Guest Articles

May 31

Christian Jahn / Susann Tischendorf

Overcoming a Roadblock to Scale: How Can We Attract Top Talent to Inclusive Businesses?

From climate catastrophes like Cyclones Idai and Kenneth in Mozambique, to political crises in Sudan and Venezuela, this year has shown us that more action is needed to help the global poor. Short-term relief from humanitarian efforts needs to be matched by a long-term strategy to create permanent prosperity.

Inclusive business is a key way to create sustainable livelihoods for the global poor, but the sector is hitting several roadblocks – and one of them involves finding employees. A recent survey of over 100 prominent social enterprises revealed that talent was a top challenge for their continued operations and growth.

The rise in the number of inclusive businesses has meant that the demand for talent in the sector is outstripping supply. Furthermore, as existing inclusive businesses grow larger and more complex, they require specialized talent with the skillsets required for scaled-up business operations, along with in-depth knowledge about their markets. How can these challenges be met?


Investing in Education for Existing Talent

As they scale up, inclusive businesses need talent with deeper knowledge of “conventional” business skillsets such as marketing, product design and financial management. However, much of the existing talent in inclusive business consists of entrepreneurial “generalists.”  This is a challenge, as scale requires a greater degree of specialization among an organization’s talent.

To solve this, the non-profit impact investment fund Acumen has created a free online course platform: +Acumen. More than 450,000 people have taken at least one of over 40 online courses offered by +Acumen, covering topics such as human-centered design, unit economics and financial modelling.

To make the right decisions and conduct business efficiently, talent in inclusive business also needs an appreciation for local challenges and needs – noble intentions alone won’t suffice. However, there are presently few pathways to rigorously learn about the problems that inclusive business can solve, and how it can do so.

Stuart Hart, an academic leader on inclusive business, is determined to fill this gap and train business leaders to understand the needs of the world’s poorest before they sell to them. However, Hart does not believe this is a gap which can be addressed by adding a course here and there. This prompted Hart to co-found the University of Vermont’s Sustainable Innovation MBA program to transform business and management education, and train the next generation of inclusive business talent. Working with the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative’s 50+20 vision and its network of educational leaders across 14 countries, the program aims to be the first of many to refocus business education to better serve the needs of inclusive business.


Inviting Prospective Talent into Organizations

To attract talent consistently, inclusive business organizations need to establish clear and well-funded paths to bring skilled people into their employment. One business taking this approach is Essilor, which aims to provide vision correction to 2.5 billion people in the developing world. While working to deliver accessible eye tests and treatments to low-income communities, Essilor has found that the talent gap in inclusive business is real. The reason, they believe, is that entry of entrepreneurs and employees into inclusive business is often ad-hoc, with a reliance on networks, academic referrals, and the poaching of experts by inclusive businesses from outside the sector.

As a result, Essilor has pioneered a program to provide a clear path for university graduates to enter, learn and develop in inclusive business. Essilor’s BoP Fellowship provides current students and young professionals with an opportunity to develop, pilot, oversee and review high-impact ventures to improve vision in the developing world. The fellowship provides full funding for participants, the opportunity for participants to work and network with a broad cohort of fellows, and a rigorous path of entry and evaluation. Through this approach, Essilor hopes to provide fellows with a formal kick-start to a career in inclusive business – either in Essilor, or beyond.

Some organizations are expanding this focus beyond just bringing young talent into inclusive business, by making efforts to ensure that this talent is as able, diverse and experienced as possible. One vital step in this journey is to promote the inclusion of women into boardrooms, and to shatter the glass ceiling that is especially prevalent in the developing world. This is the mission of TheBoardroom Africa. In January 2019, their first cohort of 25 women graduated from their pioneering “Open Doors” boardroom training program, accredited by the London Institute of Directors, enabling them to enter the executive suite.


Inclusive Business – The Next Generation

Caroline Ashley, who heads the editorial committee of the Inclusive Business Action Network’s CLUED-iN magazine, remarks that “there is a preponderance of strong founders in inclusive business.” But to move to scale, the sector needs much more than this: It needs “the second generation of managers and leaders.”

There are many ways to build this new generation of leadership. Along with developing existing talent and inviting more talent into the sector, talent in inclusive business must be nurtured through access to networks, information sources and mentorship. The Inclusive Business Action Network works to do this, and to ensure that inclusive business talent is trained, ready and connected, through our online knowledge platform and our focused Capacity Development Program for companies and policymakers in developing and emerging countries. We hope that through this work, we can help the new generation of inclusive business leaders guide the sector to greater scale and greater impact.


Christian Jahn is the Executive Director of the Inclusive Business Action Network (iBAN), and Susann Tischendorf is an international development specialist and a Director at iBAN. This piece features insights from the latest edition of iBAN’s CLUED-iN online magazine, which is out now.

Photo courtesy of zeevveez, via Flickr.




Social Enterprise
Base of the Pyramid, business development, scale, social enterprise