Corporate social responsibility. Philanthropic giving. B Corps, employee-owned cooperatives, nonprofits, and all the models in between. The world of sustainability boasts more flavors than Baskin Robbins, more hues than a brilliant rainbow. As Nell Derick Debevoise, the founder and CEO of Inspiring Capital, has coined it, the expressions of sustainability in business are part of “The Spectrum of Impact.”
Derick Debevoise knows this firsthand. Her career has led her to experience this spectrum at many touch points. After she graduated from Harvard and spent a couple of years teaching English in Tokyo and France, Derick Debevoise moved to Italy to develop a network of international youth. She loved her work, but saw the inefficiencies of the United Nations and the World Bank and wanted to experience another impact model.
A startup, philanthropic opportunity for Derick Debevoise presented itself in Nablus, a Palestinian city in the West Bank. For five years, she developed an early childhood education program with a focus on mental health for children four to eight years old, the first of its kind in the West Bank. The model was successful at a local level, but Derick Debevoise knew real systems change depended on the economic inclusion of women. The program expanded and launched women-focused, micro-finance projects: a goat farm, a small PR firm. Although her team received a grant from the Blair Foundation, sustainable funding to scale impact was a challenge. Derick Debevoise was frustrated with the funding model and wanted to find a way to earn money for the children’s center and build the local economy. The founder of the project owned local real estate and the idea of opening a boutique hotel—specifically as a dedicated revenue stream for the philanthropic venture—developed.
However, despite their strong relationships with donors and politicians, there was zero access to risk capital for a boutique hotel in the West Bank in 2010. Derick Debevoise decided it was time for an MBA. She wanted to find a way to grow money, merge capital and scale impact. After moving back to the US and consulting in the impact investment space, in 2013 Derick Debevoise launched Certified B Corp, Inspiring Capital.
“The goal is to help you [nonprofits and philanthropic ventures] build earned income revenue models so you can have your own risk capital instead of writing grants,” says Derick Debevoise.
Inspiring Capital’s innovative approach began as a hyrbrid model of training and consulting: provide MBA students with meaningful, impact-focused consulting experience and grow the financial independence and impact of nonprofits. This approach emerged as most of the coolest businesses strategies do: by saying yes to opportunity. After hiring one MBA to support her launch Inspiring Capital, Derick Debevoise posted a summer intern application to MBA programs across the country. Within two weeks, over 72 applications were submitted from Harvard, Columbia and other programs from around the country. Derick Debevoise was determined to find a way to say yes to them all.
“We had a partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, but you can’t grow a business with one client. We started to hustle. We needed clients,” says Derick Debevoise.
Four years later, Inspiring Capital has supported dozens of MBA students and worked with several dozen purpose-driven organizations including The American Red Cross, Goodwill and Girl Rising. It’s a win-win model. Universities subsidize the costs for the MBA student, costing the client a fourth of the expense for consultants to develop their revenue strategies. The second win? 70 percent of Inspiring Capital alumni go on to work in “The Spectrum of Impact” in nonprofits like Year Up, impact consulting at McKinsey, Pfizer in global vaccine health department, and business development in the education sector. For Derick Debevoise, this is her reason for getting up every day.
“My driver is nuancing people’s understanding of that spectrum. To think about all the ways they could have impact and then to get real about who they are and what they are good at—and match that up with the needs around them,” she says.
Derick Debevoise’s vision is an economy where the shoe maker, the coffee barista, the chief financial officer think about social and environmental impact in long-term ways and do their jobs accordingly. Social impact is not just for community health workers or teachers.
“Impact has to be everywhere. It has to be bottom-up. It has to be top-down. It has to be the marketing team, the packaging guys, the CEOs and top leadership who build a company they can feel good about. It has to be the middle management, perhaps most of all” explains Derick Debevoise.
This is why spending two hours together flew by. Derick Debevoise isn’t an evangelist for one perfect model and it’s refreshing. She believes that every model, from CSR to B Corps has systemic leverage. Sustainability as usual business requires participation and transformation of all models, from all players.
Perhaps most exciting is Inspiring Capital’s new training module for a more inclusive economy: the Women’s Re-inspiration Fellowship. Again, it’s entrepreneurship 101, and Derick Debevoise said “yes.” She received numerous requests for a training program for women who had been out of work for several years to raise their children and wanted a reintroduction to the workforce. She knew her nonprofit clients could use their expertise.
“It resonated right away. These are women who are displaced and disconnected from the economy. They have Ivy League degrees, have raised children and are now facing empty nests We hear their stories: ‘I used to be this thing. I have a JD/MBA from Yale, but it’s been years since I’ve worked and I don’t know if anyone has a need for my skill set,’” Derick Debevoise explains.
For a year, the participants work on their personal and professional leadership development, practice their new pitch and consult with nonprofits. After the year in the Women’s Re-inspiration Fellowship, the women leave with a cohort to support their reintegration to the workforce and their place on “The Spectrum of Impact.”
Inspiring Capital defines “The Spectrum of Impact” at three levels: Look within your job. What in my day job could I do that will make a difference? Look within your organization. What can you shift across departments? Or maybe it’s in the community. Maybe you can leverage your firm’s giving or make a dedicated commitment to a charity.
“We got way too far down the road in slash and burn capitalism and now we know the value of transparency. But no matter what we are doing, we all need to see a higher level, a thirty thousand-foot view of impact. Be a banker, but be responsible: don’t make 130 times more than your secretary. Don’t make your employees stay at work until 3 a.m. Find your piece of the puzzle and let that guide you,” says Derick Debevoise.
After all, each of us lives on the spectrum, anyway. Admission is the first step to recovery and in this case, intentional impact. Just sayin.’
I met Nell Derick Debevoise via the Social Venture Network (SVN). As one of the SVN Innovative Entrepreneurs, Nell has access to the SVN network, conferences and support from the membership. SVN is a tribe, a community of love-focused business people. Check them out and register for the winter conference.