10 Aug 2015
A Talent Pipeline for Society’s Challenges
Nonprofit ProInspire develops leaders for key roles in the social sectorRe: Valerie Faillace (MBA 2005); Justin Steele (MBA 2009); Ty Boyea (MBA 2005); Michael Porterby Jill RadskenTopics:
Photo by Katherine Lambert
In 2001, Monisha Kapila (MBA 2005) went to India to help its people emerge from the devastating Gujarat earthquake. As she worked with artisans to reach new crafts markets, she knew she had found a perfect way to use her business skills for social impact.
“I have always wanted to work in the nonprofit sector, but decided to get business experience first,” she recalls. “When I was ready to make that jump, I found that I had a business background but I didn’t have a network, and nonprofits didn’t know what to do with me.”
From that frustration came the idea for ProInspire, a nonprofit that prepares highly qualified professionals for high-level roles in the social sector.
“We’re focused on developing leaders at all levels for the world’s greatest challenges,” she says of ProInspire, which was recently named one of “7 Nonprofits to Watch in 2015” by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “I really believe that we need the best talent working on the most important issues of our time. Currently, the social sector has a lot of constraints that make it challenging for organizations to recruit and develop people.”
Kapila’s social sensibility began at an early age. Born to Indian immigrants, she volunteered in high school, painting abandoned houses as part of Operation Brush Up, in Flint, Michigan. At the University of Michigan, she launched several service organizations, including the university’s first web-based program that connected students with volunteer opportunities.
But the moment she describes as her “wake-up call” followed the death of her mother in 2001.
“I thought, Why am I waiting to do something that matters?” she recalls.
She flew to India to work with CARE, the disaster-relief organization, in helping earthquake survivors to find their entrepreneurial footing. She found herself in awe of their grace under such trying circumstances.
“I would go to their homes—huts called bhunga—to interview them and they would offer me a cup of chai. I’d say, ‘No, thank you’ and they would go pay for a bottle of Coke. I couldn’t believe that even in the dire circumstances after the earthquake, they were still so hospitable. It was a great opportunity for me to think about how to help them.”
She returned to the United States, committed to making a deeper dive into social enterprise work. She landed at the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC), a Boston-based national research and strategy nonprofit founded by HBS professor Michael E. Porter, that strengthens inner-city economies.
“It was my first introduction into the idea that business can propel social impact,” Kapila says.
Her time at ICIC propelled her to HBS, where she was drawn immediately to social enterprise. The lessons were dynamic and the perspectives were wide-ranging, including those from Professor Gail McGovern, who is now CEO of the American Red Cross. After a summer internship in the credit-card division at Citigroup, Kapila plunged into microfinance, doing a field study on the microinsurance market. She finished HBS as a Leadership Fellow, launching Accion International’s microinsurance program in 2005.
A follow-up project at Capital One, introducing prepaid debit cards to unbanked customers in the United States, gave Kapila her first experience in being part of a start-up team.
“I loved being an entrepreneur, taking an idea, flushing out the concept, and making it a reality,” she says.
But her “aha moment” for ProInspire came during a panel discussion on the leadership deficit in the nonprofit world at HBS’s Centennial Celebration in 2008. “I couldn’t believe it was still an issue, and I thought, Maybe I’m uniquely situated to do something about this,” she says.
A year later, Kapila launched ProInspire in Washington, DC, with an inaugural group of five fellows. Six years later, the organization spans both coasts and engages 100 participants annually in its leadership development. Culled from a pool of nearly 1,000 applicants, those selected serve a yearlong fellowship in a nonprofit focused on issues such as economic development, education, health, hunger, international development, and impact investing.
Her HBS network has been invaluable in the growth of ProInspire. Roommate Valerie Faillace (MBA 2005), chief strategy officer for the KIPP Foundation, serves on the Bay Area’s advisory board; Justin Steele (MBA/MPA 2009), head of Bay Area Giving at Google, sits on the strategy committee; and classmate Tynesia Boyea-Robinson hired one of ProInspire’s first fellows at Year Up in Washington, DC. Siddharth Yog (MBA 2004), who teaches business administration at HBS, was one of the organization’s earliest supporters, along with 20 other HBS classmates who donate annually.
The funding helps to provide participants with monthly training, a coach, and a network to support their career growth during and after the fellowship. The agency also has launched a leadership development program, Managing for Success, which helps nonprofits support their rising managers through assessments, workshops, and mentoring.
Success stories are many, including Ivellisse Morales, who now serves as marketing and communications manager at Year Up in the Bay Area, and Michelle Smith-Howard, who worked as director of early learning at DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative and is now director of early childhood development and intervention at Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington. As strategist for the Washington, DC, office of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, Lina Feng continued at the job after finishing her fellowship in 2013 and is now a student at HBS.
“There is truth to the saying that nonprofits don’t have resources to develop people, so we’ve created a support system to make that possible,” Kapila says. “The thing I love in my job is I get both the big-picture impact and the direct one-on-one seeing the growth of the people in our program.”
Class of MBA 2005, Section H