by Patrick Starr, MBA ’14 and Environmental Finance and Impact Investing Fellow
SSG Advisors, a boutique international development consulting firm based in Burlington, VT, was looking to evolve as a company, and they hired me to help them figure out where to go.
My path to business school was anything but traditional, so I knew that my internship would likely be the same. Not only was I trying to conjoin my previous two careers of management consulting and international development into one job, but I was targeting companies that did not do any on-campus recruiting or any formal recruiting at all, for that matter! After a stressful internship search that continued well after classes ended and finals were graded, several opportunities came through in the same week. Among them was SSG Advisors – a small international development consulting firm in Burlington, VT.
I jumped at the chance to join them for the summer!
At first, I was a little hesitant to move up to northern Vermont for the summer, far from family, friends, and classmates, and not exactly a hotspot for MBAs. But I soon fell in love with the town. For a small city, reminiscent of a grown-up version of Ithaca (complete with a bustling Commons area known as Church Street), Burlington has a tremendous amount to offer. Not only is the weather during the summer amazing, but the setting is nothing short of spectacular. Settled in the Green Mountains on the shores of Lake Champlain, Burlington may be small in size, but the natural beauty more than makes up for any shortcomings.
I also quickly learned that Vermont, and Burlington in particular, is very committed to sustainable agriculture and local sourcing for food supply. This meant that delicious and fresh food, on par with what you would find in the most competitive markets in New York City or Chicago, was the norm and was enjoyed on a regular basis by all Vermonters. I was further astonished by the extent of the microbrewery industry in the area. Some of the most well-regarded beers in the world are brewed in and around Burlington, which appealed to my taste buds just fine! Spending ten weeks in a location where thousands of people come to vacation every summer suddenly seemed like a brilliant idea. I just wish I had planned it that way from the outset.
I took the internship with SSG Advisors, because the role seemed to accomplish my career goal, combining my experience in government consulting at PwC with my international development experience from the Peace Corps. My task for the summer was to help the firm figure out how to grow. Specifically, SSG wanted me to look into impact investing and to figure out how the firm might pivot into this space. So while I may not have landed an internship at an impact investing firm, as I had initially hoped, I found an even more intriguing opportunity – figuring out how to build a business in the impact investing industry.
To start, SSG was at a crossroads in its growth as a firm. After successfully building a consulting practice working on public-private partnerships through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), SSG had diversified its expertise into a number of different technical areas, supporting projects in countries as far-flung as Bosnia, Pakistan, Ghana, and the Philippines to name only a few. Suffice it to say, SSG had experience working in markets that few firms its size would be able to count as regions of expertise.
Now that a steady supply of funds was coming in the door from contract awards through USAID, the founders wanted to grow the firm and diversify its revenue base. The firm, known in the industry for its innovative approach to development, also wanted to maintain that image and to remain on the cutting-edge. For my project I was tasked to research two business opportunities in addition to impact investing; however, I quickly found that SSG did not have the same types of opportunities available in these other two areas as it had in the impact investing space.
In deference to the proprietary nature of the assignment, I will keep my comments on my specific findings at a fairly high level. SSG is already positioned nicely in markets that are becoming more and more attractive for investors seeking double-digit returns. With the cool down in China and the passing of the financial crisis, there is a lot of money looking beyond the traditional BRICs and emerging markets into the truly frontier markets where the risks are high, but the returns can be enormous. SSG, with its extensive knowledge of frontier markets business environments, staff already in the field, and experience in catalyzing investment through its work with USAID, is poised to help advise investors as they begin to enter these markets. By following the methodologies I learned in the Core Johnson classes (especially Core Strategy), and completing a research and analysis process similar to the one we learned in the SGE Immersion, I felt well prepared to tackle the somewhat nebulous task of creating a business plan.
After many weeks of background research on the firm itself and on the international development industry and after several presentations to the founders and the rest of the firm, the final plan is in place. Because SSG is a smaller firm, there were many constraints I had to keep in mind when creating this strategy, but the final plan helps SSG pivot into the frontier markets investment advisory space, while minimizing risk and resource allocation. I even helped the firm take the first step in my plan by connecting them with contacts at the first key client. With any luck, SSG will start bidding on and winning projects with the new clients before the end of the summer.
It can be difficult to find an internship where your work will have a lasting impact on the company, but I would say my experience provided exactly that type of opportunity. The materials I produced will actually be used by the firm after I leave, and they have built the foundation for the future direction of the firm. SSG is already starting down the path I charted for them, and their evolution as a firm is well underway.