my fellow compatriots scheme to “study overseas and stay there”, that if you could obtain a PR from a first world country, “go for it and don’t look back”, the more I saw a brain drain in my country’s top minds as they throw their hands up in frustration at Malaysia’s economic and political situation.

Apparently, being made to love something is a flawed strategy, and rightfully so. As my generation grew up, our understanding of the world expanded and we look back and criticize the flaws in our own country. We tell people, “I love Malaysian food, but to go back and be discriminated based on the colour of my skin and last name? Why should I subject myself to such treatment?” spoken sometimes out of disappointment, sometimes out of disdain. When I saw Dambisa Moyo speak at my university on Dead Aid and development, someone from the audience asked her whether she would ever go back to Zambia to help her country. She retorted that people often forget that every human being at the end of the day craves equality, dignity and access to basic needs. If Zambia could provide those needs for their citizens, Zambians would go back in a heartbeat. I looked around and saw my friends: South African, Iranian, Pakistani, Chinese, all nodding silently next to me. Apparently, I was not the only one who felt this way.

Now, working and learning in the social enterprise/development space, I come across many individuals who are passionate about changing the lives of others in developing countries. Some take a more economist standpoint of helping where people need it the most, other are driven by a certain cause/skillset – be it health, finance or human rights. I see others have a deep drive to help countries that they never even grew up in, and sometimes have never even set foot in that continent, let alone country. I ask myself: Why? Then, I look at Malaysia and wonder: What good is it that we are made to love a country when our hearts are filled with complaints/disdain for it? I look around again and I see my friends: who have gone back to Peru to create change in her hometown, who have dreams to advance South African films in the world and who are waiting for an opportunity to return to Kenya. Apparently, I was missing out on connecting with my birthplace and identity.

I can finally say that working in the social enterprise/development space, have meant personally for me, of understanding Malaysia better. For its decaying political and administrative structure, for the incredible courage of Bersih protestors, and for new economic programs that are aimed to improve the country. More importantly, I think I have finally understood what it means to love unconditionally, even if I was made to in the first place. To love anyways despite all of Malaysia’s flaws, because love keeps no count of wrong. It is this choice – To love, not for a tolerance of corruption, crime or racism but to love unfailingly, stubbornly, for a beauty of a nation is not in the laws or the ruling party at that time, but in the dignity and essence of every citizen who have contributed in one way or another to shape our early views of the world.

So to all my fellow compatriots and those who have yet to make the choice to love for your own country, when all is said and done, here is my challenge to you:

If not us, then who? If not now, then when? – Acumen Fund

 

Thanks to Kristina, Nanjala, Cynthia and Robert for inspiring this post.

How to Create an Impact Investing Movement

I’ve been stalking the impact investing space closely for the last few years and it seems that across research papers, from the recently released Acumen FundMonitor Group: Case for Philanthropy in Impact Investing (which is a great read!) to goals of foundation tackling impact investing – a systemic issue that resurfaces is the lack of infrastructure to help people identify and function as a part of the impact industry. A recent conversation with a friend on movement creation sparked this idea on figuring out how to build this infrastructure. It also reminded me of a old twitter exchange I had with Steve Wright (Grameen Foundation) and Kevin Jones (SOCAP) on the value of marketing and storytelling in the social context. A snippet of our conversation is below:

I believe that marketing/value-positioning is an undervalued practice in the impact investing space. However, if we’re looking to expand the space beyond those who care about the impact value of capital, we have a to start looking at creating a movement of impact investing – a sustainable and scalable platform. We have to look closely on how we can create pull-factors needed for a successful impact movement. Now, I am not as naive to think that the world of philanthropy and for-profit investing should cease to exist. What I am suggesting is that the movement’s aim is to help the general public and those in the investing world to have a third way to think about capital: a blended value of capital and impact.

So, this is my attempt to build this movement’s basic framework and my vision of what core elements of an impact investing movement would contain and look like.

Defining the Movement’s Core

Education is the key to the movement and a first step is shifting people’s perspective to a third way to think about capital. I would like people to think of their portfolios as follow (Note: the pie charts below are based on a hypothetical way to think about capital – main point is to illustrate the inclusion of impact investments when an individual thinks of capital):


I believe the core of an impact investing movement should be two-fold:

1) The choice between impact and profit should not be a binary one.

2) Close the mental disconnects and isolation between the different components of the Impact chain of capital: (Input –> Output –> Impact)

Distinction of Target Groups 

Just like the ‘real’ investing world, in the impact investing world, there are two distinct investors to target: Institutional and Retail. By the nature of the way that capital flows into the space, influence on the retail end is bottom heavy + personal and on the institutional side, it is top heavy and politically barriered. (Sidenote: A great report to read to understand the institutional-policy relationship in impact investing written by Pacific Community Ventures & Harvard Uni).

Another target group (and this is admittedly the harder group to penetrate than the former) would be both institutional and retail investment advisors. Straight away, the inherent challenge to create this movement is how to create a simultaneous pressure on both ends and in each respective groups.

Five Strategies

In creating this ‘pull’ platform, because capital flows through a system through an impact chain, the platform should become the mechanism by which ‘push’ platforms must engage in. The graphic below illustrates this point using the recently announced Morgan Stanley Investing with Impact platform. The idea is that on Morgan Stanley’s end, they can only get so far by engaging their current clients. However, if they look beyond their Investing with Impact platform, and engage in a middle ‘pull’ platform that educates the masses, their message and reach would more than double.

I believe that a successful impact investing ‘pull’ movement would contain the following practices:

 1) Radically lower knowledge barriers

The landscape of impact investing is slowly coming to light. There is great research and data that heavily supports the sector. However, bite size pieces of information are far and few in between. Investors and advisors need understand: the reason for impact investing, proof of concept, and how it would affect an institution’s or individual’s portfolio. The knowledge barrier should also include a way to disseminate authentic and real stories (see: twitter exchange above) about impact investing and the results of the investment – a form of curated ‘entertainment’.

2) Uncover and disrupt offline analogies

Most form of human interactions surround a pre-existing way of thinking. e.g. before email, people would send letters. In the case of thinking about capital, the tipping points of where someone starts to think about money is in the education system, with a focus on universities and college (typically an individual’s first experience in managing a substantial amount of money).

3) Empower key community leaders

I’m a big fan of Seth Godin’s practice of building tribes. People are more passionate about this issue than you think they are. A great organization that organically (and perhaps unexpectedly) tapped into the power of tribes is Acumen Fund. (Full disclosure: I currently volunteer with them, and this is by no means a representation of their perspective on the matter. Just my own). Acumen Fund currently has 12 volunteer-led chapters around the world that support and spread their cause. These chapters are going into local communities with a depth and reach that Acumen would not have been able to achieve just by themselves.

4) Reduce friction

Thinking about capital – can be an overwhelming experience, especially on the retail side. The movement needs to create a frictionless and simple experience that catalyzes ‘pull’ for transactional activities. A great example of this practice is by LearnVest, a budgeting and advisory platform to help individuals achieve their goals. Simple and clear. I envision a successful impact investing platform to embrace a similar frictionless user experience.

 5) Getting started

No single agenda or strategy is equally relevant to all target groups. I see two main engagement strategies embedded in the movement, which in some cases can be executed separately or combined. One is a online-mass led proposition with multiple knowledge engagement pieces. The other is a high-touch with direct channel distribution. The latter would fit in more with the advisory/’push’ platform engagement target group whereas the former would fit into a engaging retail investors. The high-touch component is definitely more of a challenge as we would be looking at a target group of banks/corporations/venture capitalist that have systems in place in order to achieve execute their business model.

 ***

There are multiple ways to continue to build out this framework. The points above are merely a starting point in the basic wireframe of this impact investing movement. All ideas are welcome, and if you want to have a brainstorm session about this – hit me up!

Thanks to Erika, Jo-Ann, Steve and Kevin for inspiring this post.

Dear Generosity

You’ve been on my mind alot these days. Sometimes in your other disguises: Giving and Kindness, but to be honest, I really prefer the authentic you – just good ol’ Generosity. I write because in two days, your big day is coming up and I want to wish you all the luck in the world. I hope that you work your magic in other people’s lives, just like you’ve worked yourself in mine. You’re the one who taught me that life isn’t about you get or receive, it’s about how much you share.

There’s one moment in particular that I really want to thank you for. I know that you’ve come into my life time and time again, but this particular moment, really changed the course of my life. It was about seven years ago, when I was still back in high school. Somehow, you had interwoven your magic into a stranger’s heart and through their giving, enabled me to attend the University of British Columbia to get my degree. I hope you know that I wouldn’t have even dreamt of going to UBC – or North America if it wasn’t for you. I was so stunned when I received the news. Stunned because I knew in that moment, my life is going to take a dramatically different course. Stunned because through that one action, multiple other people were touched – specifically the scholarship selection committee, who finally had the funds to place their belief in me. I was and am overwhelmingly grateful. I never found out whose stranger’s heart(s) you touched…but I hope that one day I will be able to.

Seven years later, I’m stil trying to comprehend this magical quality, your quality. I know that I’ve begun to just scratch the surface of what you really are capable of doing, but what I do know for certain about you is that the human experience really starts coming alive through discovering you. I really do hope that everyone gets a chance to experience your magic, because once they do – I know they will start to see a very different side of humanity.

So two days from now (and it’s so generous of you to let Love share the spotlight as well), I’m really looking forward to spending my whole day with you. Get ready and best of luck!

Yours,

Jocelyn

Invest2Innovate: Addressing the Disconnect in the Social Enterprise Space

*The post below was orig­i­nally pub­lished on http://www.socialearth.org on Nov 25, 2011


In the social enterprise world, one key issue that constantly resurfaces, as it would in any growing sector, is one of funding and identifying a proper investment pipeline. The accessibility and  availability of start-up funding is crucial to startups, and in the case of social enterprises, a largely untapped market. Here’s whereInvest2Innovate (i2i) comes into the picture. They are a social enterprise intermediary that supports the growth of social entrepreneurship in new markets, helping funders and early stage entrepreneurs see eye to eye.

I had the opportunity to connect with Kalsoom Lakhani the founder and CEO of i2i to interview her about her recently launched social enterprise. A trailblazer and native to Pakistan, Lakhani launched i2i’s pilot in Pakistan in September 2011 with plans to expand operations to other countries post 2012. Here’s what she has to say about her startup and the space:

1) What is most interesting to you right now in the social enterprise space? 
There are many interesting innovations taking place right now – from groundbreaking SMS crowd-mapping tools to agriculture-based innovations for small farmers. Innovative tools & approaches of engaging and empowering low-income communities are coming up constantly. But I’m also extremely interested in the growth of the impact investment space, and where we are right now in terms of the community as an emerging asset class, whether or not this type of investment breeds better social impact metrics, and whether the capital is flowing to the right places. There are still a lot of spaces we need to fill when it comes to connecting capital to social enterprises, particularly at the early-stage, and it’s interesting to see how crowd-funding and other innovative ways of raising capital are becoming potential solutions to help fill that gap.

2) Why start up i2i? Why is this the time to enter into the market? 
i2i was launched in order to help address some of the disconnects in the social entrepreneurship space. Prior to launching the company, I worked in venture philanthropy for over three years, providing seed funding and support to early-stage social enterprises mainly in Pakistan. I was first exposed to the “space” then, and quickly immersed myself in all things social entrepreneurship & innovation. It has been fascinating and motivating to see growing ecosystems in markets like India, Latin America (Mexico, Brazil, Chile are good examples), and East Africa. Beyond higher access to capital (a lot of impact investors operate in these countries), we’ve seen the growth of other players that further support social enterprise – incubators, accelerators, government policies (in some cases), intermediaries, etc.

i2i was founded to take a similar ecosystem approach in the “untapped” markets – that’s a lot of jargon I know, but essentially we provide tailored services to early-stage social enterprises to grow their businesses and connect them to capital. Pakistan, our pilot market, is a great example of a country where there is a significant need for more innovative and market-based approaches to development – 66% of the population live on under $2 a day – but where the environment for social entrepreneurship is relatively new. Entrepreneurs often lack the tools & services to maximize the potential of their models and attract capital, especially in markets like Pakistan, where the volatile political and security situation hurt the investor environment. There is a lot opportunity for i2i, as an intermediary, along with other partner organizations, to be the architects of the ecosystem, fostering the social entrepreneurship space both from the top-down and the bottom-up.

3) What is the biggest misconception you see in the world of social enterprise and where do you stand on the issue? 
I think the biggest misconception in social enterprise is that it’s ok to stop at the “warm & fuzzy” and throw the term around irresponsibly. It drives me crazy. Social enterprise ultimately combines the best of the business and the charity world – it begs the question, “Could we magnify social impact if we take a business approach to development?” Social entrepreneurship is not the solution to everything, but in some cases, it can be really effective. For instance, if rural low-income communities that are off the electricity grid use kerosene as their light and heat source, not only is it a costly product, but it poses terrible health and environmental ramifications. Displacing this demand for kerosene with clean energy solutions provides these low-income communities with better alternatives at comparable prices, ultimately contributing to poverty alleviation. Social enterprises need to demonstrate social and/or environmental impact – that is what tends to qualify the “social” in the equation, but at the end of the day, they are businesses that need to have strong models and be sustainable in the long-term. Sometimes that gets lost in the “warm & fuzzy” stories we hear in the space, which are great in communicating an organization’s vision and building a community of supporters, but there needs to be substance behind that story.

4) What is one action would like people to take once they know if i2i? 
If you are a social enterprise, especially in Pakistan (since that is our pilot), get in touch with us to get an assessment of your business and how i2i can provide services (from business development to communications/marketing) to help your organization grow. If you are a potential investor (both for i2i and/or interested in early-stage enterprises in new markets), we’d love to talk to you! And finally, if you are just a supporter, we are always excited to hear your feedback and make our model better.

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Kalsoom is a the founder of invest2innovate based in Washington, D.C. She is a co-ambassador for Sandbox, a global network of innovators under 30, and is also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers.  She has written for the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Foreign Policy, and Pakistan’s Dawn Newspaper. Get in touch: klakhani@invest2innovate.com.