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Talent for Impact Incubation: Journey from Enigma to Enlightenment

With a qualification in Electrical Engineering, and almost a decade of experience as a software engineer, I took an extended career break to focus on raising my family.  During this period, I found fulfillment in dedicating my time and skills volunteering at local organizations and school PTOs.  When contemplating a return to work, I quickly realized I wanted something beyond a conventional job, unsure if such a job existed and if it would  align with my skills. 

Introduced to the impact entrepreneurship and incubation  sector by a well wisher, I entered my new  career with limited background knowledge.  On the job learning and conversations with professionals in the field helped facilitate a smooth transition from a conventional software engineer role to that of a Network Catalyst. 

In this role, I actively engage with incubators and accelerators to better understand their challenges and to bring together resources and connections from different global geographies that historically wouldn’t know of each other’s efforts and solutions. 

What I found is that the most important skills I needed for this role were the soft skills I learned through parenting, my volunteer work and previous work experience and not necessarily through my formal education background as an engineer.   

For example, utilizing my soft skills allows me to be successful in creating the important bond with incubators and accelerators to feel safe in opening up to the idea of sharing challenges and successes.  

My project management skills help me to design programming and initiatives, such as learning circles and communities of practice, across sectors and geographies.  As with all career transitions, there is a learning curve.  I had to  understand the people and culture, as well as the nuances of the impact entrepreneurship field. 

 I consider myself fortunate to have found this opportunity. Had it not been for this well-wisher, I may not  have considered a career in this industry, which leaves me wondering…

Should we leave such discoveries entirely to chance? Can we mainstream the unconventional jobs in impact?

Shows like Shark Tank have popularized entrepreneurship and startups. In contrast, the concept of social entrepreneurship and the role of impact incubators and accelerators, more generally referred to as Entrepreneur Support Organizations(ESOs) remain unfamiliar for most people. This lack of visibility highlights one of the significant challenges of the impact incubation field – talent.  The more we speak about talent, the more questions arise:
  • How do we develop talent to support entrepreneurs? 
  • How do we attract individuals to contribute their unique talents to the field? 
  • What do we do to retain the commitment of these individuals? 
  • How do we ensure we provide avenues for growth and continuous learning, opportunities for career advancement, and improved compensation commensurate with the industry parallels? This is especially a challenge because many ESOs rely heavily on philanthropic grants for delivering programs, and are cash-strapped themselves.

ESOs are in pursuit of the right talent, while Talent is looking for the perfect ESO as their employer.

A hide and seek situation unfolds, characterized by a  subtle and dynamic tension between ESOs and Talent, both in search for their ideal match, but facing challenges finding each other.   ESOs are scouting for mission aligned professionals, while Talent is hunting for jobs that are fulfilling and meaningful.  ESOs aspire  to create awareness and build their brand to attract talent, while individuals wish to work in a reputed organization and solidify their career trajectory.  Bridging this gap requires proactive measures such as raising awareness,  bringing stakeholders together, and creating connections. 

Since the launch of Pollinate Impact, we have facilitated numerous discussions focused on talent.  We delved into the key challenges around talent from the Global South context,and explored potential collective solutions.  Our Purpose with A Paycheck Series was dedicated to familiarizing students and young professionals with career opportunities in Impact Incubation, Investing & Entrepreneurship, helping build intentional paths to careers in impact. 

“Building Talent for society starts at universities.  Universities need to be deliberate in investing in their students to develop skills, providing spaces to experiment, fail, and learn, and integrating apprentice opportunities connecting them with organizations of practice.” – Dr. Jonas Yawovi Dzinekou, Building a Talent Pipeline for Social Impact: Attracting and Retaining Mission-Driven Professionals

It is clear that various entities play crucial roles in this talent value chain: the ESOs/social impact organizations, Academic Institutions, Talent/Individuals, and Donors.

It is not uncommon for people in the industry to admit that they stumbled upon this field by accident or sheer chance.

Ever wondered why? The reasons for this complex challenge are manifold.
  • Impact Incubation Careers are not common knowledge.
  • They are seldom featured at a school or college career fair, and are often not categorized as impact incubation jobs on a job board, adding to the difficulty of finding these jobs in the first place. 
  • As the number of people who  are looking for a meaningful job continues to  grow, there stubbornly remains a lack of clarity and a dearth of content around how individuals can transition from mainstream careers, to careers in impact incubation. 
  • There are numerous training courses and books on impact entrepreneurship and investing , but the same cannot be said about impact incubation.  
  • There is also an increased realization that success in this field relies on skills beyond academics, emphasizing the importance of soft skills.

In addition to the reasons listed above, the ability to attract talent into the field requires ESOs  to clearly articulate their mission to market themselves effectively.  Establishing and growing the brand organically can take a long time for new organizations. With extremely limited or non-existent operating budgets, ESOs are unable to allocate the marketing and recruitment resources required, hindering their ability to find and attract mission-aligned individuals for their organizations.

There is a definite need to mainstream these career paths, and bring about a shift in perspectives, so that these are viewed as respectable and legitimate career choices.

It is indeed possible to have a job you love waking up to, one that gives you both a purpose and a paycheck.  If we want to see concrete and truly sustainable development and economic progress, we can no longer leave it to chance to have incredible people accidentally fall into this space.  We need to make a concerted effort to bring the right people into the impact incubation industry. We can start with a few practical recommendations:
  1. Storytelling.  Success stories in the news and media often spotlight the business or the entrepreneur, but few highlight the contribution of ESOs to this success.  We need a collective effort to document and bring out stories of people and their unique and remarkable contributions in impact incubation.  It falls upon us all, who have somehow found their way into this field (stumbled upon or by design) to be ambassadors of the social entrepreneurship and incubation field.  Let It be our duty to spread awareness, tell stories, and attract more talent into the field. 
  2. Holistic education. Academic institutions play a critical role in the development of human talent.  Emphasizing overall development of individuals, encouraging questions and inquisitiveness, fostering the art of problem solving,  and demonstrating the value of creating connections and nurturing relationships are key concepts that need to be introduced early on.In many cultures, asking questions is frowned upon.  And oftentimes, following rules, and not having the liberty to question, comes at the cost of creativity and problem solving.  Shifting away from these deeply ingrained mindsets is a monumental task that cannot happen overnight. However, we can initiate the change by introducing these skill sets early on in the education system, allowing individuals to develop leadership skills, and the necessary soft skills that are crucial in all jobs, including those in social impact. Academic institutions provide a safe space for students to experiment and learn, and fail without fear of consequences.Designing curriculum for  interactions with practitioners and establishing touchpoints with ESOs equips students with practical knowledge, reinforcing the importance of learning over grades.  These connections lay the groundwork and open doors  for potential fellowship and apprenticeship opportunities, contributing to a well-rounded experiential learning journey.  Academic institutions also offer an excellent platform for students to exchange internship and job related experience and insights with their peers.
  3. Identify the required skills.  Articulating and defining the skill sets required for these roles is crucial. What does it mean to be an Incubation Manager or a Portfolio Manager? The perfect profile is not just about the academic qualifications.  The journey of an entrepreneur is met with ambiguity, challenges, doubts and fear.  Leadership skills, effective communication, adaptability to change, and innovative approaches to problem-solving are quintessential traits to effectively support and guide entrepreneurs through this complex journey.  We must not overlook the significance of soft skills in our double role of supporting enterprises and entrepreneurs in their journey of learning and growth.  The ability to collaborate and bring people together to address entrepreneurial challenges is extremely valuable.  Above everything, having the right attitude is indispensable!Identifying these skills is crucial, but equally important is streamlining the entry and reducing the learning curve.  Whether it is a recent  graduate or someone transitioning mid-career, the initial period is marked by innumerable questions about the industry, stakeholders, dynamics, challenges, nuances and subtleties that cannot be learned simply by reading a book.  Implementing new member orientations, and in-house buddy systems, as well as providing opportunities to meet and learn from peers at other ESOs, within and across geographies are excellent ways to help new members with a smooth transition.
  4. Establishing Industry Standards. ESOs and Social Impact Organizations can respond to these needs by identifying the various roles in the field, and the corresponding skillset,  standardizing terminology, and creating content to build awareness and attract talent into the field.  
  5. Better representation on Job Boards. Navigating through professional and collegiate job boards in search of the right match is already challenging.  This is further exacerbated by non-standard terminology and unconventional titles, making it difficult to spot that gem in a sea of opportunities. Careers in impact incubation are relatively new, and with a lack of standardized titles and clear role definitions, individuals unfamiliar with these terms might not easily recognize the connection to impact unless it is explicitly stated as such. ESOs must find the right platforms to host job openings, employ standard terminology, and clearly categorize positions as impact jobs, allowing for easy searches. 
  6. Increased Donor Support. In addition to funding the delivery of mission driven programmatic efforts by ESOs, donors play a crucial role in supporting the growth and sustainability of ESOs themselves.  This helps fast-track SME growth, strengthens the overall ecosystem, and amplifies overall impact. Current funding practices do not leave much room for strengthening ESO effectiveness and growth.  Like any other organization, ESOs need to invest in systems, processes, governance, and people to stay relevant and competitive.  Shifting to flexible and long term funding practices and integrating ESO development in their engagements supports and nurtures the ESOs.  This enables ESOs to thrive, grow, attract and retain talent, thereby leading to better served entrepreneurs, and ultimately broader ecosystem development and increased impact.  (Read this report by Argidius Foundation.  It dives into the crucial role of donors in supporting the growth and sustainability of ESOs, to help fast-track SME growth and amplify overall impact.)

Impact Incubators and Accelerators are driving impact with a strong conviction that entrepreneurship is the means to solving the biggest challenges facing people and the planet.

The success of these organizations depends on individuals bringing their unique strengths and passion to address the biggest challenges facing people and the planet.  With the growing number of entrepreneurs, the need for entrepreneur support organizations is also on the rise; escalating the demand for committed and dedicated individuals, from diverse backgrounds and experience levels.  The ability to scale and fasttrack impact is directly linked to the concerted effort from a multitude of actors to cultivate, attract, and retain talent for this field.  

Pollinate Impact, our member-driven network, recognizes the deep-rooted challenge of talent, specifically in the Impact Incubation field.  Our network is prioritizing and co-creating solutions to address this multi-layered challenge in a systematic and phased manner.  

If these recommendations resonate with you, or you have additional insights to contribute to this list, and if you are passionate about charting clear career paths for the impact incubation industry, enticing passionate and dedicated change makers to join us, we warmly invite you into the conversation. Register your interest for upcoming roundtable discussion on this topic. 

Become a Pollinator. Collaborate and Co-create Solutions. Attract New Talent. Scale Impact. Together, let’s Pollinate Impact!

Shami Rao

Shami Rao is the Network Catalyst at Pollinate Impact. She is passionate about fostering connections amongst people and finding ways to bring them together. She brings 10 years experience in software development, project management, and process quality assurance and 3 years in supporting impact incubators and accelerators. Leveraging insights from her previous career and learnings from parenting, volunteering, and simply being a compassionate human being, she incorporates her experiences to nurture a global network of impact incubators!

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