We had the pleasure of checking in with Ellen Halle, Middlebury College and FMS Alumna, who is currently an Associate at I-DEV International. She talks to us with passion about the work she is doing and how FMS helped her get there:
Tell us a little about yourself and your current position
I currently work for I-DEV International and am based in the Nairobi office. I was connected to the organization through FMS when I participated in the FMS Training in Amsterdam; the CEO of I-DEV was one of the FMS professors. I have a background in global health; during undergrad, the vast majority of my work was in the NGO world in the context of field work, public health research & NGO programming. After graduating from Middlebury, I wanted to gain more experience in the private sector in the context of healthcare; healthcare was my bridge to the private sector. I spent about 2 years I working for a firm called Oxeon Partners in New York, concentrating on early stage venture and private equity-backed health care companies. I learned a ton about growth-stage business strategy and the dynamism of venture capital. However, all of Oxeon’s portfolio companies were focused domestically, and I was really missing the international exposure. Therefore, I wanted a role that would bridge my experience in global health and international development with the work I enjoyed in high-growth, for-profit businesses. FMS was the perfect next step to find that opportunity.
Why I-DEV International?
I-DEV is a strategy consulting & financial advisory firm focused on growing and scaling small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in emerging markets. We work with SMEs themselves but also impact funds, commercial investors, multinational corporations with SMEs in their supply chain, and NGOs/multilaterals increasing their focus on enterprise development. We do this across two groups: Insight & Strategy and Financial Advisory. I work as a generalist across both groups, but tend to work more on the Insight & Strategy side.
I-DEV felt like a natural fit, given my goal of combining my depth of international field experience (in Uganda, Costa Rica & Nicaragua) with my growth-stage business acumen. The work we do is varied and highly dynamic and we get to spend a lot of time in the field. Because we work with such a diverse array of stakeholders (from the NGOs to the MNCs) I get to think from many different angles throughout every project and frankly, throughout every day. I really agree with I-DEV’s approach to advising and improving businesses; we take into account the views of the entire value chain—from the CEO of the business to the investors to the producers of raw material—smallholder farmers in agribusiness, etc. Creating alignment between stakeholders—and creating alignment between impact and shareholder value—is something I really believe in. For example, some of our work with a multinational apparel company has included the development of what I-DEV calls a “secondary benefits program” for their producer co-ops. Secondary Benefits really just refers to the provision of technical assistance, advance payments, low-interest loans, input discounts, and other benefits to farmers in the MNC supply chain. Companies can offer these benefits to farmers provided they reach certain quality provisions, sell a certain percentage of their crop to the MNC and attend a certain amount of trainings to increase quality. In this way, the MNC aligns impact with shareholder value—improving livelihoods at the BoP while increasing supply consistency, production capacity and product quality.
I-DEV’s goal is to help create businesses that are investable and scalable in terms of both revenue & impact; I think both the impact sector and the East African VC space will really benefit as these companies continue to scale, attract capital and ultimately exit.
What has been the most exciting part about professional life in the impact space?
I’ve been in Nairobi since March and two things stand out specifically. The first is how amazing it has been to experience such a dynamic…and nebulous…space. The so-called “impact space” brings together players with such different backgrounds: the venture capitalists, the local entrepreneurs, the development banking professionals. The intersectoral collaboration—or lack thereof—in the impact space can be confusing, but bringing together different perspectives is the only way that change has ever been achieved.
From a personal perspective, it’s been such a joy to travel throughout East and West Africa for my role at I-DEV. The opportunity to visit all of the places that I spent my academic career studying and reading about is amazing; realizing that as a young professional I’m able to add value here working small enterprises is even better. Additionally, working with a multi-cultural team has been refreshing and energizing.
With regard to Nairobi, it’s really not that different than New York. Bear with me…I know that sounds crazy. But there’s actually a lot of overlay…they are two crazy busy places, there’s always a lot going on. Nairobi is much more cosmopolitan than people in the US tend to think; something that speaks to its attractiveness to investors as well, I think.
How are you directly applying the skills learned through FMS?
FMS formalized my interests by providing additional support and coursework in a structured framework. It also brings together people from a great array of different backgrounds– in that way it prepared me for the impact space…some people are more financially oriented, some are more impact oriented, and FMS mirrored that. Also, I had worked with medium sized VC-backed businesses ($500k+ revenues), but felt that FMS better prepared me for working with very early stage businesses and providing training for young entrepreneurs themselves.
Increasingly my colleagues and classmates who have been working in traditional finance jobs reach out to me to learn about the work I’m now doing and with great interest in FMS. They all have strong business backgrounds and have the desire to do social good but aren’t sure how to channel it. FMS is one of the only programs out there that can harness that type of aspiration and that’s the coolest thing about the program. People do come from different backgrounds, and it’s one of the only programs that can help people coming from the top tier institutions and the traditional experience to apply the skills they have but towards the social impact sector. Other programs target specific people and backgrounds but tend to keep them on the same track, whereas FMS really encourages us to think deeply about change and to go forward and make strong impact.
What are your top three tips for someone looking to start a purpose-driven career?
- There is real power in networking and connecting. Do not be hesitant to reach out. It’s the number one way that people can get involved. People like being able to help others, so always feel confident in reaching out and learning more about the spaces that you are interested in. Paying it forward is a good thing.
- Think about where you can add value. This is kind of the ultimate catch 22, because in order to add value you need experience, and in order to have experience you probably have one or two experiences where your value-add is minimal. That said, think about the skills that you have and how you can use them to best help a growing enterprise, an impact fund or another entity—maybe its financial analysis, maybe it’s relationship management, but know your skillset and think appropriately about what opportunities fit you best.
- Jump in. I think there’s a lot of reticence to move from a traditional finance career to something more nontraditional and risky. Sometimes the best thing to do is just take the leap and make the change you’ve been thinking about.
This is the last week to apply to FMS D.C. Training! Launch your new career, apply today: go.miis.edu/fms