November 19

Jayme Self

Net Impact 2009: Career Paths at the Base of the Pyramid

From the opening keynote, the Net Impact Conference was buzzing with students and professionals passionate about corporate social responsibility, green living, and international development. So it makes sense that one of the panels would be focused around “Careers at the Base of the Pyramid”. NextBillion’s own Francisco Noguera moderated the panel, which brought together three different perspectives on the BoP – Yasmina Zaidman, Director of Communications at Acumen Fund; Peter Eliassen, Vice President of Sales and Operations at VisionSpring (an Acumen Fund investee); and Justin DeKozmovsky, Manager of Strategic Sustainability at SC Johnson & Son.

As expected, the event primarily attracted students, and it was interesting to see the different perspectives these three organizations brought, not only on careers, but also the space as a whole. While Acumen Fund is an established force investing in social entrepreneurs in developing countries, and VisionSpring is a great example of an entrepreneurial start-up, SC Johnson & Son provided an interesting contrast of how larger corporations can reach the market opportunities at the base of the pyramid.

Despite the difference in positions and organizations, the panel’s beliefs were surprisingly similar in how to increase the amount of business activity at the base of the pyramid. From investing directly as an entrepreneur in a developing country, to working as an arm of a corporation, all of the panelists spoke to the importance of developing a proof of concept. In particular, Yasmina discussed the importance of living in a world of “what works” – developing new models, then testing and refining them, instead of just talking about the world as it “should” be.

This concept appeared several times throughout the conversation, with panelists encouraging students to “just do it”. Regardless of whether the “it” refers to starting a new social enterprise or joining someone else’s, each of the panelists discussed the importance of passion to their career progression, and advised students to pursue opportunities wherever they may be. Justin, in particular, gave the example of how he began with SC Johnson & Son as an MBA intern, and then helped them create a business concept for work at the BoP, which they then asked him to implement. He challenged students to just pick up the phone and contact organizations when they see an opportunity to add value.

Another theme that emerged centered around the idea that although the field is still growing and changing rapidly, it has come a long way. There are numerous organizations working to support BoP initiatives – much more so than when our panelists began their careers – creating a dearth of opportunities for students to get involved wherever their interests lie.

This panel reminded me that regardless of functional discipline or background, base of the pyramid ventures need talented individuals with passion and guts. There is a growing need for talent to come from the private sector, increasingly bringing specialized skillsets to professionalize these organizations as they grow and scale. If we’re going to prove that business can be profitable at the base of the pyramid – both fiscally and socially – we need to be willing to take risks, try new ideas, and use our passion to build a proof of concept that will create the businesses of the future.