Amy Ahearn
Amy is the Associate Director for +Acumen where she builds online courses to educate social change leaders and inspire new approaches to tackling poverty. She is passionate about using technology and design to help people all over the world learn in new ways. Before joining Acumen, Amy was an education technology project manager for an innovation lab at the Stanford School of Medicine where she built online courses. She also spent four years managing international education programmes funded by the US Department of State that trained teachers from over 50 countries. Amy completed a Fulbright grant in rural Malaysia and implemented a mobile health education programme in rural Peru. She holds an MA in Learning, Design and Technology from Stanford University and a BA in English from Bowdoin College.

Freely accessible online courses can help changemakers fill their skill gaps

Interview with Amy Ahearn (+Acumen) by Susann Tischendorf

+Acumen is an initiative of Acumen directed at a global learning community that seeks to drive social change and entrepreneurship. Through free online curses, +Acumen nurtures talent for inclusive business, pursuing a human-centred approach and building unconventional partnerships.

Hi Amy, we are so grateful to have you. Can you introduce the work of +Acumen? Why was it founded and what is your specific area of work there?

+Acumen is what we call the world's school for social change. It was started a bit over five years ago by Jo-Ann Tan, who recognised that changemakers could come from anywhere in the world. We wanted to equip everyone with the skills and tools to become more active and effective at creating social change. Acumen itself is a non-profit, impact investing fund. So, we had lots of lessons from years of investing in social enterprises around the world about what worked and what didn't work when it came to building inclusive business models.

We wanted to share some of those lessons and insights with others, and leverage insights from partner organizations or other practitioners that we admired in order to make those lessons accessible. This was right around the time when online courses were becoming very popular, so we experimented with building a very basic course, which got a lot of registrations and traction. Today, we have more than 40 online courses on topics ranging from human-centred design to business models for social enterprises to lean data approaches to social impact measurement. Over 450,000 people from across the world have taken these courses.

In addition, we have started in-person fellowship and accelerator programmes to bring some of these lessons to social entrepreneurs and changemakers.

Are there certain gaps in skills and training that you feel entrepreneurs most need to fill so that they can successfully run and scale their inclusive businesses?

Yes. Two of the major themes that cut across our courses and curriculum are a human-centred approach to business and a systems lens.

We have courses that help people understand the human-centred dimensions of the problems they are trying to solve, which requires them to get out and talk to real customers and real people who are affected by the problems or the issue areas they are addressing.

Simultaneously, we also recognise that some of the complex social challenges people are tackling are systemic, which require people to have the skills to build new kinds of partnerships as they build their business models. Therefore, to truly move the needle on some of these issues will require working at that systems level, as well.

As a compliment to these two mindsets, a lot of social changemakers want to develop their hard skills, such as fundraising, financial modelling, unit economics and pitching. We offer courses to help people who are very passionate about social impact and social change understand the numbers behind scaling these kinds of business models.

Is there a certain personality type that is particularly successful at running an inclusive business? Or, do you think that it doesn't matter in the end at all, as long as people have the knowledge in those areas that you just described?

That's a great question. One of the exciting things about running online courses that are freely available is that people all over the world show up and are quite dedicated to doing the work. And so, the course itself becomes a filtering mechanism to finding some of the most promising entrepreneurs. We have had course-takers come from places as diverse as Sierra Leone and Pakistan and inner city Baltimore in the United States, so we really don't see that there is any age limit or any specific kind of demographic profile that predicts who might be most successful.

That said, we serve two kinds of core profiles. One, our entrepreneurs—people that are recognising a unique problem in their local communities and building a business to solve it. And then the other is intrapreneurs—people that work within corporations, non-profits or government agencies, who have been doing this work for five or ten years and recognise that there are areas to innovate or perhaps unique market opportunities that they can fill. We also want to equip them with the tools and skills to create entrepreneurial change, even if that change will take place within an existing organization.

Is there a unique blend of skills that can help entrepreneurs to serve the base of the pyramid?

It starts by being able to deeply understand the social problem that you are trying to solve. And when you are working with bottom of the pyramid customers, you either want to be from those communities or have direct access to really listen to the voices of the people that you are trying to serve, which will allow you to develop an innovative solution that will address those needs directly.

The skills that we try to cultivate there are around listening and human-centred design, and lean data approaches to gather quantitative and qualitative input directly from your market.

People in a seminar room
Participants learning about human-centred design. Photo Credit: +Acumen

Then, secondarily, you need the kind of business and strategic skills to be able to connect whatever needs you see to a market opportunity to clearly define a product or service model that can be repeatedly scaled across markets or geographies. To do this, you need the financial acumen to be able to build a financial model and understand the unit economics of what you're trying to create.

Finally, like I said, you also need the ability to cultivate strategic partnerships, whether that means working with local government, a larger corporation, or other partners in your supply chain, this is typically what is going to help you unlock access to the last-mile customers.

Within inclusive businesses, there is more of a tendency to increase diversity, equity and inclusion. For example, to cultivate female talent at every level of a company. Do you think that these efforts are important given that the social sector is growing so much?

Yes. I think it's very important. We think that social enterprises and other kinds of inclusive business models are going to be more responsive to the needs of the market if the staff and the team that is creating them is diverse and representative of the communities that they are trying to serve. Acumen has a specific focus on gender-lens investing. So, we are looking for business models where female customers are served and where there are female staff who can identify areas for new product or service innovation to serve those market segments. We think that gender-inclusive business models are very important.

For +Acumen itself, we have always seen more females enrolling in our courses and being curious about social impact business models. We think it's quite a promising sign that a diverse array of people from all different countries, all different genders, backgrounds and ethnicities are looking to gain the skills to build these kinds of business models.

That is really interesting. Do you also follow-up with your course participants to survey how many of them then actually have built or scaled their business model?

Yes, we do follow-up. We run both free, open courses and also what we call virtual accelerator programmes, which are for small cohorts of entrepreneurs who are looking to develop a new business model or revenue strategy on a rapid timeline. Those cohorts include about 25 entrepreneurs from around the world who all come together to workshop their ideas over an eight-week period. We follow up with these entrepreneurs to see what the success has been when they implement their idea.

For example, we just had a participant from Kenya who is working on sustainable energy solutions for off-grid customers. He developed that idea through the accelerator programme and is now applying for further funding. That's one example of the kind of student who participates in the accelerator.

Two women and a man with off-grid solar panels
Implementing inclusive business models requires particular sets of skills. Photo Credit: +Acumen

Beyond the online courses and the knowledge you are sharing, do you think that there are other aspects that are important to bridging the talent gap?

Currently a lot of these business training materials are accessible in English and are coming from Western universities or practitioners. Our goal at +Acumen is to build content and curriculum that is going to be representative of all the markets where social enterprises and inclusive business models could be built. And so, we are trying to build case studies of other business models that directly capture the words and insights from local entrepreneurs. Our goal is for successful entrepreneurs in local markets to become the instructors or the leaders helping to share insights directly with their peers so that more of the curriculum can be built by people who know these markets really well, rather than only available online or English-only formats.

Do you have an example of how, through an online course, you tackled a systemic problem related to the talent gap?

Sure. One of the initiatives that we are currently running is around the issue of plastic waste. We partnered with Unilever, which is a very socially-conscious, multinational corporation because they are interested in partnerships with social enterprises that could help reduce post-consumer plastic waste, especially in markets like India, South Africa and Brazil. We are facilitating really interesting, online learning labs and courses between the staff of Unilever and social entrepreneurs in all of these markets, who are looking to build new, inclusive business models that integrate waste pickers and the informal labour sector, and identify new innovations.

This programme is still in the early stages, but we are excited to see what kinds of new solutions come out of it. And I think that this ability to forge partnerships between large corporations and small, grass-roots social enterprises who have access to local markets is going to be one of those key skills that is needed, if we are going to tackle these complex issues like plastic waste or climate change or poverty, in general. We are excited to see where that goes.

Thank you, Amy.