I fancy data, spoken-word, Arsenal. Poverty is multidimensional. SocEnt is hard.
I quit the corporate world to pursue purpose in the social impact space. But I knew nothing about social impact.
So, I thought of doing an MBA with a focus on social entrepreneurship. But that just didn’t ring right — how am I going to learn about poverty sitting in a fancy classroom? And expensive much? So, I settled on doing it myself — essentially learning by doing.
In two years, I lived in three countries, worked closely with three organizations and over fifteen social entrepreneurs, learnt a new lenguaje, learnt how to code, earned board seats on two non-profits, built a deep, meaningful network with a plethora of people across borders, made the best of friends immersing myself in cultures inertly foreign, and most importantly, I learnt about the social impact space by living and working in the field.
And the kicker? All this cost me less than 1/5th of what a top two-year MBA school would cost. Yes, I did the math. A two-year MBA from Harvard in 2019 cost $211,336 and my two year “custom MBA” cost me $36,337 (scroll to the end for a summary and I also breakdown expenses in each country throughout this post).
Yes, with the COVID-19 pandemic, things seem different and strange right now. But I believe it will pass, and borders will open. It will probably never be the same, but we will embrace a new version of normal that isn’t too different from how it used to be.
So, was this “custom MBA” a better option than doing a traditional top-tier MBA? I’d like to think so. But I have incomplete information — I haven’t done an MBA now have I? So, I’ll let you decide once you’ve read through this.
Here’s how it flowed — resources, expenses, learnings, pains, joys:
Right when I quit, I knew I wanted to go back to India to start my own social enterprise focused on poverty. However, the tug-of-war in my brain was this:
Should I go to India right away and learn by doing work there? Or should I frolic around the developing world, gaining a more worldly perspective on the impact space?
Both options made sense, but the latter resonated with my fancies a bit more.
For some odd, irrational reason, I had always wanted to learn Spanish and see the world from a more immersed perspective than a touristic one. So, that became the rationalization, and this became the chosen, Dharmic path. Only later, while I was in Nairobi, did I read that working in different cultures actually enhances creativity, fueling the development of a holistic perspective that can allow you to make more of an impact. However true you believe that to be, it was perfect for my confirmation bias.
Since I was embarking on this Fogg-ian, country-hopping path, the idealistic version of myself thought it was going to be super simple:
I’ll spend 6 months working in South America learning Spanish, 6 months in Africa because it’s tough out there, 6 months in Asia outside of India because why not, and then 6 months in India because I need to understand India. Simple, right?
This “plan” turned out to be as naïve as it sounds. It changed. A lot.
Or rather, I’d like to think that it evolved, while somehow staying true to its ethos. That’s the beauty of a “custom MBA” — flexibility. You never know the perfect answer right off the bat, what’s crucial is the ability to pivot. And boy did I pivot.
But you know what? It’s okay to have an idealistic plan as long as you’re not too attached to it. In fact an ideal plan allows for course correction.
The first part of the first part of the plan stayed its course. Kind of.
South America evolved into any developing country where Spanish is spoken. And more importantly, the work I’d be doing needed to align with what I wanted to learn.
So how did I find this magical thing? The internet made everything a lot easier.
My incredible sister pointed me to MovingWorlds.org — it’s essentially a Tinder for matching the skills of professionals / experts with the needs of non-profits / social enterprises around the world. Yes, I know — pretty awesome. Through this platform, I matched and got offers from three organizations — two in Peru and one in Haiti. Almost took one of the ones in Peru.
Another friend pointed me to SocialStarters. They do something similar but charge a hefty amount for it which didn’t sit too well with me. I was looking for a barter between my skills and exposure to the impact space and 600 pounds (1,280 pounds now) seemed a bit on the higher end. But if I got desperate, it could be an option. I spoke to them and they did offer me a spot in Brazil. Good back-up but not cost effective or Spanish enough.
I struck gold on the Skoll Forum — Alterna, a social enterprise cultivator / accelerator based in Guatemala, made the most sense. I would be getting width: a chance to work with many social entrepreneurs and that seemed like a sensible way to start. And, Spanish of course.
Here was the problem though — I didn’t know much Spanish at all, and this job was in Spanish. Alterna took a leap of faith and interviewed me — I wasn’t going to get paid and my work experience seemed valuable to them. I got the offer with a caveat: I would need to do a month of intensive Spanish classes in Guatemala before I started. Perfecto.
I was pretty sure I was going to get robbed as soon as I landed in Guatemala thanks to all the one-sided data on crime we have available today, and also because my lack of Spanish made me essentially deaf and dumb.
But I didn’t get robbed or murdered. In fact, everyone was super friendly. Guatemala isn’t the safest country in the world, but it isn’t as dangerous as fear makes it out to be.
I thought I would learn enough Spanish studying 5–8 hours a day for a month and living with a local host-family. Wrong again. It took me 4–5 months to be decently functional in Spanish.
And I’m not talking basic Spanish, I’m talking work Spanish. That was the hardest part about Guatemala — learning a new language. On the flip side, the best way to learn a new language is to jump into the deep end.
Enough people spoke English at the company to allow me to add at least some value. And I quickly learnt how invaluably incredibly amazingly awesome Google Translate is. I came there as an unpaid fellow but within three months, I was offered a paying job. In the end, knowledge is language-less.
It was at about the six-month mark that I had just earned enough clout to make a significant impact within the organization. My Spanish started to get in key, and it just didn’t make sense to jump ship right then.
There had been a lot of turnover when I joined and that gave us fellows an opportunity to add real value. At times we were flying blind, but being thoughtful and thorough goes a long way in making a difference.
I will never forget the time we revamped our signature five-day workshop. We laboured long hours, researching, creating, fighting and ordering late-night pizzas. We were nervous before the start, but after, the feeling of success was priceless.
Many of us were unpaid fellows back then, but it didn’t matter. In fact, that made it that much sweeter— we did this because we cared for our entrepreneurs, and the pure elation of believing in something and making it happen is priceless. No chunky New York bonus has ever made me feel that way.
There was no way I was going to leave in six months. Uh oh, the OG plan just changed.
The next six months in Guatemala were even more fruitful. I got more responsibility and ownership, took on a bigger role with internal operations and led the negotiation, implementation and training of the organization’s internal IT infrastructure.
Many non-profits lack technical prowess — there aren’t enough STEM-skilled folks in the space which leaves gaping holes. We need more people filling these holes. I had some (not extensive) experience with these holes and I quickly realized that my ability to add value became my ticket to more exposure and learning. That would be a constant through this custom MBA of mine.
Also, I realized that there is no rush to get into the social impact space. What’s more important is to build hard skills and gain valuable technical experience from wherever you can, and then make the jump. There were a couple of other fellows there who I felt didn’t have enough experience nor a clear skill-set to add significant value with. This didn’t mean that they didn’t grow, it just meant that it was harder for them. Learning about the impact space isn’t as hard as learning a technical skill.
My last three months in Guatemala were tough. I was leading a full-scale tech implementation alone and was also handing off my key responsibilities to a new crop of hires. As important as that was, it wasn’t fun. Letting go of your baby is hard. I thought I’d have to have an actual baby to learn this.
I was flattered when Alterna offered me a Director position and to be a part of their future, but my evolved plan held strong. And the leadership team understood — I had always been consistent about starting something in India, and that consistency made it easier to communicate my next steps.
It turns out that having your big goal etched in stone makes decision-making easy and communicating your decisions even easier.
I remain connected to them today with somewhat of a ceremonial position on the Advisory Board, but Alterna and Guatemala will forever have a small piece of my heart.
Expense Breakdown in Guatemala:
After over a year in Guatemala, nine months longer than ‘planned’, I knew that my stint in East Africa had to be a little more constrained — no more than six months.
If the goal is to start something in India, I can’t just keep frolicking around the globe, delaying the inevitable. But working in sub-Saharan Africa seemed like an important step in this custom MBA of mine.
Shoddy as this sounds, the income per capita, the infant mortality rates, and disease-inflicted deaths in parts of Africa are among the gravest. Add that to the exploding youth population, the lack of jobs, and the rising temperatures, and what the continent is drifting towards is a largely young population of two billion by 2050, struggling to find employment as the world boils over. There could be a lot of other things that boil over as well.
But don’t get me wrong — there has been a ton of progress over the last few decades. Overall, as much as we shouldn’t generalize, African countries are freer and more developed than they have ever been. There has been innovation and expression, a better quality of life, and a Twitterverse exploding with opinion. It’s better, but there is still a long way to go.
And that’s why there is a lot of game-changing work being done there, especially in the social sector. So, I had to work there.
This time I was looking for more depth — i.e. working more closely with a couple of entrepreneurs, rather than at a more superficial level with many entrepreneurs, which was the case in Guatemala.
An email from the incredibly helpful Social Enterprise Jobs Google Group landed in my inbox that talked about a certain Amani Institute. It was new but what I liked about a program they offered was that it involved a four-month apprenticeship in Nairobi with local social enterprises / NGOs.
It also promised just enough coursework in some of the softer skills that I had been craving, but wasn’t necessarily ready to stretch for — leadership, management — some of the soft stuff that had haunted me towards the end of my stint in New York. Bingo.
I applied and soon thereafter, I was on my way to Nairobi as an Amani Fellow. I think I would have gone either way, but I was glad to go there with some structure.
The six months in Nairobi were intense. We worked for three days a week and had classes three days a week. The Sunday that was left hanging, left us fellows only wanting to hang around and do nothing.
I was apprenticing with a social enterprise that was trying to fight poverty through job creation in the urban slums of Kenya — where on my first day, we were marginally, indirectly tear-bombed.
More importantly, they are trying to do similar things to what I want to do in India. So, the learning curve was as steep and healthy as any wealthy education, if not more.
They did a lot of things well, but where they struggled was in finding operational prowess. Sadly, in the impact space, this is common.
While there is a ton of passion and drive in the social sector, there aren’t enough seasoned operators or technical folk. Add all that to the lower pay, and what you’re left with are inefficient organizations with tiny technical expertise and gigantic hearts. Burn out is more common than you’d imagine and it happens without any splurging compensation that at least some of the corporate burnouts can fall back on.
Through the Amani Institute, I also got to work with a social entrepreneur from Tanzania. His story is tragically inspiring, and it inspired me to work with him. He runs a non-profit focused on empowering Tanzanian youth and he was trying to figure out how to transition from a typical non-profit to a more financially viable social enterprise that was less dependent on donors. He had the field knowledge and I had the technical skills — and we complemented each other synchronously.
I learnt resilience from him, and I’m not saying that lightly. Despite having nothing, when he got a chance at life, he decided to give back. Despite being devastatingly knocked down multiple times, he hung in there. These few lines actually do injustice to the Everest he has had to climb, and is still climbing.
The six months in Nairobi whizzed by. But it felt like I had been there for an eternity, making new relationships and adapting to a new culture. It’s strange how time loses it structure as we sway from one perspective to the next.
I left Nairobi more ready than ever. I felt both validated and enlightened. I might have been extorted by bad cops with a gun in broad daylight, but I acquired a deep experience that geared me up for my next steps.
Expense Breakdown in Nairobi, Kenya:
You’re probably thinking: LONDON? Where did that come from?
Yes, the OG plan changed. A lot. But that’s the beauty of it, right?
One thing I realized in Nairobi is that I know enough about working in the impact space to start something on my own, but what I might be missing is some more technicality.
Remember the lack of operational prowess and technical expertise in the impact space I have been talking about? Well, I didn’t want to be that cliché or at least that was my rationalization. Yes, I could sing some decent finance tunes, but I wanted to learn more about data, and not just at a superficial level.
So, I found this immersive Data Science course that General Assembly offers in London (and other cities). It is a twelve-week bootcamp that tries to download everything it can about Machine Learning and Data Science at rapid speed. Magically, I had twelve weeks to spare in this custom MBA.
The course itself was intense to say the least. We had classes five days a week, 9am — 5pm and a ton of homework afterwards. But I thrived. I learnt how much I love messing around with data. I learnt that while I am not a naturally gifted musician, I do have a natural-ish knack for rows and columns full of numbers and symbols.
There are other institutes that offer similar programs across the world — some are fully virtual and / or after-work friendly. Meanwhile, Lambda School allows you to come into an income-sharing agreement with them. Which basically means you don’t have to pay anything upfront, only a percentage of your income after you get a job. And this past year, they had more applicants than Harvard.
Just to be clear, this type of course had nothing to do with the impact space. It didn’t need to be. This was about upskilling, and this new skill is applicable in almost every industry. My classmates ranged from engineers to statisticians to recent university grads. The age range was a couple of decades — from 20-year-olds to 45-year-olds. But none of them worked in the impact space.
The course was everything I wanted it to be and more. I feel like it opened a new box of possibilities that has been empowering. At the same time, in the spirit of keeping it real, if you want to be a full-time Data Scientist, just this course is not enough. There is more practice that you would need to do after, but the beauty of the course is that you gain enough of a base to leap off of.
I am not going to be a Data Scientist, but I want to use Data Science to make better decisions — to do better research, better monitoring and evaluation, and most importantly, to better allocate resources to solving this shitshow of a problem that is poverty. It also helps in solution-seeking — how can I use Artificial Intelligence to solve real-world problems?
And as a bonus, I got to spend three months living with my best friend. When else am I going to get a chance to do that at this age? See, a custom MBA also has its social perks.
Expense Breakdown in London, United Kingdom:
So much for the original plan, right?
But that’s the beauty of the world we live in today. Some of us (and if you’re reading this, you are probably in the “us”) have the fortune to choose what we want to learn and how.
The typical MBA is not the only way out. In fact, it might turn out to be more expensive and less educational, which I strongly believe would have been the case if I pursued it.
Let’s summarize the expenses first, because well, that might be the most useful thing in this post.
Expense Summary Summarizing It All:
Image by Author. Source for Harvard MBA Expenses: Poets & Quants
The table above is pretty self-explanatory.
If you analyzed it, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t pay rent in London. I was lucky enough to crash with my best friend, remember?
So, if you want to normalize for that and for the fact that I made money in Guatemala, let’s add rent for three months in London (GBP 1,000 / month) and remove the income I earned in Guatemala (just to be conservative). That brings total expenses to ~$51k which is still only 1/4th of what a Harvard MBA costs.
The big lesson for me has been that once you figure out what you care about and are willing to dedicate yourself to that, then it has never been easier to pave your own path of learning. And learning never stops — cliched, but true.
I have also realized that true learning cannot happen only in the classroom. It needs an element of reality to complement all the theory. So yes, it all comes down to finding the right balance. Like most things in life.
It has been six months since I moved back to India. I have never been more focused and content. And I have never felt more ready to start a social enterprise focused on multidimensional poverty.
Look, it has not all been rosy.
I don’t have a fancy $200k Harvard stamp on my resume. Someone who does, commands immediate credibility — at least at a superficial, perceived level. If that stamp is important to you, then a top MBA is unbeatable.
There have also been times on the road when I felt very alone. I missed home, I missed having a home. I missed my best friends. I hated those cold showers. The internet was shoddy in most places besides London. The food in Guatemala wasn’t great. I was extorted by cops in Kenya which wasn’t fun. I had to stay away from committing to a relationship because I was always moving on. It seemed like I was always saying goodbye, while not knowing when I’ll meet those folks again. There was uncertainty and discomfort.
But it was all worth it.
And when all that feels worth it, you know you have grown.
Okay, enough. I have laid it all out. I’ll let you be the judge.
P.S. Parts of this post have been taken from other posts I have written in the past.
P. P.S. Previously published behind a paywall at https://medium.com/@anishmalpani/my-custom-mba-way-more-for-way-less-a57adf3449e7