An honest conversation with Aparna Bhat
Strategy and Finance Consultant at Agora Partnerships, Emzingo alumna, Aparna Bhat, has been involved in the social sector for most of her career.
Leveraging her international experience –ranging from India, to South Africa, to Mexico– she offers in-depth consulting support to high-potential companies and entrepreneurs working to solve some of the most pressing social and environmental challenges in Latin America. During 4-month terms, she works with a set of entrepreneurs to help them build, grow, track and sustain their social enterprises:
“What I like the most is the aspect of working with startups. There’s a lot of scope for innovation and learning, which I really enjoy. And as a consultant at Agora, I can work with all of these startups, be passionate and involved, get them to a good point and then switch to another startup to do it all again.”, she explained during our interview.
Having worked in several countries, what can you tell us about the way social impact is understood in different regions?
To me, what’s been surprising is the stark difference in the definition of impact itself. In India, because of the context and level of poverty, a social enterprise for us tends to be focused on low-income communities/the bottom of the pyramid. Here [in LATAM] it’s slightly looser than that. It doesn’t have to be bottom of the pyramid, it can be ‘higher’ in terms of who you’re impacting.
To give you an example, I’m working with someone in Nicaragua right now. She runs a financial education blog and workshops. In India, someone who can access a blog, is not considered to be part of the base of the pyramid. In the context of Nicaragua, which has a lot of poverty, a lot of predatory financial institutions, and no financial education at all, the project is hugely impactful!
It took me some time to make that mental switch. But when I interacted with people who follow her blog, and how much it has changed their lives, and how much a poor financial decision can affect the rest of their life – I realized how impactful this entrepreneur is. That was a huge learning for me.
How did you first get into the social sector?
I’ve always known that I wanted to work in the social impact space. The idea in the beginning was to do an MBA, earn a lot of money, and then adopt a village in India and develop it –it was a very vague, random idea. I was already doing my Masters at IE Business School when I learned what social enterprise actually is.
What made you change your understanding of social enterprises?
Classes and experience. I learned about social enterprise through classes at IE, Net Impact and my Emzingo fellowship. Things like business models, impact metrics, impact investing, etc. My biggest breakthrough was during the Impact Weekend.
I had started and ran my own social enterprise in India, Ansuya, in 2012-13. We taught low-income women to embroider and paint, and then we’d sell their handicrafts. We also taught them about costs, pricing and profit and gave them the entire profit without thinking about the sustenance of our initiative.
During the Impact Weekend there is a social entrepreneur competition. I worked together with a group of students and a social impact mentor [actually, Emzingo’s very own Pablo Esteves] to build upon my Ansuya social enterprise back in India. We worked really hard all weekend, thinking we had a great business plan. However, in the end, we placed 3rd for solely for our passion. The feedback was that our business model wasn’t at all innovative or sustainable, which was really quite eye opening and showed me that I needed to unlearn what I thought I knew to be true about social enterprise.
That’s a profound realization. What did you unlearn?
In India we have a huge culture of charity and “doing good”. We grow up with a strong sense of social morality because we see all of the poverty around us. I thought, ‘well, my time is not important, and I can always work with willing volunteers’ plus donations were coming in because people believed in my passion. I never once thought that I should keep ANY of the profits because, to me, these women had done the work, not me. I now see that was a lot to do with the upbringing and charity mindset.
I unlearned that relying on volunteers and donations is the only business model – there are many different models around the world that have a business side and impact at the same time. I unlearned that you can’t make money – you can work in this space and get paid, maybe not as much a typical post-MBA job, but it’s a viable career option.
After that, you worked with the Hillbrow Entrepreneurship Initiative, an NPO that seeks to identify, bolster and sustain social entrepreneurs in deprived communities in South Africa. What did you learn during that experience?
Yes, I had decided to do the Emzingo program in South Africa to continue my education and experience in the space. I wanted to apply what I had learned in a real setting while still in the space of school and learning.
From a technical perspective, I had learned a lot about impact models and learned how to create a model from my work with Hillbrow Entrepreneurship Initiative. It was the first time I worked in impact metrics and tracking, with support from our Dalberg mentor. I got to see investors question startups that impact too many different stakeholders without being focused. In creating an impact system for someone who impacts 10 different stakeholders – entrepreneurs, artists, youth, etc. – I learned that if they had just focused on a few, they could have had a greater impact overall.
To close, can you share with us your favorite South Africa memory?
I used to like all of these little spaces that Joburg has to experience local culture. Stanley 21, one of those, with all of these beer gardens and restaurants. We’d go hang out there and because the social enterprise ecosystem is so small there, we’d end up running into our clients and mentors. It was great to have a place that instilled such community.
Aparna’s story is probably not far from many of ours. We grow up or experience one thing, believing it to be true. It’s only when we question what we know, unlearn if you will, and replace that knowledge with new facts, that we can begin to see things differently, to think differently, to explore new possibilities, and truly make an impact.
Aparna with the Agora team.
Growing up in India, Aparna now lives in Mexico City, where she consults for social enterprises. Her experience includes social business modeling, project management, impact evaluation, field work, research, donor reporting, stakeholder and partnerships management, expert recruitment. Learn more about Aparna here.
Agora Partnerships strives to accelerate the shift to a more sustainable, equitable, and abundant world that supports entrepreneurs intentionally working to create social impact.
Their flagship program, the Agora Accelerator, is a four month program designed to provide entrepreneurs access to the knowledge, networks, and capital they need to succeed. To learn more visit: AgoraPartnerships.org