In 2008 I sat in the offices of a big Wall Street firm for a job interview as an investment researcher. This was just as the financial crisis had begun. Panic was on the rise. The negative repercussions of subprime mortgages and unethical lending practices were sending shockwaves felt far away. Somehow, none of this came up in my interview. There were no challenging conversations about the business of investment. I left asking myself if fulfilling a childhood dream was worth surrendering my core values.
I grew up in Nairobi, one of five girls. Our parents encouraged us to strive and by the age of 16 I was pretty sure I knew my path. I had the chance to go to the Nairobi Stock Exchange, and at the time only two women worked the floor as traders. I wanted to work in their world. I was good with numbers. Commerce was my favorite subject, and the energy pumping through the trade floor was addictive. Wall Street was the center of international financial, so that was where I needed to be. I put a lot of effort to get good grades to land my dream job.
Sitting in that interview, I just couldn’t bring myself to take that step. I wanted to work where people considered the repercussions of their actions for all stakeholders, not just to the bottom line. I grew up in a community that took care of its own, and Catholic school had embedded in me a strong sense of social impact.
I wanted to work in a place that combines profit and purpose, a place where you don’t leave your core values at home. Back to Nairobi I went, where I faced the expectations of my family. All African parents hope and pray for their kids to have a good job. With high unemployment rates, it’s great if you can secure any job.
So, I found myself crunching numbers at one of the top companies in Nairobi. I began to dread going to work where I put in long, unfulfilling hours. When my parents eased up and encouraged me to leave my job, I knew something was really wrong.
With a renewed focus to look for work at for-profit entities with purpose, my first step was working at a microfinance rating agency as a social analyst. We supported MFIs to evaluate how well they executed their mission to clients, workers, and the community at large. It was a great job, and it was proof of concept that companies can be both profit and impact driven. I wanted to explore whether this might work in other sectors.
I had a passing conversation with my friend and the very next day she sent along a job listing for a non-profit looking to hire an analyst in Nairobi. It was B Lab. I jumped at the opportunity, and quickly found my tribe.
B Lab is a nonprofit organization that supports a global movement of people using business as a force for good. Our vision is for companies to compete to not only be the best in the world, but to be best for the world. We certify high impact for-profit organizations as B Corporations, and then provide tools for other organizations to follow. These tools include a free impact assessment, a database that aggregates and analyzes the assessment data, and a legal framework that enables mission alignment for companies. We then inspire billions of consumers, workers, investors and others to support businesses acting as a force for good.
Over 6 years at B Lab I supported companies measuring impact, and then moved on to support B Lab’s global expansion. Then the opportunity to launch B Lab East Africa came my way.
We are now 5 months in operation, with offices set up in Nairobi. It has been exhilarating and scary. Bringing the B Movement to any new market is quite an undertaking, but in a good way. Entering a market long dominated by government, aid organizations, and multi-nationals comes with challenges. Slowly though over the past few years entrepreneurship has taken root in the region. Social entrepreneurship, along with sustainable and responsible business practices are becoming mainstream. Things are moving quickly here and there’s no better time for the birth of B Lab East Africa.
My hope, and that of the B Community is to see this movement take root in a region. B Lab sees a future where micro, small, and medium enterprises, multinationals, governments, and investors all come together to address the challenges that the region faces. This creates shared and durable prosperity for all.
I’ll keep you all updated on how things progress over the coming months. Stay tuned.
Olivia Muiru is a member of the 2017 cohort of the Emerging Leaders Initiative, which supports the next generation of social entrepreneurs around the world.