IFC’s “Being the Change”: Exploring the Personal Side of Inclusive Business

By Beth Jenkins, Research Fellow, CSR Initiative,
Harvard Kennedy School

IFC’s “Being the Change”: Exploring the Personal Side of Inclusive Business

One usually thinks of the International Finance Corporation as a hard-nosed investor – an unlikely source of inspiration. Yes, IFC is a development institution whose purpose is “to create opportunity for people to escape poverty and improve their lives.” Yes, it is one of the largest investors in the world in companies with inclusive business models – business models that expand economic opportunity and access to products and services for the poor. But IFC is also a triple A rated financial institution that raises funds on the international capital markets and invests on commercial terms. Its inclusive business clients must go through the same financial due diligence all of its clients go through. They also generate similar returns.

Over the past several years, IFC has released a number of reports on inclusive business models (full disclosure: I’ve worked on some of them). These reports are full of useful information and analysis on IFC’s inclusive business portfolio, the strategies and tactics its clients are using to engage the base of the pyramid, and the results they’re achieving.

Being the Change, released in October, isn’t your typical IFC report. It recognizes that across countries and industry sectors, all of IFC’s inclusive business clients share a common success factor: an exceptional individual at the helm, with vision, leadership, and entrepreneurial spirit – what IFC’s first president Robert L. Garner, in 1956, called “that elusive combination of imagination to see an opportunity and to mobilize the necessary resources to seize it.”

Being the Change shares the personal stories of 14 of IFC’s inclusive business leaders, describing where their passion comes from, how they got their ideas, the trials and tribulations they’ve gone through building those ideas into successful businesses, how they empower their staff, and what’s kept them motivated through the inevitable ups and downs.

Some of these stories could be made into movies. For example, Carlos Cavelier was a third generation public servant in Colombia when his mentor was assassinated. When notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar escaped from prison several years later, menacing politicians around the country, Mr. Cavelier finally quit and returned to his hometown to take over the dairy his grandfather had started when he retired from medicine. With no business training, he set out building relationships with local farmers in a time of violence and fear, convincing them to try producing milk, not coca. His strategy of relationship building and empowering those farmers to do bigger and better things – by providing technical assistance and micro-financing, and reliably buying their milk even when the market is saturated – has helped turn Alquería into Colombia’s third-largest dairy company, with revenues of $280 million in 2010, more than 3,500 employees, and 6,415 farmers and third party suppliers.

Being the Change is a source of inspiration for individuals working hard to build inclusive business models both from scratch and from within existing companies. It is also a source of inspiration for donors, NGOs, governments, and all those curious about how business affects the poor. At a time when cross-sector collaboration is needed more than ever, and yet sector stereotypes are still pervasive, the latest IFC report provides an insightful and deeply personal view into a group of business leaders who exemplify Ghandi’s urging to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

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