Translating insights from business and entrepreneurship to drive change Nell Derick Debevoise - Founder & CEO of Inspiring Capital (IC)

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Nell Derick Debevoise is the Founder & CEO of Inspiring Capital (IC), a social enterprise that facilitates learning & development through impact, helping individuals and organizations integrate their profits and purpose for long-term prosperity. Specifically, IC develops and engages professionals and consult for organizations who aspire to do well while also doing good! IC hosts an MBA Fellowship for top MBA students between their first and second year, giving them a unique hands-on consulting experience in the social impact sector.

Nell is passionate about translating insights from business and entrepreneurship to engage our whole workforce to drive social and environmental change. She speaks about this work in diverse settings, including employers like American Express, BNY Mellon, Citrin Cooperman, JP Morgan; academic institutions like Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Wharton; and events like the Global CFA Institute, High Water Women, and iRelaunch conferences. Nell also created and taught a course on impact investing for New York University.

Before establishing Inspiring Capital, Nell was the founding director of Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, a US not-for-profit that has facilitated social and economic development for over 9,000 women and children in the Middle East since 2008. Nell has traveled to 49 countries and she speaks English, French, and Italian, as well as some Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, and Japanese.

Nell and I initially met through IC’s partnership with the Research Triangle Foundation, which includes The Future of Talent: an event series designed to facilitate honest conversations aligning the interests of employees and employers. This series tackled many of the visible challenges our workforce is facing including Millennials, Mid-Career Women in the Workforce, and Pipelines of Diversity. I’m excited for you to learn more about Nell’s path to doing such impactful work.

What initially inspired you to make a difference and what career path did you follow?

I went to public school Hartford, CT. My elementary school was a great version of public American schools, with engaged parents, a range of academic offerings, and extracurricular and community events. But by 6th grade I was the only white kid left in my class, largely because of the dismal state of the middle school that we were zoned to attend.

My parents didn’t have a ton of money, but they had the wherewithal to know that moving could make a big difference in my life. We moved, literally, 450 yards into West Hartford, CT, an affluent suburb. After our move, I went to a great public schools with AP programs and outstanding guidance counselors who helped me get to Harvard.

Watching friends from my old neighborhood over the next six years was a big reality check. It was an early ‘aha’ moment for me regarding the zip code problem in this country. I realized that the street you’re born on plays a major role in your life trajectory.

What was your first job out of school?

My first job was actually teaching English in Tokyo. It was an amazing experience. It was a pretty terrible professional experience – the English school was very commercial and didn’t invest much in training us to teach well – but I got to live in Tokyo and explore another culture. I found a similar opportunity that I thought would provide better teaching experience, working for the French government as a language assistant at a high school. That was a great year, but my brain was hungry for more formal learning so I did a Master of Philosophy in adult learning theory at Cambridge University.

Taking on Inequality

Then I felt ready to dive into the inequality issues I had observed growing up. Over the next 10 years, I had two different jobs working in global nonprofit organizations. Both focused on youth development and leadership. I often say that the second half of that decade was like entrepreneurship with training wheels. I wasn’t responsible for raising the organization’s budget, but my boss was a private equity guy who knew nothing about the youth development work we were doing. He gave me a lot of responsibility and latitude to build the programs and operations, so I faced a lot of the challenges of life as a founder.

The experience gave me the opportunity to do early stage dot connecting and learn what it looks like to make things up as you go along, without the burden of making payroll. I realized I really like creating something from nothing.

Unfortunately, the recurring frustration I had at both organizations was that most nonprofits didn’t have the business skills in-house to build sustainable, scalable models. I decided that I wanted to know what was on the other side of the fence in the for-profit space.

I did an Executive MBA at Columbia and London Business Schools while staying in my role as Executive Director of the nonprofit in the Middle East. I learned that the skills and insights from business are not scary or magic, just a set of tools that can be learned. I also learned that people who use those skills in their day jobs were famished for opportunities to apply them to work with more of an obvious social impact.

After graduation, I was ready for a change. For the next year, I did a variety of projects – consulting in impact investing, and helping a professor research and write a book on entrepreneurial finance. By 2013, I didn’t see anyone solving the problem I observed of the gap between nonprofit and for-profit sector, to the detriment of both. So I launched Inspiring Capital.

Connecting Business & Entrepreneurship Insights to Drive Social and Environmental Impact

Tell me a bit about how Inspiring Capital is working to make a positive impact?

Our basic goal, based on my personal experience, is to use business skills and insights to design effective social and environmental change models. It’s all well and good for an organization to have the most amazing teachers, public health experts, or climate engineers working on their impact model. However, these organizations need someone sitting around the table with these experts to reality check the business model, specifically in regard to financials, marketing, and adoption. Mission-driven organizations need those business perspectives to build something that’s going to work.

We achieve that goal of integrating profits and purpose by facilitating learning and development through impact. By helping individuals understand the huge array of ways that their work could create impact, whether in their immediate roles, at their companies, or in the broader community, we enhance their motivation and productivity. The work they do helps companies, for-profit and nonprofit work more effectively, contributing to social and environmental change, or at least doing less harm as they deliver their core business.

All of our offerings are designed to help the purpose-driven individuals and organizations in our ecosystem achieve that bilingualism, connecting the dots between their work and solutions to the major social and environmental problems we’re all facing.

What are some of the projects you’re most proud of that Inspiring Capital has worked on?

On the learning side, I’ve loved working with private sector professionals such as Citigroup, KKR, McKinsey, NBC-Universal, Grant Thornton, and others. They come through our Professionals’ Fellowship, which consists of 12 hours of workshops and a number of other events, readings, and personal connections over the course of a year.

They learn from our nonprofit and social venture clients about all of the different ways they can make an impact – whether in their current role, at their company, or through skills-based volunteering in the community. These professionals are looking for more impact in their work, but they aren’t necessarily keen to change jobs. It’s amazing to see their eyes light up when they realize how they can make an impact from their current seat.

Our nonprofit consulting work is highly satisfying in a different way. We work with one nonprofit called Welcoming America. They help city governments, nonprofits, and community organizations be more inclusive of new arrivals to our country, for all the economic and moral reasons they’re interested in doing that. This work is very timely right now.

Welcome America is a traditional nonprofit, with a team that’s deeply committed to their mission. But they face challenges in their financial model, so have worked hard to embrace some of our business-minded recommendations. One of the most notable changes they’re working on, is our recommendation to charge tiered membership fees, and provide services according to what an organization has paid for. But you can imagine when they have municipal employees paying these dues out of their own pocket in some cases, the Welcoming America team hates holding back certain services because they might not have paid that tier. This state of affairs shows the value they are adding, but for their medium-term survival, they have to be collecting fair prices for their work. These type of trade-offs are typical in the work we’re doing with not- and for-profit mission-driven organizations around the country.

Obstacles to creating a successful social enterprise

What are the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome thus far?

One of the biggest challenges is that we’re serving nonprofits, which can be a challenging customer because they don’t have a lot of cash, particularly not to invest in capacity building and business planning. It’s hard when we want so much to help an organization whose work we respect hugely, but we also have to make enough money to be a sustainable organization ourselves.

To be successful, we’ve had to be creative in our own financial model. We’re a for-profit and certified B Corp, and we’re committed to building a profitable model because of the ability that’ll give us to do more of this work and invest in the best talent and systems to do it. We work with university partners as well as strategic philanthropic funders and impact investors to leverage funding that can offset the cost to our nonprofit clients. We’re growing those partnerships as well as building new ones with corporate employers who recognize the value in truly skill-based volunteer opportunities with our mission-driven organizations to attract, engage, develop and retain the best professionals.

More broadly, at Inspiring Capital, we are still working a little bit against the mainstream.

Ours is still a minority viewpoint that profit and purpose aren’t mutually exclusive. The research is there, but companies don’t quite have the track record or first-hand experience to see how doing good for the world will absolutely enhance their long-term viability and profitability. Most people still see charity as strictly separate from anything business- or profit-related. It’s a big cultural barrier we’re working to erode and a paradigm we’re hoping to shift.

Changing the world can be done in every seat – What gifts do you have to share with the world?

What advice do you have for people that want to change the world or pursue their passion?

I think the most important thing is to do it in a way that fits you. We do not necessarily need more startups or non-profits. There are a lot of incredible organizations that are working to change the world. Find one that aligns with your theory of change and needs your unique profile and join them!

I also think it’s really important for people to recognize their own needs – whether for training, financial compensation, job flexibility, geography, or otherwise – and to be honest about that with themselves and their employer. Then they can decide how to change the world in a way that fits and therefore is sustainable.

Changing the world really can and should be done in almost every single seat in our workforce. I can’t think of an industry that doesn’t need this kind of change, and so doesn’t offer an opportunity for someone to be a change-maker. That includes PR & Marketing as much as Finance, or Insurance. All of these industries have such a great opportunity for making change and we need people to bend the arc.

So take the time to get smart about yourself – what you need and have to offer. Early in your career, you need to learn an industry and build relationships.  When you’re first starting out, it’s probably not most effective to start something on your own. It can be great to start at a Fortune 100 company where they have the resources to develop you as a professional, even if every day doesn’t feel obviously impactful. You can learn a lot and contribute to incremental change like sustainable sourcing, diversity hiring, inclusivity in the workplace, or otherwise.

Then get in touch with yourself and what you care about. All this work can be so hard. If it’s not something you truly care about, it’s not going to stick. There is no right or wrong – we need people to work to develop a cure cancer and for others to work on rating stocks for sustainability. The key is figuring out what role you’ll be happiest playing.

And then, just be patient with yourself. Perfect is the enemy of the good is a refrain we use often at Inspiring Capital. It’s not all going to happen overnight. You have to get comfortable with ambiguity and sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back kind of progress.

Lastly, really developing the self-care, wellness, and mindfulness practices are so important to being successful. You’re not helpful to anyone if you’re burned out. I believe in the whole “oxygen mask in the airplane” metaphor. You have to take care of yourself first to be able to take care of others.

If you’d like to learn more about Nell and Inspiring Capital, check out their website at https://www.inspiringcapital.ly/.