Inspiring Capital was started as a consulting firm to help nonprofits find more sustainable ways to finance their work. We had a few nonprofits and some funders as clients. We were talking to LOTS of nonprofits and funders about their interest in our work, but many of them didn’t have the time or money to engage us.
In February, our very first employee pointed out that it was the season to recruit a summer MBA intern if we wanted one. We did: they’re smart, hard working, and subsidized by their schools! So we created a simple application, and our very first intern posted it on a bunch of schools’ career pages, as well as a range of social enterprise job sites. About two weeks later, we had 72 applications from outstanding candidates at Columbia, Harvard, Wharton, Yale, and other top business schools.
We couldn’t imagine choosing just one of those 72 talented young professionals who wanted to be part of our work. So we started imagining what it would look like to hire a few. Or half a dozen. Or 10… We also knew that there were tons of organizations who were interested in the services we had been offering, to help with their financial and/or strategic plans.
We decided that we'd pilot a sort of hybrid fellowship / incubator program. It would be a fellowship for the students, with a group of peers they could learn from and with, and a series of training sessions that we’d organize for the whole group. And they’d spend most of the summer working on a client project that we could source and scope for them before summer. This way, they’d get the perks of a ‘traditional’ MBA internship (at a bank or consulting firm), including a cohort, training, and on-the-job experience, but in the social enterprise sector!
For the clients, it would be a low-risk, cost-effective way to get the financial and strategic insight they were seeking. They didn’t have to spend time recruiting, training, or managing an MBA themselves, but they would get all the benefit of having not only one student, but a group of students backed by a professional consulting firm, working on their project!
So we built the first version of our still-infamous selection process to decide among 72 stars, and made offers, ending up with a lucky group of eight, from a range of the world’s top business schools. And later took on the 8th: a very special Harvard engineer, who had just finished her BS, but we were sure would be up for the challenge, and fit a client’s request for an operations manual perfectly!
Now that we had 8 incredible purpose-driven business minds, we started talking to potential clients. We didn’t know exactly what the summer would look like, but we were sure that we had super smart talent on our hands. We spread the word through friends, partners, and networks, and with a few hiccups along the way, ended up with 8 awesome fellows and 8 equally awesome client organizations.
On June 6, 2014, the fellows all showed up for Day One! By our Showcase on August 14, we were a tightly knit group and clients were massively satisfied and much closer, in different ways, to a clear way forward to improve their organizations’ financial viability.
The conclusion from our pilot was that it worked! So we hit the road in Fall 2014 to recruit officially for what was now ‘a thing’. We went to Wharton, NYU, Columbia, MIT, Harvard, and Yale, and appeared virtually at Tuck, Kellogg, Booth, and Duke. Over twice as many candidates applied, nearing 200 MBA applicants for summer 2015!
Inspired (and coerced!) by an undergrad guinea pig from summer 2014, we also built a formal undergraduate offering for even younger professionals to get exposure to the social sector and strategic consulting work. About 50 applicants led to 7 outstanding inaugural participants in the 2015 Social Enterprise Summer Training Institute: AKA our Zesty SESTIs!
Way back in Spring 2014, when we talked to people about the MBA fellowship, the most common response was, “That’s awesome, but what about me? I’m not an MBA, but I’d like a program like that!” The most compelling group for us was women who had chosen to take time away from formal work to focus on family responsibilities and now wanted an onramp back to flexible, fulfilling work.
So true to our word, we started building our ‘Returnship’ program in Fall 2014. We talked to networks of women, individuals, employers, career coaches, and anyone else who would listen. And we built a pilot Women's Fellowship – very much a ‘minimum viable product’ per the wisdom of the Lean Startup methodology – that ran in Spring 2015, and then a full-blown version in Fall 2015.
The next round of feedback has been from our former consultants, who are most keen to get exposure to IC’s operations as a startup, rather than consulting for our clients, which they’ve been doing some version of for years. So in addition to the 2016 MBA Fellowship, we've created an opportunity open only to candidates with at least two years of consulting experience. They’ll work for IC directly, with an assignment related to our own organizational growth and responsibility for overseeing other fellows’ external projects for IC clients. This will provide consulting vets the opportunity to gain the skills necessary to transition to a startup, as well as doing partner-level work of supervising a portfolio of consulting projects.
How could you and your team use these offerings to grow your work? Are we missing a need that you and your team feel?