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Friday, March 7, 2008

Agora Partnerships: Building Talent With Bamboo

By Abigail Keene-Babcock

Agora LogoOver the last few months, there?s been plenty of discussion about the growing importance of building talent in the area of BoP business/social enterprise. Moses Lee has mentioned talent often ? in one recent post, he described how a BoP business scheme failed when a group of experienced managers believed they could run the venture from afar and had no interest in taking talent into the field to do the "heavy lifting". Related to this is a recent post on the Acumen Fund Fellows? blog, where Tricia Morente - who is working with a chain of low-cost, high quality maternal care hospitals in India - placed talent ahead of money as the biggest challenge to scaling up a social enterprise.

These discussions about talent reflect maturation within the sector. There?s increasing recognition that, while entrepreneurs remain the keystone of BoP success, without the permanent building blocks of specialized skills and long-term management processes, the bridge will not stand for long, no matter how brilliant the idea. Building the sustainability of a sustainable business is becoming as important, if still not as sexy, as scouting out the next pro-poor business model or innovative product design.It?s great news, then, that NextBillion ally Agora Partnerships is launching the Agora Fellows Program. The program will link skilled professionals who have an interest in sustainable business with emerging enterprises chosen from Agora?s portfolio of promising entrepreneurs. The first portfolio enterprise to receive a Fellow is Bambucasa ("Bamboo-house"), a start-up in Nicaragua that aims to build an environmentally sustainable and profitable bamboo construction business while also helping to alleviate a serious shortage of affordable housing. (For more information about this Fellowship, and how to apply, click here.)

The Agora Fellows Program will send professionals into the field to assist nascent sustainable businesses with their strategy, operations and financial management processes during initial expansion. In my opinion, the most important aspect of the Fellows Program is its specific focus on skill transfer "between Fellows and entrepreneurs and vice versa."

Since it is based on two-way learning, the Agora Fellows Program has a better shot at enhancing a local, permanent talent and skills base, and that Fellows will learn just as much from their host company as the company learns from the Fellow. With this approach, the folly of outsider-MBA-knows-best can (hopefully) be avoided.

This is a lot to ask from a relatively short-term placement (the first Fellowship is four months), but Agora does plan to provide Fellows with training and on-going support. If this training is not only is skill-based, but also prepares Fellows to integrate and gain the acceptance and trust of their host company, I think the chances for success will go way up.

Like Agora Partnerships, there are a number of other organizations that have also recognized the importance of developing serious programs to build channels for talent building and exchange, including Acumen Fund's Fellows Program (full disclosure: I am currently working at Acumen Fund and will be involved with the Fellows Program in the future).

Acumen Fund?s first class of Fellows completed the program last summer, and the second class is now in-country, working with their assigned investees. Acumen Fund's model for its program involves six weeks of intensive training, followed by a seven-month placement in the field, and then a final month for debriefing and knowledge-sharing.

MBAs Without Borders and the MBA Enterprise Corps also facilitate the placement of skilled business professionals with businesses and non-profits abroad who are in need of expertise. In fact, rather than reinvent the wheel, Agora is partnering with MBAs Without Borders to conduct its Fellowship application process. Also, stay tuned for more on the MBA Enterprise Corps ?Tayo will be interviewing them soon for Nextbillion!

The cross-pollination of experience in talent-building is exciting to see, and I?ll be looking forward to more insights to come as Agora, Acumen Fund, and others find ways to address the talent gap in places where they work, and as they work to build a broad base of skilled and energized individuals who will become the future leaders of this field.

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