Josh Cleveland

BoP Career Paths: Interview with Chris Laurent of MicroVest

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 Chris Laurent, Business Development Officer at MicroVest; a capital-mobilizing intermediary for microfinance institutions.

When Chris and I met to compare notes on the challenges facing rural microfinance in Bolivia, he had recently made the leap to a BoP career after 11 years in commercial finance and banking. Chris’ progression from a “cushy Silicon Valley VC job” to his work in the rural Andes and later with MicroVest represents a particular breed of BoP professional who leave mainstream corporate positions in pursuit of more challenging and rewarding roles in the development community. Their skills and experiences play a vital role in the growing BoP development sector. After all, as Chris notes, “The poor need good minds and good hearts, not just good hearts.”

Read on to learn more about Chris’ path and what it takes to make the career switch. Before we get into the interview, I encourage you to read a bit more about Chris in his bio. Now let’s hear what Chris had to say when we caught up about his current – and your potential – BoP Career Path:

Josh Cleveland, How did you attain your current position at MicroVest?

Chris Laurent, MicroVest: As the commercial BoP development space remains in its infancy, specific experience does not yet pose a barrier to entry for people with good minds and good hearts. Today, the development-specific BoP skills are largely taught and learned as on-the-job training. I obtained a position with MicroVest’s investment team covering Latin America by having three things: (1) a commercial finance and investing background – obtained in traditional, developed economy institutions, (2) a language capacity – taken on myself at the age of 36 on my own dime, and (3) a demonstrated commitment to social change – proven by leaving a cushy Silicon Valley VC job and moving to the Andes to live for a year while learning the language and working in poverty alleviation through microfinance. You’ve definitely made a conscious decision to take the road less traveled by leaving mainstream finance. Tell us about a life-changing insight, event, or person that has put you on the path that you are now.

Chris Laurent, MicroVest: After pursuing a lucrative and seemingly perfect commercial finance and banking career domestically for 11 years, I increasingly became aware of a calling and desire for a more impacting use of my time and talent, and a realization that earthly treasures were unimportant. I was increasingly asking myself, “Is this what my life is supposed to be about?” Over the next couple years, I then began taking on personal development through Landmark Education and then that led to spiritual development through my church and a great theologian there, and the common themes of all these teachings and learnings were “Who are you called to be?”, “If not you, then who?”, and that “True joy lies in finding ways to give yourself away”. Without the ability to speak even one word of Spanish at the time, I took a legitimate leap of faith toward the one thing that bubbled to surface all the time: Poverty eradication in Latin America. I saved and planned for a year and then left for Ecuador. What mentors who have significantly contributed to your career development?

Chris Laurent, MicroVest: It’s funny, outside of the other main religious figures from whom I gain example, strength and direction I don’t have any one specific earthly mentor that inspired me. Instead, it was the story of every single person – and everyone knows of one or two people in their lives who are so crazy/bold/stupid/brave/heroic/immature to do so – who took on a life not about them, not about material gain, not about worry or risk that inspired me. Knowing what you know now, if you were in school again, what would you be studying that you think would help you in your current role? What degree would you go back for if you were going to go back again?

Chris Laurent, MicroVest: In terms of degrees (undergrad and post-grad), it depends whether you want to be on the more hardcore commercial finance side of development or on the more social program side of development. Regardless, I would do Peace Corps or similar work for two years to experience poverty and development face-to-face. Then, if finance was the interest, I would then probably pursue a MBA and commercial finance experience for a couple years to learn the best practices of developed economies. If the social side was the interest, I would instead pursue a development finance/economics degree. The issue to weigh with this is that development jobs rarely pay a fraction of what commercial jobs do, and so paying off student loans becomes a greater challenge. How have you managed the challenge of working on global issues with maintaining a personal life in whatever location(s) you consider your home(s)?

Chris Laurent, MicroVest: This is a tough one, but it’s all about knowing yourself, knowing what’s important to you, and then balancing it all. In general, having a development career corresponds to a lower salary and less of an ability to live the all-American lifestyle. Specifically, having a field job – close to the action – means sacrificing that all-American lifestyle and the creature comforts familiar with it – family, friends, etc. For me, I had the field job and although rewarding, it did not balance me. I am a little older now – 40 years old – so establishing my own secure family unit and being close to and in the lives of family are important. Although I’m based in DC away from the action, my present job allows me to have solid impact – I would argue more than a face-to-face job would given what I do – while balancing these other priorities. It’s tough though, and I know I am blessed and lucky to have this life. Knowing I am making an impact on poverty gives me complete peace at the end of the day and drives me to work tirelessly the next day. What do you think are the three most important things that someone needs if they want to work in this sector? What are the most valuable tools you use every day in your job?

Chris Laurent, MicroVest: Demonstrated commitment to social change; real hardcore practical experience; language capacity. Despite the challenges, what makes you hopeful about the work you do that should make others want to choose this as a career path to follow?

Chris Laurent, MicroVest: I know that the availability of financing to all mankind is critical and necessary – to finance a water pump or purifier, a solar panel for electricity, a home renovation or expansion, a business, a high school education, a college education, a dream – and that providing ways for capital to get from here to there is making a development impact. What words of advice do you have for those who want to pursue a career working in an organization at the BoP?

Chris Laurent, MicroVest: First, obtain perspective to the cause you want to be a part of; you can’t help what you don’t know. Second, obtain language capacity in the region you want to serve; you can’t serve people you can’t understand. Third, obtain best of breed experience for several years in the economies and jobs most sophisticated; you serve and teach people the best way to do things if you don’t know the best way to do things; the poor need good minds and good hearts, not just good hearts.