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Impact Insights

SEI25 Series: Donella Rapier (MBA 1992), President and CEO, BRAC USA

By: Donella Rapier 28 Feb 2019

This post is part of our Social Enterprise Initiative 25th anniversary blog series, which highlights some of the faculty, staff, students, and alumni who have been a part of SEI throughout the years. In this post, Donella Rapier (MBA 1992), shares her perspective on social enterprise. 

How would you describe the social impact you seek to have in the world? 

Everything I have done since I moved into the social impact space more than a decade ago has been working towards a world where extreme poverty and inequities in health, education, and economic opportunity no longer exist. My goal in all of this is to help enable people who face these inequities to have more control over their futures and improve their lives.

How is the organization in which you’re involved pursuing social change? 

BRAC is doing so much to pursue social change, from education to healthcare to microfinance. Two of the most notable aspects of BRAC’s work include our Ultra-Poor Graduation program and our social enterprises.

Our Ultra-Poor Graduation approach supports families to overcome the worst forms of destitution, and in just a matter of years, ‘graduate’ into sustainable livelihoods. The approach recognizes the complex needs of people living in extreme poverty and comprehensively addresses them—with healthcare, nutrition, financial literacy, mentorship, livelihoods training, and access to education for their children. This program is transformative for nearly every household that participates. To date, BRAC has reached more than 1.9 million households directly, with more than 95% staying on a positive economic trajectory after the program ends. BRAC is also providing advisory services, helping other organizations learn how to adapt and implement the program and changing the way governments and nonprofits address extreme poverty globally.

BRAC also runs a number of social enterprises that complement its work. In fact, around three quarters of our budget in Bangladesh is self-funded by the enterprises. Each enterprise is designed to help solve a problem related to poverty, but also to generate a profit. For example, BRAC Dairy was designed to help marginal and homestead dairy farmers gain better access to the market and receive fair prices. Aarong, an ethical fashion retail chain, was established to create sustainable livelihood opportunities for women seamstresses and handicrafters.

What is one interesting/exciting trend or issue that our readers should be aware of? 

I am encouraged that there has been an increasing focus recently on early childhood development (ECD), particularly for children in the developing world. Ninety percent of a child’s brain is developed by age five, so those early years are incredibly important. Often when children aged 0-5 do not receive the right kind of brain stimulation, they fall behind their peers and never catch up. That is why the increasing focus that researchers, funders, and civil society organizations are taking on ECD is really exciting, and something that people interested in the social sector should be aware of. For instance, BRAC has pioneered a play-based ECD model for low-resource settings in three countries, and the LEGO Foundation has recently invested in porting this model to a humanitarian setting. There are a number of organizations working on new programs and research along these lines, which is really exciting for the social sector.

What advice would you give to other alumni or students interested in pursuing a career in the social sector? 

First of all, it’s often a difficult choice to pursue a career in the social sector, because it most often means limiting your future earning potential. However, when I transitioned from the private sector to the nonprofit sector, many people told me that the psychic rewards are really incredible. I have found that they are much more profound than I had even imagined. To know that you are playing a role in helping people in poverty is so incredibly gratifying, and well worth the sacrifices.

I’m approached sometimes weekly by people in the private sector who, at this stage in their career, envy me for having a position that is so deeply meaningful, and are eager to transition to a role like this—but often they haven't invested time early in their career, and it’s hard for a social sector organization to take a bet on them late in the game. So my advice would be that if you’re moved by the social sector, you should move earlier in your career. Additionally, building a solid base of core skills—like finance, human resources, communications, and fundraising—can be instrumental for roles in the social sector and are transferable from the private sector, particularly if someone is transitioning later in their career.