• Kamael Sugrim

Why I Started Nafasi Ventures

Updated: Jan 23, 2019

Unlike many, my journey towards social impact did not begin with a bad experience in the private sector. It was the opposite.

I studied Economics and Spanish in college, but since there weren't many career options in those fields, I decided to venture into the world of finance.  Investment banking wasn’t the most exciting thing I did, but it was enjoyable and I learned a great deal. There were training programs for recent graduates and I learned the basics of finance, accounting, investing and analytics - skills that I still use on a daily basis. The hours were long, but the pay was great, my colleagues were fun and my managers invested in my professional development. I had time and was encouraged to contribute to social causes.  Many Wall Street firms deeply supported local charities so my teams and I volunteered often and with enthusiasm for organisations like New York Cares, Streetwise Partners, Dress for Success and Junior Achievement. After 5 years I  came to the conclusion that, although I enjoyed many aspects of my job, I was not passionate about being a financial analyst. I decided to return to school for my MBA and figure out what I wanted to do next.  

Perhaps my experience on Wall Street was different from others because of my expectations. I understood and agreed with the principle that corporations needed to earn a profit, return shareholder value and deliver on the products and services they marketed to society. I earned a good salary which allowed me to financially support charities and organisations I believed in. I had enough time to volunteer on my own and with my colleagues. I wasn't dissatisfied with the corporate values around me. I thought the financial sector had more to contribute to social impact than money and employee time, but saw that as an opportunity for innovation rather than a lack of care for the broader world.  

In business school, I explored more social impact topics, particularly around global economic development and, although there were many career opportunities available in the social sector as newly minted Stanford MBA, I decided to return to the corporate world. At the time the social sector's message centered around "corporations hurt society and non-profits help people". This wasn’t my experience - I found my corporate friends to be the biggest advocates of social justice and human equality. I felt like I didn't fit in in the social sector and instead decided to join companies whose values and products I respected.

At SAP and, I really begun to understand the power and potential of the private sector to change the world.  While I was at SAP, their founder, Hasso Plattner, launched the d.School, the birthplace of many great business designs for a better world.  SAP also promoted volunteering and matched my charitable donations.  And before anyone was talking about the environmental harm of plastic and promoting recycling, SAP’s offices were extremely environmentally conscious - no plastic material in the canteens and paperless meetings. Marc Benioff’s view on social impact is in the DNA of and it here that I really came to understand the powerful potential of technology to connect and change the world. At Salesforce, we were encouraged to contribute to society not only with our time, but also with our knowledge. As employees, we worked on many pro-bono projects to implement technology aimed at making charitable organizations more operationally efficient. Every team offsite had a social impact component to it and every employee had 10 paid volunteer days - which I took to build houses for Habitat for Humanity in Botswana and which is what ultimately reconnected me to my passion for international development.

After 5 years in the technology sector, I left Corporate America, started my own social enterprise in India and Nepal, mPowering, went on to launch Stanford University’s Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (SEED) in Africa and led the largest social impact incubator in the world. In the last 10 years I’ve worked with hundreds of government officials, foundations, philanthropists, impact investors, non-profits, leaders and entrepreneurs to reduce poverty, grow local entrepreneurial communities, promote social justice, increase access to finance and reduce environmental harm. While the conversations, actions and outcomes have been inspiring, there has been one voice notably absent in this community - the private sector.

I believe that the private sector can have a transformational impact on people's lives as a creator of jobs and producer of goods and services accessible to a broader population. Aside from pure monetary donations, corporations can have a shared value model, in which they work in alignment with society rather than against it, producing mutual benefits to both the community and the corporation. Corporations can leverage a range of corporate assets including employee skills, business acumen and partner networks, to drive social change.

But how can business leaders put all of this potential into action? I started Nafasi Ventures to solve this problem.  Nafasi helps companies assess their available skills, expertise and partnerships against the touch-points they currently have within their given community. From there, we work with leaders and employees to create new, scalable, innovative and impactful solutions beyond traditional philanthropy and CSR initiatives.

We believe that the greatest untapped resource towards a better world exists in the private sector’s people and business models and we’re here to help realize that potential.

Let's start working on this together.