An Interview with Amira El-Adawi

Thinking about summer internship in social enterprise? Want to know how your MBA skills would be applied? Wondering how the experience would meet your goals and interests? Jesse Souweine, Vice President of Careers for the Social Enterprise Club, asked Amira El-Adawi, a 2002 Summer Associate with the Acumen Fund.

Harbus: Tell me a little bit about your background and what brought you to business school.

AE-A: Almost 2 years ago, I realized that my passion for social enterprise was more than just a hobby. After having co-developed one of Egypt’s most popular micro-finance institutions and community development centers, I realized that what I had done was the easiest part of this path. The difficult part was to make this institution sustainable and to scale it up so that we could see the effects of our work on a national level.

What I also realized was that our management did not have the full set of skills to take our organization where we wanted it to go. I chose to attend HBS because it had a strong affinity for Social Enterprise and I was hoping I would learn how more developed NGOs function and grow.

Harbus: Can you describe the organization you worked for and your specific project?

AE-A: Acumen Fund is a new 501(c)3 fund, organized as a set of portfolios. The first is a portfolio focused on health technologies in Africa and South Asia. Acumen recently started a second portfolio to focus on strengthening civil society in Egypt and Pakistan: the “Economic and Civic Enterprise” portfolio.

As an Egyptian with both a financial background and first hand development experience, I was hired to help the COO set-up the “Economic and Civic Enterprise” portfolio and take it to the launching stage. Over a period of ten weeks, I worked at the Acumen Fund headquarters in New York City, defining the new portfolio in relation to the current portfolio and the available competition, identifying the advisory board, and conducting due diligence for the first round of investments. I then spent two weeks doing field research in Cairo to finalize the investment decisions with our selected clients and identify a pipeline of potential future projects.

Harbus: How did you apply your HBS skills? And what did you learn?

AE-A: The tasks in the design of the new program ranged from trying to decide what to call the portfolio to writing our first marketing documents, identifying the sectors of civil society to focus on and how we planned to do that. Throughout this process, my strategy and marketing classes at HBS kept creeping back into my mind, as we struggled to choose the right focus for the fund as well as the right positioning relative to competition.

Having worked in corporate finance for six years, I thought I would be mainly drawing on my P&G experience when evaluating and valuing our investment. However, I was quite surprised that as I evaluated the diverse projects, ranging from for-profit manufacturing to a human rights fund to a micro-finance project, I realized that reading all those cases creates a flexible, analytical skill that enables us to identify key levers of each business and employ a unique set of evaluation measures, no matter how different the businesses or fields.

During my first year at business school, I learned plenty. But I still wondered whether what I learned would be applicable in the ‘real world’.

I wondered whether I could actually apply what we learned in LEAD or EM or Strategy to whatever I chose to do post-HBS. This experience has shown me that I definitely can. Moreover, I’ve learned that in the ‘real world’, the ‘soft stuff’ matters as much as running the numbers, if not even more.

Harbus: How did the experience relate to your expectations?

AE-A: My internship created the perfect end to my year of learning and reflection. Not only did I achieve my goal of experiencing first hand how professional NGOs are run, I was lucky enough to do it with a fund that actually works in Egypt, which helped me build a very locally specific set of expertise. Last but not least, I got to work for a group of phenomenal people, who showed me the importance of empowerment, trust and motivation in the workplace. I got to use the expertise I have been building up for six years, apply and nourish the new skills I learned at HBS, as well as learn some new ones-and all of this in the sector, function and region that I want to develop.

I could not have asked for a more suitable place to be this summer!