Michael MacHarg is a 2009 graduate of the Daytime MBA Program. Michael has worked with the Social Development Department of the World Bank, was on the founding team of the first nonprofit pharmaceutical company, the Institute for OneWorld Health and consulted to the social venture capital fund, Acumen Fund. After Fuqua, he co-founded Simpa Networks and is now a Senior Advisor to the Social Ventures team at MercyCorps.
Why did you choose Fuqua?
I always had an interest in the social impact space, but I decided to go back to school later than most. I had been out of undergrad for a decade and had just spent the previous five years launching an enterprise in global health called One World Health – a nonprofit model for pharmaceuticals. I came out of that experience saying, “I want to be in the social impact space and I had this experience with a nonprofit, but it would be interesting to see some of these models on the for profit side.” I knew I needed core business tools like accounting, but I was specifically looking for a school that had a strong emphasis on social impact and social entrepreneurship.
I was most attracted to Fuqua because it has a strong emphasis on social impact. I was also attracted to Duke University in the larger sense as well. Being at Duke, I could stay in the Global Health space, build connections with the Duke Medical School and Sanford School of Public Policy. This interdisciplinary aspect was really attractive to me.
What activities helped propel you to your post-graduate career and eventually launching your own social enterprise?
CASE had a huge influence on me through the CASE Scholarship and the network of CASE Scholars. CASE provided me the resources to work with Acumen Fund in East Africa, where I eventually met my co-founder, Jacob Winiecki, through some mutual friends. We formed a partnership that eventually led to Simpa Networks, a ventured-backed technology company that aims to make modern energy affordable and accessible to everyone. Outside of CASE, Fuqua gave me the opportunity to pursue independent studies, which enabled me to do the work I wanted to do and set the path for my own social enterprise.
Could you describe your social venture, Simpa Networks?
Simpa Networks came out of the initial introduction to my eventual co-founder, Jacob Winiecki, when I was in East Africa. I carried out an independent study with the group he was working with at the time, Arc Finance, to look at how energy enterprises can serve the base-of-the-pyramid population. After graduating, I began working with Jacob in Arc Finance. Our third co-founder, Paul Needham, was in Vancouver at the time trying to hatch different ideas about how we could change the structure of financing and pricing solar equipment. We focused on technologies that were applicable to the lives of those who needed power: small devices, lights, and radios. However, the upfront cost of these technologies was too high. The product itself must be financed. From that came Simpa Networks, a new way of selling solar energy. We focused initially on India, where it employed a pay as you go scheme that allows customers to pay off the upfront cost overtime. Customers pay in small increments, and overtime, they pay off the system and it becomes theirs. It is similar to microfinance and also a popular way people pay for their mobile phones in India.
What we want to see is building a for-profit business can really scale. If you look at India ten years ago, there were 10 million cell phones. Now, there are 900 million cell phones. It is obviously a profitable model here in India for mobile phones, so we want to apply the same kind of business rigor to the energy space. We don’t want to establish an NGO that might serve five or ten thousand people, but millions of families – because the grid is not coming in soon for a lot of rural families in India. We are looking to serve 15,000 families in 2014, 30,000 families in 2015, and grow onward from there.
What advice would you give students who are pursuing careers in social impact, especially those that may want to start their own social enterprise?
Be willing to take that risk. One thing I see too often with MBA students is the tendency to follow the crowd to big companies. It can be hard to take the risk of either starting something yourself or doing the search for different companies who could really use their skillset. Those companies are not going to come to campus. They have one job and it is in Minneapolis, or San Francisco, or New York, or Kigali, so they are not going to show up on campus – you have to find them. At Fuqua, CASE has built out the capacity to help students interested in social impact in their career search. I want students to think about the ideal role they want to play and chase after that.