A career pivot into venture capital from a “nontraditional” HBS professional background can seem daunting, or perhaps even impossible.

In truth, it is a significant challenge to secure a full-time or internship role in venture capital without prior experience, but alumni like Joshua Mbanusi (MBA 2021) prove not only is this goal attainable, but also that experience outside of investing can be highly transferable and valuable to the field.

Mbanusi’s Road to HBS

When sharing the story of his path to HBS and venture capital, Mbanusi makes it a point to start from the earliest days, which shaped his career decisions and professional passions.

“I grew up the youngest of five children raised by a single mother,” he shared. “To lift my family out of poverty, my mother worked two full-time jobs while re-credentialing herself as a nurse.” After high school, Mbanusi earned his Associates degree at Collin County Community College before transferring to Cornell University where he majored in policy analysis and was exposed to poverty statistics for the first time. He was moved by them. “The United States puts forward a model for lifting families out of poverty that relies on exceptionalism,” he said. “And I believe my mother is exceptional, but that approach cannot work for everyone.”

Drawn to a career focused on economic uplift and shared prosperity, Mbanusi looked for ways to address poverty at scale which led him to focus on education and education policy as key to opening up possibilities. He joined Teach for America where he designed and taught a “Social Justice” course in an economically distressed community for two years. “This experience reinforced something I was beginning to understand – education alone is insufficient to address an issue as dynamic as poverty,” he said. “It’s multifaceted.”

With this key learning, Mbanusi joined a nonprofit organization, MDC, which equips Southern leaders, institutions, and communities to improve economic mobility and advance equity. The organization focuses on public and private partnerships, and Mbanusi joined with skepticism around private sector involvement in alleviating poverty. However, he found over his five years with the organization that aligning future generations of business leaders with the goal of creating prosperity that is shared and inclusive could offer a different and productive path forward. The philanthropic consulting portfolio Mbanusi led at MDC, along with his experience founding and leading a city-wide youth organizing initiative focused on educational completion and connection to living wage work opportunities, pointed him to his next goal – earning his MBA at HBS.

Exploring the Path to Prosperity

Coming to HBS, Mbanusi was clear on his passion areas and saw business as a catalyst for change, but he also wanted to spend time determining how best to make an impact.

“You’ll hear people say it’s like drinking from a fire hose and that’s true. I didn’t have experience in the private sector, so it was as if a whole new world had opened up to me,” Mbanusi explained. “However, I received good advice from a peer at another MBA program to decide early on if you wanted to recruit for consulting or banking. I felt in my gut that neither path was for me. I was open to many other opportunities though including community banking, retail, leadership development programs across various industries, large nonprofits, and venture capital.”

After prepping for a variety of internship interviews across sectors, Mbanusi came to a moment of clarity. He felt a pull towards venture capital and impact investing and determined that if he wanted to go for it, the time was now. The next question was how.

Mbanusi sought council from a friend, Emma Sissman, Associate at SJF Ventures, a leading impact venture capital firm. Mbanusi learned the basic strategy for pivoting into venture capital – find your unique bridge and “network your tail off!” Both strategic parts of the process would be key to Mbanusi securing a summer internship at DBL Partners, one of the largest impact investing funds in the country; a winter internship with Illumen Capital, an impact fund-of-funds that trains its fund managers to unlearn their racial and gender bias; and later receiving a full-time impact investing offer from another fund.

The Strategic Philanthropy Bridge

Mbanusi knew that it wouldn’t be enough to make connections into venture capital, he also needed to learn how to tell his story in a way that investors and those in the private sector would understand.

“For those of us with a nonprofit background, we need to translate the things we have done when talking with companies who are hiring for roles in the private sector,” Mbanusi explained. “It took me a long time to get my pitch into a language that resonated with investors.”

The overarching theme of the bridge Mbanusi built was around strategic philanthropy, which encompassed the work he did at MDC, and his experience founding the Made In Durham Youth Network. Two of the key skill sets that Mbanusi learned to incorporate into his pitch were his ability to start and lead a new venture and his ability to network. For example, in the past Mbanusi would never have described his experience creating and building the Made in Durham Youth Network as “founding” but he made a powerful shift in his language. “Instead of ‘ran’ or ‘created,’ I learned to use phrases such as ‘founded, led, and hired my replacement’ to describe my past work, as this language resonated more with investors,” Mbanusi shared.

He also began speaking about his experience recruiting families and community organizations to join the Youth Network differently. “Networking is an important skillset in venture capital and in my previous role that’s what I was doing all the time. I was pitching a vision, building trust, and developing relationships,” Mbanusi explained. He also honed these networking skills as part of the internship and full-time job search which paid dividends in more ways than one.

The “Who Else Should I Be Talking To” Networking Strategy

As Mbanusi kicked off his venture capital internship search in spring 2020, he began networking by connecting with former clients from MDC and speaking with HBS friends in the investing space. With each valuable conversation he asked two important questions “Who else should I be talking to?” and “Would you be willing to make an introduction?”

With this strategy, he was connected to DBL Partners which led to his internship in impact investing. This internship experience convinced Mbanusi that impact investing was the path he wanted to pursue full-time, but he also knew that there was low turnover in venture capital roles and so getting into a full-time role would be even more challenging and require more intensive networking.

“I had a personal rule – zero cold intros. So, I spent the summer mapping out the firms I was interested in and using LinkedIn to figure out who I would eventually need to talk to at the firms,” Mbanusi said. Connection by connection, Mbanusi reached his goals and by the end of EC Year, he’d had close to 50 calls with Managing Partners of impact investing funds.

Not every call went perfectly, but that was part of the process. “My TEM professor Stig Leschly told me after one terrible call, ‘Joshua, you’re going to make mistakes, you can’t beat yourself up every time it happens. Have hundreds of these calls and make mistakes, just never make the same mistake twice.”

When offered a full-time role in impact investing, the partner told Mbanusi exactly how his networking had paid off. “One of the reasons they gave me the offer was because I had proven how I could network into spaces and build meaningful relationships with lots of folks within the broader impact venture ecosystem,” he said. “The Managing Partner believed my networking skills and persistence were indicative of how I would pursue building relationships with early-stage founders.”

The Journey Forward

While he initially focused all recruiting efforts on venture capital and impact investing, through a final paper he wrote for his Purpose and Profits class at HBS, Mbanusi became deeply intrigued by another company – Guild Education, an education and upskilling platform.

Guild Education focuses on transforming education into a strategic talent advantage for businesses, partnering with them to offer front-line employees access to learning, coaching, and training that propels growth for individuals and their employers. While outside of the investing space, the business model is perfectly aligned with how Mbanusi wants to address social change and he was encouraged to apply by Claudine Emeott, Director of Impact Investing at Salesforce Ventures, who he connected with during his post-MBA job search process.

Ultimately, he was given an offer both at Guild Education and in venture capital and deciding between the two was difficult. However, Mbanusi is excited to be joining Guild Education’s corporate strategy team while keeping the door open to impact investing opportunities in the future. He will be engaging with strategic partners and M&A while immersing himself in the workforce development ecosystem, further developing his skill set and experience while contributing to important societal shifts. “The search for a high-impact, innovative business model such as Guild’s is the reason I came to HBS,” Mbanusi shared. “I don’t think there is another company that is more aligned with the change I want to see in the world.”