> Posted by Gracie Raver, Program Coordinator, CFI

Last week 69 financial inclusion leaders from 31 countries arrived at Harvard Business School’s campus to attend the 11th annual HBS-Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance. The 2016 class brought together a diverse group of experienced leaders including financial service providers, investors, network practitioners, policy makers, and technology innovators to discuss the most pressing issues in the inclusive finance industry. The intensive six-day course was once again led by world-renowned HBS professors, Michael Chu and V. Kasturi Rangan, both senior affiliates of the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative. As the program coordinator for the 2016 program, I had the pleasure of attending the course as an observer.

The energy of the classroom was contagious, and thought-provoking conversations turned up everywhere. Even in the limited break time the schedule allowed, you found participants sharing thoughts in elevators or asking follow-up questions over the dinner table. Through immersion in case studies and group discussions, the participants explored some of the current challenges facing the field of financial inclusion. Each day’s topic focused on a new theme, and the professors asked class members to put themselves into the shoes of the executive leadership of organizations they were studying.

Participating in this extraordinary program has changed how I view inclusive finance, and in many ways, provided just as many questions as answers.  Below are some of my personal takeaways:

  1. How can the policy-making process redefine the relationship between financial service providers and regulators? This year’s course debuted a case study on Bolivia’s BancoSol and the strategic decisions the MFI faced in light of the 2013 banking law. The new law called for a decrease in interest rates as well as an increase in loans made to the “productive sector” (manufacturing as opposed to commercial businesses). The law required the diversification of financial services and changes in operation for most institutions, including BancoSol. The case stressed the importance of avoiding mission-drift in response to external pressures; however, it also emphasized the dialogue BancoSol’s leaders conducted with regulators. This made me rethink the relationship between financial service providers and regulators. It seems that more client-focused policy is created when both sides communicate clearly and openly.
  2. There may be no “one way” to be an impact investor, but what’s my preferred approach? Looking at the business models of Acumen Fund and the Omidyar Network, the class discussed how these organizations seek sustainability while remaining customer and mission focused. Though both models acknowledged the need for scale, the organizations used differing metrics for evaluating investment opportunities. In short, Acumen Fund focused more on profitability while Omidyar Network sought to integrate measures of social impact into its investment strategy. When asked which strategy they preferred, the class was divided roughly down the middle. This insight broadened my definition of impact investing and made me realize there’s more flexibility than I previously thought.
  3. What technological innovations will radically change the industry? It’s obvious that technology is disrupting financial services and changing the customer experience. While it was fascinating to take a look at services that have already successfully been integrated into the inclusive finance landscape, the program opened my eyes to changes that may be next – robo-advising, cryptocurrency, the internet of things… With technological advances developing so fast, leaders in inclusive finance must make an effort to better understand these new tools so they can envision what is to come.

One of my favorite parts of the course was listening to participants offer different perspectives and suspend judgment in the face of opposing opinions. By freely offering thoughts, the participants enriched the course and gave it a flavor unique to this year. Unfortunately, the class can’t meet on HBS’s beautiful campus on a regular basis to exchange ideas, but together they created a diverse network with a wealth of experience that can be used as a support system. I hope they make it a priority to stay connected long after the program’s end, even if the occasional disagreement ensues!

Throughout the program, many participants expressed to me appreciation of the rare opportunity to step away from their daily routines and connect with colleagues from around the globe. While it’s clear an intense level of learning took place over the course of those six days, I think we all can agree that the real work will begin as the participants return home and seek to implement their new ideas and key takeaways in the organizations they continue to influence and lead. So I end this post with my most pressing question yet: what great things for financial inclusion will the HBS-Accion class of 2016 do next?

Have you read?

Celebrating 10 Years! Dispatch from the 2015 HBS-Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance

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

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