Listening to the Voices of Experience

Last month I traveled to India, Pakistan, and Kenya to recruit the Class of 2012 Acumen Fund Global Fellows and had the opportunity to spend time with the current Acumen Fellows, Fellows Alumni, and future Fellows. These moments and these individuals reminded me that this movement is asking us so much more of ourselves and of our world.

We, at Acumen Fund, created the Global Fellows Program because we wanted to build a core group of leaders from across the globe who not only had the intellect, passion, and business skills but also the experience of what it was like to serve low income consumers in some of the most challenging environments in the world. Last month I got a glimpse into that complexity.

In Pakistan I found myself in a small, dark, bustling back alley on the outskirts of Lahore with, Fellow Benje Williams and his colleague from Pharmagen, Shakeel Awan. Benje, Shakeel, and I exchanged a smile as a group of men in their spotless white kurtas sitting nearby got a good look at the Americans. While there, Shakeel showed me how Pharmagen was able to clean their water with reverse osmosis treatment in the back of the store before selling it to customers, while Benje raved about the new marketing plan they had developed to reach more low income consumers. The plan was built from months of customer surveys and a trip to India where Benje met with Fellow Brenda Williams who shared best practices from Water Heath International, an Acumen investee that builds community water systems in rural India.

Just two days before my visit to Pharmagen a 12 year old boy took his life in a suicide bombing near one of the Pharmagen shops. Yes, life can hand out fear and hope in one single breath. The leaders of our time must handle this complexity both in its beauty and in its sadness. Benje and the Pharmagen team are handling this with grace.

In Mumbai, as I sat waiting for Acumen Fellow, Chikako Fujita, along the face of the Arabian Sea I watched the bustling road filled with honking rickshaws as hundreds of men gathered in ankle deep in water to relieve themselves and take their morning shower. The injustice enveloped me like a cloud of diesel smoke. Chika arrived late and exhausted. Chika has been asked to design the standard operating procedures for 1298, the first private ambulance company in India, as they scale up across the country. Chika, with a solid background in business from PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Sanyo in Japan, must take that learning and apply it to a growing social enterprise, who through government contracts, is now seeking to scale their ambulance fleet from 326 to 1000 by 2012. I think Chika found a breath last week, I hope.

In Nairobi, I sat in a hot, dusty, diesel-filled, traffic-packed, 10 mile ride (which took us 1.5 hours!) with Khuram Hussain on our way to meet with the team from Goldman Sach’s 10,000 Women (an incredible program committed to providing 10,000 underserved women business and management education). Khuram is currently a Fellow at Ecotact a company working to provide affordable yet high-quality sanitation services to low-income communities in Kenya. I listened as Khuram discussed his new role building the strategy for the Ecotact mobile toilet program for high end consumers in Nairobi.

Khuram did not anticipate that serving the poor would involve spending so much time serving the wealthy. “What about building more ecotoilets in the slums of Nairobi,” he asked? Khuram is coming to terms with the reality sometimes building a business at the base of the pyramid is about tradeoffs and often involves subsidization. This can be a complex, daily balancing act for a social enterprise: make money, create social impact, create social impact, make money. Every day, every minute, they live that tension.

Using the market for social development has a depth of complexity that cannot be found in the classrooms of the top business schools or one week field visits to the slums. It takes deep learning from courageous people who are willing to live lives of immersion. While I realize we will all not be able to, nor should we, live lives of immersion, it reinforces the need to create more space for those voices of authentic experience in an increasingly noisy field.

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