This was one professor’s amused (and insightful) remark when I showed her the scope of work for my internship just before I left for my summer at USAID. Within a few days on the job, I quickly realized my professor was right. Fortunately, this made for both a challenging and exceptionally valuable learning experience.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity last summer to intern with the Global Partnerships Team within USAID’s Global Development Lab. One of the Partnership Team’s main focus areas is entrepreneurship, including finding ways to bridge what is known as the ‘pioneer gap.’ The pioneer gap in this context describes the disconnect that persists between investors and early-stage entrepreneurs in the developing world. Entrepreneurs have great ideas for businesses that will create jobs and provide much-needed goods and services. Investors want to invest capital in great ideas, often to generate a financial return and/or create a social impact.
One way that USAID is working to bridge the pioneer gap is through the Partnering to Accelerate Entrepreneurship (PACE) Initiative, which includes around a dozen public-private partnerships across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Each PACE partnership model is unique, but all share the goal of helping early-stage entrepreneurs refine their business models to attract more private investment.
While more time and data are needed to fully analyze all the individual PACE models, one summer was enough to convince me that PACE-like partnerships have significant potential to bridge the pioneer gap. Two of my most significant learnings were the following (the first involves a common misperception corrected and the second involves a firmly held personal belief further confirmed):
- Foreign aid can be smart, targeted, and data-driven. People may imagine foreign aid as the government simply giving money away. While this can be true, it is not the full story. PACE provides an excellent example of how government can target its resources to promote sustainable, bottom-up solutions. By empowering other committed stakeholders and encouraging them to develop financially self-sustaining models, PACE creates a multiplier effect – increasing the impact of each dollar and ensuring this impact continues long after USAID’s grant funding is spent.
- What matters is the people. I learned this in my previous jobs in the private and nonprofit sectors, but I realized it is equally or more important in the public sector. The job of managing PACE partnerships cannot be filled by just anyone. The core PACE team members, Rob Schneider and Matt Guttentag, have an exceptional skillset. They could speak the language and understand the motivations of every stakeholder in a partnership. They adapted their style seamlessly to facilitate collaboration between groups from every imaginable sector and geography. They approached grantee relationships as true thought partnerships. Rob and Matt embody the concept of tri-sector leadership, and anything less than this caliber would undervalue the potential impact of these partnerships.
Overall, my internship left me feeling inspired, hopeful, and filled with a renewed sense of urgency. But it also confirmed a hard truth - there is not going to be a single breakthrough moment or concept that will suddenly empower entrepreneurs to eliminate poverty overnight. A robust ecosystem is needed to nurture and sustain entrepreneurship. Building ecosystems takes time. And of course, entrepreneurship is only one piece of the puzzle. But the absence of entrepreneurship is both a cause and consequence of poverty, which makes it a profoundly powerful piece of the puzzle.
I am excited to see how the PACE partnerships unfold and help solve this puzzle, as well as how they improve countless people’s lives along the way.