From business to development: 3 things 'sector switchers' should address

After making a career switch from business to international development herself, Monisha Kapila, ProInspire founder, offers her advice to others looking to do the same.

Professionals who want to move into international development often don’t know where to start. When I think about my own experience moving from a career in business to international development, a few things stand out that helped me along the way.

Back in 2001, I was finishing two years as a consultant at Arthur Andersen. I had been promoted, worked with great people and learned a lot from my varying client engagements. But something was missing. I had always envisioned myself making a difference in the world. While my consulting deliverables made a difference to some people, they didn’t really matter in making the world a better place. At the same time, I lost my mom to a five-year battle with breast cancer and realized that life is short.

With two years of work experience under my belt, I decided I was ready to make a transition. I decided to move to India for six months, where I could live with my grandmother in New Delhi, reconnect with my heritage and spend time working at a nongovernmental organization.

I began my search for an opportunity where I could use my skills at an NGO in New Delhi. At that time, there were hardly any programs enabling young people to bring their skills to another country. Nowadays, you can try AIF, Idex, IndiCorps, or a myriad of other programs to work in India.

I searched the Internet, cold-contacted people and talked to anyone who was working in India about my interests. One of those conversations led to my resume being passed to the head of CARE India, which was launching a new project to support microentrepreneurs and artisans in Bhuj reach new markets with their products. The organization needed someone to create a business plan, develop financial models and explore potential partnerships. After a few phone interviews, CARE India agreed to have me as a consultant on the project.

My six months in India laid the foundation for my transition into the nonprofit sector and my eventual decision to launch ProInspire. Upon my return, I joined a nonprofit doing economic development in the United States, the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City. After graduating from Harvard Business School, I became an HBS Leadership Fellow at ACCION International, leading the development of microinsurance products and strategic partnerships for ACCION’s microfinance partners.

During my time at ACCION, I started to think about how to better connect the hundreds of people who were always reaching out to me, eager to use their skills for social impact, but lacking clear paths into organizations.

In 2009, I launched ProInspire, a nonprofit focused on developing the next generation of nonprofit leaders. Our flagship program is the ProInspire Fellowship, which recruits young business professionals to spend one year in a full-time role at a leading nonprofit in Washington, D.C., or the San Francisco Bay Area.

Through ProInspire, I have seen applications from more than 2,000 people eager to use their skills to make a difference. Through this experience, I have identified three key challenges that business professionals should address if they want to move into international development:

1. What can you do for us?

Passion is not enough. You need to clearly identify what you can bring to the organization.

When ACCION was interviewing MBA candidates to launch its microinsurance work, I was competing against very talented candidates. The one advantage I had was some exposure to microinsurance. At the time, this was a nascent field, but I had done a field study in business school and interviewed many of the leaders in the microinsurance space. This study, combined with my experience working with microentrepreneurs in India, helped address their concerns that I would have a steep learning curve as a sector switcher.

I also knew that fluency in Spanish was important for the work. While I could get by with my Spanish, I was not ready to have work meetings in Spanish. During my interviews, I told my interviewers I would spend two months doing a Spanish immersion program after graduation, increasing their confidence that I could hit the ground running.

2. Are you looking to do good work, or just to work with a well-known organization?

I often find that people who want to work in international development are only interested in the three As – ACCION, Acumen and Ashoka. While these three organizations are incredible leaders, there are hundreds of other organizations that are doing great work.

If you limit yourself to only the most well-known organizations, you will force yourself into an even more competitive job landscape in an already competitive industry. You will also limit the connections you can make in the networking process because people will feel that you are using them to make contacts, versus trying to learn more about how you could fit in the industry.

3. Will you do whatever is needed?  

Many sector switchers come in with the mindset that they want to do very specific kinds of work — impact investing, public-private partnerships or strategy. In reality, international development organizations are lean, just like other parts of the nonprofit sector. Show that you are able to jump in wherever you are needed.

When I was at CARE India, my boss’s boss asked me to work on a big U.S. Agency for International Development funding report. Little did I realize that he basically needed me to rewrite the entire report because I had stronger English writing skills. At ACCION, I found a funding opportunity for a project I was leading but our proposal team did not have bandwidth to take it on. So I wrote and submitted the proposal myself.

Did I go into international development thinking I want to write grant reports? No. But I did what was needed and that established my credibility as someone who could be counted on. I also learned a lot from each of those projects.


Explore related content:

  • Career prospects in development’s ‘new world order’

  • From private sector to nonprofit: 4 real-life stories

  • Career change: From corporate diversity director to nonprofit director of corporate relations

Join Devex, the largest online community for international development, to network with peers, discover talent and forge new partnerships - it’s free! Then sign up for the Devex Impact newsletter to receive cutting-edgenews and analysis every month on the intersection of business and development.

About the author

  • Monisha Kapila

    Monisha is the founder and CEO of ProInspire, a nonprofit enabling individuals and organizations achieve their potential for social impact. She spent her career working in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, including Arthur Andersen, Capital One, Citigroup, ACCION International, CARE, and Initiative for a Competitive Inner City.