Combining Passion and Purpose: A Conversation with Western Union and Agora Partnerships

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Source: Ashoka

Declan Daly is Vice President Europe, Network Agents at Western Union Financial Services based in Vienna, Austria.  In 2012 he went to Nicaragua through Ashoka’s Executive in Residence program, which fosters collaborations between corporate executives and social entrepreneurs.  There he worked with Ashoka Fellow Ben Powell’s social venture, Agora Partnerships.  Agora works toward solving critical problems in Latin America by assisting socially-minded companies scale their growth.

Declan reflected on what the Executive in Residence program means to Western Union and what he brought back from his placement, including his experience working with Agora-supported entrepreneurs at CO2 Bambu, a provider of environmentally friendly materials for long-term housing in Nicaragua. Agora Chief Strategy Officer, Dorrit Lowsen, also shared what Declan’s placement meant for Agora Partnerships.

Ashoka:  Ashoka’s Executive in Residence program strives to realize shared value opportunities, enable corporate executives to improve their changemaking skills (empathy, leadership, teamwork and problem-solving), and encourage experimentation by fostering an entrepreneurial mindset among executives.  Declan, did these emerge in your experience with Agora Partnerships?

Daly: Western Union definitely realizes all the benefits on that list through the Executive in Residence program.  I’d probably add one more, which is transforming and strengthening the culture of the corporation.  Through this program, Western Union has a commitment every year – and it’s a prestigious honor internally – to nominate executives and allow them to spend 2-3 weeks using their expertise and knowledge to support Ashoka Fellows in their ventures.  This builds a culture of creating social impact rather than just talking about it, and that’s very important for the credibility of any organization.

Ashoka: What was the focus of your EIR collaboration, and what has been its impact?

Daly: From a financial services perspective, I brought expertise to help Agora leverage its existing capabilities and capacity to increase earned revenue through new products and services.  As I told Agora, I was doing with them what they in turn do with many small entrepreneurs, making them aware of opportunities and strengths they might not see in themselves.  I helped them develop a sustainability plan with new strategies for generating revenue.  For example, I suggested Agora get involved with business schools as guest speakers or case study subjects.  They could also generate revenue by running seminars for social impact stakeholders.

Lowsen: The specific idea from Declan's work with the most immediate traction is to capitalize on the curriculum development of our main Accelerator Program by repackaging portions of it as free-standing workshops.  We had originally planned to advertise the workshops to entrepreneurs who would pay to participate, but it actually appears easiest to move this idea forward through partnerships with other organizations.  A number of different organizations have recently approached us to ask whether we could provide these types of workshops for companies they deal with.  I am confident that in 2014 we will be able to pilot several of these and work out the planning, execution, curriculum and pricing so that by 2015 this will become an important revenue stream for us.

Ashoka: What did you both take away from the EIR experience, and how did it change your approach toward your respective work?

Daly: A big takeaway from my experience comes from having had the opportunity to work in an entrepreneurial environment.  Many of us, as executives in large organizations, sometimes forget how to be entrepreneurial.  So it’s very good grounding to go back and work with small-to-medium-sized enterprises led by passionate individuals who are willing to make positive social impact, while still making a profitable, sustainable venture.

Lowsen: Declan not only accomplished the project we’d originally outlined, he was also a valuable sounding board for resolving some of our general management challenges while providing creative ideas about additional ways to obtain funding.  Declan spurred us to move forward on ideas that had been on the back burner for much too long, and he helped us really turn them from speculation into something concrete we can plausibly act on.  He has also helped us initiate several relationships that could provide long-term value.

Ashoka: Declan, what was an example of entrepreneurialism from your placement that stuck with you?

Daly: CO2 Bambu, which is one of the organizations supported by Agora Partnerships, grows bamboo for building houses in very remote places.  Many of the challenges they face as a company are very different from the challenges we face.  It can be as simple as, how do they get the building materials to a location? If their truck has a punctured tire, how do they resolve that?  They have to be a lot more resourceful and entrepreneurial to solve problems.

What I took away from that was that sometimes in a corporate environment, we make projects more complicated than they need to be.  So it can be good to just get back to the basics and ask ourselves, “What do we really need to get the job done?” without overcomplicating things.

Ashoka: What did the Executive in Residence experience teach you about creating social value, and how is that relevant to Western Union?

Daly: There is already embedded social value in Western Union’s work that I hadn’t considered before my placement.  We have agents around the world, many of whom are small shopkeepers in remote locations who provide a service of inbound money transfers from people abroad to their family back home.  That shopkeeper is an entrepreneur earning revenue through commissions, and the Western Union Agent is potentially a lifeline for everyone in that village.  For Western Union, realizing social value for underserved customers creates a sustainable model and just makes good business sense.  

Ashoka: Dorrit, do you have any final thoughts on Agora’s experience with Declan and the Executive in Residence program?

Lowsen:  We are very grateful to Declan for his time, to Western Union for giving him the time, and to Ashoka for making the connection.  We very much hope he will continue to stay engaged as we move forward, and we will continue to implement some of the ideas he helped us formulate.