Josh Cleveland

BoP Career Paths: Interview with Agnes Dasewicz of the Grassroots Business Fund

In this series, NextBillion brings you Base of the Pyramid career path stories and best practices from across the BoP industry spectrum. To help our readers better navigate potential options and career decisions, we’ll feature interviews with BoP professionals working in start-ups (like One Acre Fund, Driptech, and d.light) , supporting institutions (like AIDG, IDEO, and the Grassroots Business Fund), and corporations (like SC Johnson, Accenture, and Danone), as well as founders of organizations, on-the-ground BoP practitioners, and others.

Today’s post features an interview with Agnes Dasewicz, Chief Operating Officer at the Grassroots Business Fund; an organization providing financing and technical assistance to high-impact enterprises at the BoP.

The career path of Agnes Dasewicz, COO of the Grassroots Business Fund exemplifies many of the traits I’ve seen in successful BoP professionals. After gaining an understanding of the needs of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) during her work at the Small Enterprise Assistance Fund (SEAF), Agnes got her MBA and transitioned to a mainstream investment finance position. The frameworks she used in her corporate finance role gave her a solid background in investment. Coupling this with direct experience working with SMEs, she developed the insight and creativity necessary to succeed in financing social enterprises. In our conversation about her career path, Agnes emphasized the critical roles played by her development experience and investment finance work.

Read on to learn more about how you can prepare yourself for a similar career supporting high-impact enterprises in the BoP. For more information on Agnes, I encourage you to check out her bio before reading on. Now let’s see what Agnes had to say about developing the skills necessary to meet the challenging demands of structuring investments in BoP enterprises:

Josh Cleveland, Lets start off at the beginning. How did you get to where you are today at the Grassroots Business Fund (GBF)?

Agnes Dasewicz, Grassroots Business Fund: I never thought I’d be working in business – I had always wanted to be a lawyer. Then I got really interested in business and development and started finding my path. In general I wanted to have an international career and when the Polish economy opened up, I had the opportunity to work for an organization assisting small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the transition to a free-market economy.

Right out of college I went to work for the Small Enterprise Assistance Fund (SEAF) when it was just forming. Eventually, I realized that I needed a more balanced skill set to be able to effectively support this work. So I left SEAF to get my MBA and then spent five years doing private equity investments mainly in Eastern Europe.

The experience I had in private equity enabled me to get a lot of the finance investment skills and learn to work with businesses to grow them, manage them towards exits, understand investment models, and a lot of other essential skills that I use today. The corporate experience gave me the skills necessary to succeed today in my role at GBF and I knew from my work with SEAF that I wanted to get back into work with small enterprises.

Like many career transitions, it was all a serendipitous chain of events but I did decide to make a conscious effort to get out of traditional finance and back into development finance. I talked to my mentor (founder of SEAF) and joined him to work on an initiative with the World Bank to set up SME funds in Africa – this work then led to IFC and the Grassroots Business Fund. What were the challenges involved in making the transition from a traditional finance role?

Agnes Dasewicz, Grassroots Business Fund: Making investments in development finance is definitely more challenging. Your traditional models don’t necessarily work. You can’t just rely on the structures you’ve learned in your MBA curriculum or corporate experience. You need to be much more creative. Creativity in this sense means going beyond financing to develop deeper partnerships with entrepreneurs. You have to look at the needs that they have beyond finance. For example: what are the market imperfections that the enterprises are facing and how can you help them address those? What are the technical barriers they face? In development finance you try to provide these high-impact companies with the same opportunities they would have in developed countries. For many of these organizations it’s hard to find middle managers who are effective and can help them grow. In that case they need more than just finance, they need help recruiting MBAs as well as assistance with hiring and training processes. To support these enterprises we help with capacity building and not just pure numbers.

In my transition to the development sector I benefited a great deal from my experience with SEAF. My previous work with SMEs allowed me to understand how the rules are different. When you’re focusing on social impact you can’t just close factories and lay people off because often times those jobs are as important as the bottom line returns. You have to figure out other ways to creatively cut costs while maintaining that social impact.

For me, development finance is a lot more interesting. You deal with people as much as you deal with numbers, you have to be creative to succeed, and you’re directly involved in making a positive social impact. What do you think your field needs more of? What’s currently lacking?

Agnes Dasewicz, Grassroots Business Fund: We need an integrated effort to bring more finance professionals to this field. There is a basic gap in interest right now and we need to be actively recruiting the next generation of impact investors.

Structuring investments in the BoP space is more challenging. Often times we don’t know what works and have to try to be very creative and develop new models. You have to make it up as we go along. The enterprises we’re working with are “funky,” which means you can’t do a straight loan or buy a company sometimes because of country regulations, legal structures of organizations, local mistrust, etc. So we need finance professionals who understand that reality, have a strong business and financial background, and can think creatively about new solutions.

In addition we always need more standards, metrics, and evaluation. We’re definitely making progress towards filling that in but there is a lot of work left to be done to measure our impact and that of our clients. Give us a walk through of a day in the life of Agnes Dasewicz at Grassroots Business Fund.

Agnes Dasewicz, Grassroots Business Fund: A year and a half ago, I helped set up GBF. That entailed establishing a foundation including all the IRS registration and nonprofit organization set up as well as hiring staff and making the initial investments.

Today I have divided responsibilities. I’m now responsible for business development and pipeline development as well as measuring our metrics across our portfolio- both financial bottom line and social impact – which puts me in something like a COO/CFO role. I’m also involved in human resources and everything that goes along with managing the overall organization, most recently with opening up new field offices. In addition, I manage most of our funding and how that gets distributed to various technical and capacity building programs that we provide. Tell us a bit about the most valuable tools you use on a daily basis in your job. What are the tools that everyone considering this career should have?

Agnes Dasewicz, Grassroots Business Fund:

Negotiation skills. Practical finance skills can be learned but studying finance in school doesn’t prepare you for negotiating with entrepreneurs.

Investment structuring skills. As I mentioned before, you need to be creative in this industry and in order to do that need a large knowledge base at your disposal. Knowing all that you can about investment structures can really help. What words of advice do you have for those who want to pursue a career working in an organization at the BoP?

Agnes Dasewicz, Grassroots Business Fund: Get experience in the field however you can. Volunteer your time for 6 months. A lot of organizations will cover your basic expenses if you offer to work for 6 months. This field experience will open your mind. I also sat on the boards of businesses in the past, and learned about their issues from the viewpoint of running a business or an organization. These things will all help you gain a valuable perspective and decide if you really want to do this.

Keep in mind that there are roles for lots of people in this field, not just investment professionals. Spend some thinking about what skills you may have to offer. If you are looking to get involved with an investment organization and you are a good marketing person, a lot of investee companies or the fund is working with might need marketing skills. Often times you can find the right fit if you understand how you can contribute to their goals. Try to figure out how your specific skill set can help an organization and build your plan off of that.

business development