BFP: What do you do?
I am a consultant based in London. For the past year, I have been part of the Virgin Unite team, the non-profit foundation of the Virgin Group in the Business Development & Investments Team, where many of Virgin Unite’s leadership initiatives get developed and launched. I have been working on how we can utilise our voice and resources to support entrepreneurs. This includes building from the experience of the Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship (in South Africa and the Caribbean) to develop new markets and models of delivering entrepreneurial learning - from how to enable access to capital for young entrepreneurs to developing a platform that provides access to mentors and other support services entrepreneurs need to grow their businesses. I guess you can say in some ways we are an in-house incubator.
At Virgin Unite, we always look at ways to catalyse partnerships whether it is with our Virgin businesses, supporters, external influencers or local partners – to bring together resources and people to address some big challenges.
A lot of my work leverages my previous experience in Asia where I worked for a boutique company which created partnerships between social enterprises and potential investors including corporations who had an interest in in expanding their presence in emerging markets.
BFP: What is the best part about your job?
I really enjoy taking big ideas and making them happen. At Virgin Unite, we are encouraged to think like entrepreneurs, which is quite a shift from the traditional philanthropic approach. It helps that I have some very smart and talented colleagues who come from the private sector. My work involves identifying key market gaps and developing solutions which Virgin Unite and the wider Virgin Group are uniquely positioned to address, as well as examining ways that initiatives become sustainable through opportunities for income generation. Our entrepreneurial environment is very much aligned to my belief that commercial solutions and collaboration with the private sector is critical given the urgency of some of the challenges the world is facing.
BFP: What have been your greatest challenges?
Taking big ideas and making them happen! This is challenging especially when you get a lot of great ideas or ways to approach things - it becomes an art form to get consensus. The other challenge that we, like many organisations, face is measuring the impact of the work we do and putting numbers behind the story. There is no perfect way of doing it and significant resources as well as long-term thinking are needed to get it done properly.
BFP: How have you overcome these challenges?/ What advice, would you give to others?
On making things happen, I think it is critical from the start to get clear during the planning process:
If you are clear about these things, the project has a much better chance of succeeding. It is also a lot easier to get critical buy-in from your stakeholders when you can articulate what your project will achieve and how.
This is the perfect time to develop those impact metrics – from the start. One of the big things I’ve learned is how much harder it is to track impact when a project or activity is in progress. Taking the time now to get a proper framework and process in place saves a lot of pain down the road.
BFP: If someone wants to do what you do, where should they start?
Start with being unreasonable and being persistent. I got my first job at an established international development agency by simply speaking with a lot of people, following up on leads and showing my enthusiasm. Internships are also a great way to get into an organization and to explore what things interest you or what you may be good at. Finding a mentor who works in the sector you want to be in also opens a lot of doors and can give you the insight about what sort of skill sets or knowledge you may need to develop to further yourself in your career.
There has also been an incredible shift in the last few years with many development organizations hiring people with private sector experience. With resource and funding cuts across the sector, all organizations are looking for people who can think innovatively, generate new income streams and increase efficiencies - important skills sets and experience that a corporate executive can bring to the table.
BFP: Finally: what do you hope to get out of being part of the BFP community?
Meeting more interesting and diverse people doing innovative work and bringing their learning and insight into the work that I do. So far the BFP events that I have attended have been a great learning and networking platform and I look forward to being more engaged in the future.
Thank you to Anita Yang for taking the time to do this interview.