KauffmanWomen: Q&A with Sarah Burch (KF 25), MD of Rippleworks
In the latest installment of KauffmanWomen, we chat with Sarah Burch (Kauffman Fellows Class 25), who is a founding team member and Managing Director at Rippleworks, an organization that helps social enterprises scale by providing access to world-class operating expertise and resources.
Sarah has over a decade of experience helping to finance and scale emerging market entrepreneurs and is passionate about helping them gain the mindset and capabilities required to balance the scale, impact, and sustainability of their business. Sarah’s specialty lies at the intersection of operations, investment, and emerging markets where she has developed a deep understanding of social ventures, the challenges CEOs face, and best practices for growth.
Q: A recent Rippleworks study found that one of the top long-term challenges for social enterprises is talent acquisition/retention. In today’s labor market, companies in all sectors are struggling to attract and retain top talent. As someone who has supported many founders navigating talent challenges, what advice do you have for leaders and organizations that are grappling with The Great Resignation?
A: I have worked hands-on with a number of founders over the years — both as a funder and as an operator.
The big differentiator between the social enterprises that I’ve seen successfully grow compared to the ones that stumble is the founder’s views on people and talent.
Most CEOs have deeply understood the pressures of attracting top talent. The area where CEOs and founders tend to underinvest is retaining their team. A big lever for retaining staff is helping the people on their current teams grow or learn new skills. As we know in scaling startups and social enterprises, your job can evolve quickly to meet the ever-changing needs of a rapidly growing startup. I have seen a number of founders creating a culture of learning within their companies and providing resources for their current team to learn and grow. They understand that in today’s labor market, the best way to win is to invest in their current team and help their team build new skills and capabilities.
Q: For the first time in the history of venture capital, there’s more money than startups, and VCs are competing for seats at the cap table. However, historically there’s been less investment money available to social enterprises. Is that still true today? How are you helping social ventures navigate this dramatically different investment landscape?
A: For the first time in the history of venture capital, there’s more money than startups, and VCs are competing for seats at certain cap tables. Also, access to financial capital continues to be unequal, particularly in the Global South.
There are fantastic, scalable startups that have a social mission but can’t get access to capital because they don’t have the right networks, there is a communication barrier, or the investors don’t understand how to quantify risks/rewards in emerging markets.
To address this challenge, Rippleworks is evolving our focus to keep supporting growth-stage social enterprises while also starting to support earlier-stage social enterprises. We believe that our support will help companies hit the grow-curve quicker and therefore attract more money to different markets.
Q: You are a founding team member at Rippleworks — over the last 6+ years, what are some of the most significant or meaningful pivots you’ve overseen as it relates to Rippleworks’ product offering, measurement frameworks, or ways in which the org has democratized its learnings to the larger ecosystem? Two years into your Rippleworks journey, your role dramatically shifted from that of an individual contributor to a manager and leader. On a personal growth level, how did that change you?
A: The last six years have been an incredible journey. We’ve grown from four people sitting around a table to 40 people around the country. Over the last three years, in particular, we’ve undergone the same scaling journey that Rippleworks supports social enterprises through and it just reinforced that scaling a company is incredibly hard.
Over the last 6 years, we’ve come up with new products and services to support scaling social ventures. We’ve gone from working purely on solving operational challenge issues to creating an investment strategy that has deployed over $75 million, to developing a leadership studio for rising managers all aimed at supporting social enterprises.
On the personal side, the journey that Rippleworks has gone through is similar to the journey that I’ve gone through; a lot of change and evolution in a short period of time. I shifted from an individual contributor who worked closely with our CEOs and Silicon Valley experts to a manager and a leader who still needed to support our founders while also building a diverse, dynamic team. I stumbled a lot and received a lot of tough-love feedback from my peers, coach, and direct reports. Honestly, the Kauffman Fellows program really helped me find my authentic leadership style while also creating a community where I can learn through others. I know that I will experience more growth and change in the coming days, weeks, years. I’m grateful to have a supportive community to help me keep learning.
Q: Rippleworks has supported 200+ short-term, high-impact projects, where social ventures work closely alongside leading Silicon Valley executives to tackle top operational challenges. What are some of the organizations that you’re the most excited about?
Rippleworks has supported so many inspiring, fantastic CEOs over the years. It has been a privilege to work with them hands-on and help them solve tough operational challenges that are needed to unlock growth.
Two social ventures, in particular, come to mind as ones to look out for. The first one is Geekie, a Brazilian data-driven education platform. Claudio Sassaki, the CEO, is incredibly visionary and tenacious. Since we started working with Geekie, they have grown over 200% and now serve 12 million students in Brazil. The second is Farmerline, an ag-tech social enterprise in Ghana. They connect farmers to quality trainings, inputs, and markets while also connecting agribusinesses, food manufacturers, etc to the commodities needed for their businesses. Alloysius Attah, CEO, and his co-founder, Emmanuel O. Addai started this company with $600 USD right out of college and has grown to be one of the largest private employers in the Ghanaian agriculture sector. We first worked with them in 2018 and since then, they have grown their customer base 300%. These are just two examples. We have worked with so many amazing social enterprises and there are so many more out there.
Q: You have a very unique background with experience building an innovation fund within government and founding a crypto-backed foundation. How did you get your start in VC and what ultimately drew you to working with social enterprises?
Having a social mission has always been important to me and I have never really considered working outside the impact space. I was lucky to be part of the impact investing and social entrepreneurship space early.
I joined USAID almost right out of college and ended up in a new innovation team that was focused on creating a VC-type fund to complement the agency’s more traditional development programs. The more I got exposed to Silicon Valley VCs, social enterprises, and impact-oriented founders, the more I fell in love with social entrepreneurship.
I think there is a clear role for traditional development assistance but I believe social enterprises can try new things quicker, iterate faster, and scale more sustainably. On a more personal level, I want to see the impact I’m having more quickly and clearly. I think this rapid feedback happens the most with growth-stage companies. So, this is what keeps me deeply motivated to keep working with these scaling social enterprises.
Q: What woman leader inspires you the most?
A: Johanna Posada, Founder and Managing Partner at Elevar Equity, I first met Johanna 10+ years ago when I was working at Development Innovation Ventures (DIV). Over the years, she has been a tremendous resource for me at the different stages of my career. Her belief in me is inspiring; she has called me out on things I’ve needed to change, and her probing questions reflect a very deep and thoughtful approach to me and my role in the impact sector. When I was admitted to the Kauffman Fellows Program I knew I had to ask her to be my Kauffman mentor. She has modeled for me what a true mentor and sponsor should be. I channel her when I work with other women leaders at Rippleworks and with our social enterprises.
Q: How have you leveraged the KF network and what have you enjoyed most about the program?
A: The program has been transformational for me, both as an individual and as a leader. The Kauffman concept of “behaviorial fitness” helped me understand that the habits I am going to learn through the Kauffman program are going to set me up for the rest of my career. Also, the practical tools that we’ve used throughout the program — such as the Zone of Genius or the Enneagram — have really grounded me in a deeper understanding of who I am as a leader and as a person. Finally, I have to mention the supportive community of my forum and Class 25. They have seen me go through a number of trials at work and support me every step of the way. I am beyond grateful to have this kind of support in my life.
Q: What’s the Rippleworks vision 5 years from now? 10 years from now? If Rippleworks is completely successful in what it does, how will it change the impact sector and the world for good?
A: The ecosystem is evolving so quickly that 5 years seems like a lifetime.
Rippleworks’ goal is to help social enterprises scale. We are always going to focus on how we can do that better, in a way that isn’t duplicative but additive to what other resources are already available.
In this evolving and dynamic ecosystem, we believe that the best way to keep in touch is by putting the social enterprise at the center of our decision-making. Tactically, we do this through frequent and extensive customer interviews. For example, we’ve trained our full team on how to do customer interviews so that we can constantly be looking for insights that we can incorporate into our products and services. Ultimately, our goal is to keep evolving our approach so that we are always providing value to social enterprises.