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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How Can We Harness the Talent and Energy Available in this Space?

By Tayo Akinyemi

"Everyone knows Everyone"

Let's talk about pet peeves.  Don't you just hate it when you're having a great conversation, (you know, the type that you recount to your closest friends in excruciating detail) when someone wanders absent-mindedly into the mix?  Said interloper is clearly late to the party, but yet, here she is, shiny two cents unabashedly displayed.  

You've got me; I am guilty as charged.  I've emerged from nowhere to piggy-back on the conversation that Moses started last summer about talent at the BoP.  If you need a refresher you can find his original posts herehere, and here

I would, however, like to add a slight twist to this "conversation cocktail".  When I think about visible entry points for BoP-focused MBAs, I can generate a list of the "usual suspects" rather quickly: Acumen Fund, Deshpande, Echoing Green, Endeavor, Kiva, TED, and most recently, d.light.  The obvious assessment of this list is that there are many BoP opportunities but some have more visibility than others.  Why?  Because there are many things to do, especially when you consider related topics like microfinance, market access, SME capacity building, supply chain management, and the like. 

But let's return to the original list for a moment.  What strikes me most about the opportunities at these organizations is their exclusivity-in the sense that they cull the "best of the best" through limited edition fellowships.  Just to be clear, I have no problem with the notion of wielding the power of the "best and brightest" to tackle the world's problems.  In fact, it's a rather poignant reversal of fortune; usually the least powerful members of society are stuck with the worst resources.  However, after the superstars are chosen, I wonder what happens to the "best of the rest" and the "rest of the rest."  Presumably, the folks who apply to these programs are smart, ambitious, values-driven, change makers in the making.  What I wonder is, "what happens to these people?"  Is their energy and enthusiasm lost or is it simply redirected?  How can we tell?  Do we care?

I hope the answer is yes (to the last two questions, not the first), because we can't afford not to care.  In several of his earlier posts, Moses alluded to the formidable human resource challenge at the BoP.  (Whether it is best addressed by native workers or expats is an ongoing debate.  Additionally, others might argue that the real issue is deal flow, or finding viable projects to support.  But that's fodder for another post, perhaps.)  If that's the case, then it seems unclear whether the human capital demand will be met through the "leader cultivation" model seemingly espoused by many of the aforementioned organizations.  The operating assumption here is that the impact of these leaders will increase exponentially via the organizations and opportunities that they create.   This approach has merit but I wonder if there's a way to bolster the multiplier effect.  In that case, the real question becomes:  "Can we harness the power of the applicants who stream through these selection processes?"   

To be fair, one could argue that the fuzzy points of entry are part of a relatively efficient self-selection process.    If nothing else, it's clear that those who loathe ambiguity, complexity, failure, and non-linearity need not apply for jobs at the BoP.  In other words, success in the field may be determined by one's ability to find (or create) viable opportunities.  Additionally, the Darwinian process of job selection is simply how the working world operates in most places.  It is reflective of the limited supply of occupational opportunities and resources that can be deployed to process candidates.   The critical difference is that we're fighting an intractable problem that requires as many able bodies as we can find. 

But I digress...

The bottom line is that methinks there has to be a systematic way to properly utilize the pool of stellar applicant talent.  For example, what if people were recruited to analyze low-income business models, distilling frameworks, best practices, and metrics?  They could also be used to write white papers, discussion documents, and blogs.   Or maybe one could create a turbo-charged referral service that focuses on internal projects that require more bandwidth than an organization has at any given moment.  In that case, a member organization could say "Sorry we can't use you, but here's a list of our partners who can."

In any case, many of the previously mentioned organizations are working hard to create and retain social networks of affiliates via email updates, as well as Facebook and LinkedIn communities.  Additionally, there are a plethora of networks that unite like-minded folks such as the Social Enterprise Knowledge Network (SEKN) and the International Private Enterprise Group.  

Fortunately, I'm not the only one thinking along those lines because to be quite honest, I'd feel funny if I were.  In a recent post, Sasha Dichter of the Acumen Fund had the following to say:

Lately I've been involved in the selection process for a few sought-after positions - not quite Oscar-like in their desirability, but hundreds of applicants for a handful of spots (most recently the Acumen Fund Fellows Program).  What strikes me is that we (all, collectively) may be reasonably good at whittling down an applicant pool to, say, the top 10%, but when you only have spots for the "top" 1% or so, there's no fair, totally objective answer to "who is best?"

Too often in life, the winners (who get the award, the job, the acceptance letter) win and the almost-winners get polite declines.  Can't we do better?  Can't we find ways to acknowledge and honor all the people who were really great and who put themselves out there...and can we go a step further to create communities that allow these outstanding people to connect with and support one another?

Right on, Sasha.  Perhaps we can not only say 'thank you' but find creative ways to put these gifted people to good use.  Fortunately for us, Sasha has some great ideas and another, much-needed perspective on the problem via his post 'the other 690' at the Acumen Fund blog

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