> Posted by Sarah Samuels, Operations Specialist, CFI

A few weeks ago, 70 financial inclusion leaders from around the globe made their way to Harvard Business School’s freshly blooming campus for the ninth annual HBS-Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance. This year’s class was a diverse group of financial service providers, investors, regulators, policymakers, risk managers, and technology innovators, bringing their vast experience from 35 countries. The program content mirrored the industry’s transition from a microfinance focus toward a broader financial inclusion and impact investing scope. Renowned professors Michael Chu and V. Kasturi Rangan, both senior affiliates of Harvard’s Social Enterprise Initiative, led the six-day course.

The week began with vigor, with the group engaged in a lively discussion on the case of Grupo Elektra, a Mexican retail and finance corporation that began offering financial services after first creating a consumer retail network. The case sparked a lively debate about whether social intention is necessary for social impact. Elektra has brought financial services to millions of Mexicans, but has never identified its purpose as social. Can it receive recognition as a social venture? The question of whether social and financial returns work together or whether they are at odds reappeared throughout the week. It was an undeniably controversial but important concept, and increasingly so as it’s nearly impossible to talk about poverty alleviation these days without impact investing coming into the conversation. One day of the course was focused on the role of impact investors and their investee companies, both within the financial sector and beyond.

2014 HBS-Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance participants

As an observer of the course this year, I had the opportunity to see firsthand what hot-button issues prompted the most debate and disagreement. It is truly incredible how rich the quality of discussion is when you bring leaders from 35 different cultures together.

After the program, Eduardo Suescun from Finamerica in Colombia expressed my sentiment exactly, saying, “The program changes the way you think….it makes you think outside the building… It opens up your mind of how you see and prepare for the future.”

A collaborative industry-wide program such as this, built on case discussions gives us time to build and reflect on our work amidst a community of practitioners who make us question our beliefs and view challenges in a different light.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the HBS-Accion Program brings next year, but for now I’m excited to hear how participants changed as a result of this year’s course. After all, that is the purpose of a program like this, right? We actively learn, digest, and hopefully we’ve been inspired enough to apply what we learned when we return to the field.

Have you read?

Four Challenges for Impact Investing

Your Neighborhood Bank, Walmart?

Dispatch from Harvard Business School — Relating Social and Financial Value