KauffmanWomen: Q&A with Sarah Burch (KF 25), MD of Rippleworks

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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