> Posted by Nelly Agyemang-Gyamfi, Program Coordinator, CFI

On the 6th of April, 68 financial inclusion stakeholders from 23 countries across the globe arrived in (a thankfully snowless) Boston to commence the 10th annual HBS-Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance. Over the past decade, the deeply immersive, week-long program has trained over 660 high-level executives from more than 250 organizations spanning 90 countries. As in past years, this year’s program was held on the beautiful campus of the Harvard Business School and led by world-renowned HBS professors Michael Chu and V. Kasturi Rangan. As a Center for Financial Inclusion staff member who helped organize the course, I was privileged to take part, and I offer these reflections on what I saw and learned.

Participants were exposed to a wide range of issues pertinent to inclusive finance, from managing political uncertainty to impact investing and measurement. This year, reflecting the changing landscape of inclusive finance, the course included seven new sessions including cases on China’s CreditEase, Massachusetts’ Pay-for-Success, and Peru’s Edyficar.

To be an observer of all the happenings was exhilarating. Discussions were extremely lively with points and counterpoints that reflected the unique perspectives of the various industries represented – microfinance providers, technology companies, regulators, investors, and so forth. For me, one of the best parts was when lessons learned from cases that seemed far from financial inclusion were applied in tangible terms to the industry.

From my humble point of view, four of the main takeaways from the week were:

  1. Make sure you are addressing your customers’ pain points. Do not just offer them products YOU think they need. In the session on mobile banking, for example, what Kenya’s population wanted was a way to transfer money to the rural areas to support their families. M-Pesa met this need and a study conducted showed that M-Pesa users were twice as likely to have had a bank account and be wealthier than non-users.
  2. Addressing your customers’ pain points can lead to increased sustainability as your customer becomes your advocate. Such was the case with the Manila Water Company where members of the community showed up to a regulatory committee hearing to support the company’s request to increase its rates.
  3. There is a need to boil down financial inclusion into a manageable piece for your organization. Decide on what you want to achieve and focus on it. Not every organization can effectively tackle all the dimensions of financial inclusion (e.g. offering not just savings, but also credit and insurance and so on). This was illustrated in the healthcare context through the Aravind Eye Hospital. The hospital determined that their expertise in the fight against blindness in India was curing the problem as opposed to preventing it. Now, the hospital system has seen upwards of 32 million patients and conducted nearly 4 million cataract surgeries.
  4. Once you decide what you want to achieve, do not be afraid to explore other avenues within that focus. Stretch your mission but do not drift from it. At the Aravind Eye Hospital, having decided that their expertise in the fight against blindness was providing cures, leaders decided to expand by offering optometry services in addition to cataract surgeries.

If you are interested in experiencing the HBS-Accion Program for yourself, look out for announcements about the 2016 application period which opens in November.

Have you read?

Seventy Global Leaders Convene for HBS-Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance

Dispatch from Harvard Business School — Relating Social and Financial Value

Optimism in the Wake of Crisis: A Week at the HBS-Accion Program