Bridget Akinc, EMBA ’13
Bridget Akinc, EMBA ’13, joins Christopher Reichert, MOT ’04, to discuss her role as CEO of Building Impact, which works to transform corporate volunteering, and how she applies her learnings from MIT Sloan to leading the organization. Bridget also serves as a senior lecturer for the “Leading with Impact” course in the EMBA program.
Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. So what does it mean to be a Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one here at MIT Sloan.
Welcome to today's episode of Sloanies talking with Sloanies. I'm your host Christopher Reichert. Today I'm with Bridget Akinc. Welcome, Bridget.
Bridget Akinc: Thank you. Nice to be here.
Christopher Reichert: Before we start, here's a brief bio of Bridget. She went to high school in San Francisco, although I think you traveled a bit before you settled in there for high school. She holds a BA from Princeton, an Executive MBA from Sloan. She is a senior lecturer at Sloan on “Leading with Impact,” and previously was a lecturer in entrepreneurial product marketing, also at MIT, and also marketing and entrepreneurship at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. She started her career at BCG and has worked at, among other places, BA Systems and the Sullivan Family of Companies, a retail organization. She is now the CEO of Building Impact, whose mission is “transforming volunteering by connecting companies with nonprofits in a more meaningful way.” Their website is buildingimpact.org. So welcome, Bridget.
Bridget Akinc: Thank you.
Christopher Reichert: Where to begin? I am the father of three girls, we talked about that a bit earlier. Third and fifth and seventh graders, and my oldest has been attending “Girls Who Code” camp. So getting her integrated into that, at least that thinking, of modern industries. Right?
Bridget Akinc: Yes.
Christopher Reichert: I think the most important question I have for you is tell me about Guppy Tank.
Bridget Akinc: The Guppy Tank was born out of really a pilot with an organization in Boston, a tech company called Salsify, which does set up e-commerce software. Their goal was really to look at the diversification of the industry and to think about it from the roots and to say, “We want to attract more girls into this work at the sixth grade level.”
The goal of the Guppy Tank is to put sixth graders into a tech company for a day. Not in a way of coming through and doing a career day and just observing people, but enabling them to drive the conversation and to actually prototype something while they're there. They prototype a mobile app, it is tied to the STEM curriculum in Boston public schools, which is around the life sciences.
The challenge to be solved is something in the area of making the community a healthier community. So, it is either healthy living, healthy eating, getting more exercise? We have done this now with 25 different companies and over 500 sixth graders last year. We're looking to grow that number even more this year.
Christopher Reichert: Is it a one-day thing?
Bridget Akinc: It's a one-day experience for the volunteers. It's a couple days with the students. We do a design thinking model ahead of time, and we have the students go through those stages of design thinking where they're building empathy, they're thinking about how they define their problem. They work as teams in preparation for that day.
Christopher Reichert: That's back at the school?
Bridget Akinc: Back at the school. Then we have an opportunity to get them onsite with the volunteers and actually prototyping. Then when they get back to their schools, they have access to all the tools through a Google drive. They have an ability to be able to continue to work on the prototype to develop it further, to share it with other members of the middle school. It’s a neat way to start to have a continuum on that curriculum.
Christopher Reichert: Great. That's great. The thread I see in your work and your board activities is on social challenges, early education, underserved. Tell me about that journey. I noticed by the way, that Boston Children's Chorus is one of your featured non-profits, which I appreciate because my daughters sing there and that's an amazing organization.
Bridget Akinc: I was an education policy major at Princeton, and also got my teaching certificate while I was there, through the teacher prep program at Princeton. When you graduate in studying anything in education at Princeton, one of the models that you look at is Wendy Kopp and Teach For America. At the time, 20 years ago, Teach For America was in a pretty different place; it was challenged financially in looking at the viability of its model. I really looked at business as a vehicle for being able to figure out if you've got this initiative around trying to transform what's happening with achievement gaps and opportunity gaps in education, how do we solve it using some of the business frameworks and principles, so that we know that it's sustainable for the long term?
That was my reason for entering BCG was to say, “Let's come up to speed.” It was also oddly enough 13 years later, my reason for entering Sloan, was to say, we want to try to tackle some of these “intractable” social challenges, things that I put “intractable” in quotes because I don't think they are. I think that one of the things that we can see is that when we apply business frameworks and we apply frameworks for being able to look at being able to challenge the notion of what is the assumed set of givens in a scenario, we can experiment and try and innovate around models that might work. Localize it to a specific group of people, and then to be able to replicate that model in other places that fit those similar conditions and parameters, then we know that we can actually affect system change.
I think this is the week when we see a Nobel Prize being given to MIT folks, right? I think both Professor Duflo and Professor Banerjee are looking at using randomized controls in social impact work. Their work is in some of the most impoverished places on this earth. But I think that what we know is that the replica of that model of using business frameworks, economic frameworks, to apply to social challenges can be an effective way to tackle those challenges.
Christopher Reichert: So that's the innovative approach that Building Impact is bringing to it, to that space?
Bridget Akinc: Building Impact was founded as a mechanism simply to connect volunteers to meaningful engagements in the non-profit community based on need. A lot of times, when Building Impact was founded more than 15 years ago, CSR, (corporate social responsibility), didn't really exist in the way that it exists today. It was in its fledgling early stages and I would say it's still in growth mode. But there were a handful of companies that had an executive responsible for CSR, and now what we see is it has really blossomed. You have organizations making significant investment in it, both because they see return in their own culture and company retention and recruiting efforts, but also because they know that the external world (customers, stakeholders), care an awful lot about the footprint that you have in the world and in the communities specifically that you work and live in.
What I think Building Impact has the opportunity to do is, having started with a framework of saying, “we want to make volunteering more accessible to folks that are working and living in the buildings that are occupied,” we were founded by commercial real estate firms. We now have the opportunity to say we have a host of nonprofit organizations that we listen to year-round to engage around volunteer methods. What can we be doing for these nonprofits that will help them to actually achieve objectives at a mission critical level in terms of expanding that reach or improving their operations? That's where “Leading With Impact” came in. Nelson Repenning and Johanna Hising DiFabio from the Executive MBA Program really sat down with my predecessor, who was also a Sloanie, with Diana Brennan, and said, "We would like to be able to create a course where there can be this action learning element of applying business frameworks to social challenges in our own backyard." That notion of leading with impact is to be able to take that framework, the set of things that we learn at Sloan, the tools and the frameworks, and apply them in a very immediate way to both organizations that are local, but also challenges that are very local and extendable.
Christopher Reichert: I think it's also in keeping with Sloan's mission of principled leaders as well as they're learning the basic business, not just basic business, but business operations, but also some of the underlying social missions of organizations. I went to a conference last week in New York City and the speaker, Henry Blodget I think his name was, from Business Insider, asked the question, “What's the purpose of a company?” Someone raised their hand and said, "Maximize shareholder value." He said, "You would get an A+ in MBA class, but is that right?"
He went through some of the history of how companies, I think back in the 50s there was an economist who talked about it, expanded it. Even back then it was like, “Yes, shareholder value, but also have some sort of social good and community good.” He referred to Ford increasing the pay of his employees so they could buy his cars among other things. But it was only really, I think in the 80s, where they changed really to be about shareholder value. I'm glad to see the pendulum swing, well at least I hope it is.
Bridget Akinc: I think the discussion of that around this larger purpose in business we saw the description of that was brought out by Jamie Dimon at JP Morgan Chase. You have a number of signatories along with-
Christopher Reichert: BlackRock?
Bridget Akinc: Yes, exactly. Who are all saying, “Beyond the goal of profit, we need to think about the long-term ecosystem that we live in.” I think that it's interesting to look at Sloan's role in helping to shape that discussion. I think that when we see what John Sterman and a collection of folks that are in that space around sustainability, one of my classmates from Sloan, Bethany Patten, has been instrumental in thinking about the way in which we shape that dialogue in our interactions with companies and students.
I think it's instrumental to thinking about the footprint that you have both for employees and feeling good about a purpose-driven aspect to the work that employees do day in and day out. But also in terms of the longer-term challenges that we have with the sustainability of our climate, with the sustainability relative to income inequality. Some of these aspects of things shouldn't be things that we just worry about when we listen to NPR and read the news later in the day, but actually are part and parcel of the way that we live and work.
Christopher Reichert: I think Andy McAfee's been doing some research on doing more with less. How we actually do more with less. It's part of Moore's Law, it just keeps getting more and more efficient, and hopefully it's going to go in the right direction. It's interesting you mentioned John Sterman because I had in here “System Dynamics,” and something you talked about in your TED Talk was the rational approach that companies take. Maybe this is prior to a Building Impact coming in and being a partner with them. But thinking about any kind of project where just you have the planning stage and then the resource allocation and then the measuring stage so, “Was this a good product?” “Did that iPhone succeed? Did that Newton fail?” Whatever the case may be, right? And also that volunteering isn't free. I was thinking about how system dynamics might play a role in them; did you take one of those classes when you were at Sloan?
Bridget Akinc: I think first of all, I had the pleasure of and an awesome learning experience of getting to teach alongside with Nelson Repenning-
Christopher Reichert: Yes, I'm so jealous.
Bridget Akinc: ... who lives and works in this space as well. System Dynamics was the course that I took while I was here, but also the course that I took as an elective as an alum as well. The aspect of System Dynamics that I find incredibly compelling is being able to think about the stakeholders and in the way that the larger ecosystem around social challenges exists. There is a role that we all can see that nonprofits have in solving social challenges, but there is also an enormous role and influence that government has, an enormous role and influence that we have as citizens, an enormous role and influence that companies have.
I think that there is this concept that we silo out volunteering as a “feel good” activity, that's a culture building, that's a team building. Yet, when we start to think about an example like the Guppy Tank, that is an application of skills which actually solves for a challenge that we face as an industry in technology as a whole. Which is largely, we're drawing from a talent pool that does not include a large portion of the people who live and learn in this city. Right? I think that this notion of being able to look at a long-term effect of some of the achievement gap and some of the lack of opportunity that exists for hands on STEM learning in our public school system would suggest, and really even in Cambridge alone, right, I was just doing a project this past week with a large life sciences company with an executive sponsor also from Sloan. It was a great opportunity for us to engage with the Cambridge Community Center. The Cambridge Community Center serves some of the most vulnerable families in Cambridge. But 50% of the students who attend Cambridge public schools live in public housing. When we start to look at the numbers that are right here surrounding us and the fact that the buildings that we wander in and out of in Kendall Square somehow seem like a separate world away from the very neighbors that we are surrounded by.
I think that this notion of being able to have meaningful projects that are STEM connected and the project that we were working on was building hands on STEM kits. Almost like a makerspace for students in the K-5 that are served by the Cambridge Community Center. I think to be able to have an investment like that from a life sciences company where they're looking to, again, have an outreach that is meaningfully tied to the work that they do in STEM is a really important ingredient to feeling as though that project has greater meaning.
Christopher Reichert: Impact, right? This gives a framework to their motivations. Which is their motive to do good. But they're just not sure exactly how to do it. I'm going to talk about the measuring side of things. That's one of the hardest parts of this, right? How do you go about measuring the impact of even a well thought out campaign or initiative?
Bridget Akinc: If we take the Guppy Tank as an example, I think that ordinarily when we do volunteer days what we see is a measurement of inputs, right? How many volunteers came in? How many hours did they give? Was there any monetary donation that went in? They're all a set of inputs. The outcomes that we want to measure, and we actually do this through a set of surveys with the teachers. We also engage the students to see about learning outcomes. How are learning outcomes measured? Learning outcomes are measured on the basis of a set of very clear defined goals. Do you have an exposure and a degree of comfort with the new tools that you had hands on access to? So being able to use that prototyping tool so that I could come back to it and use it in the future. Did your students have an opportunity to think about design thinking in a different way? Do they have a new way of brainstorming, a new idea around how it is that you design for a solution for a problem? Did they have an experience of working as a team? Did they have the opportunity to have maybe some conflict in a discussion and to be able to arrive at an answer that was collectively decided? Which is a heck of a lot harder as a sixth grader, and even as a grownup, to do than to decide something on your own.
We look at specific learning outcomes designed and designated with those teachers and come back and measure to them. I take a little bit of my marketing background, we also do a net promoter score. We actually go back and ask both volunteers and teachers, anybody that we engage with, but in this case the teachers, “Would you recommend this? Would you recommend this project to a colleague?” If that is a score that we can measure in the same way that Starbucks measures that to their customers or Apple does to theirs. Then we've done I think a better job of designating whether or not we hit the mark on a project or a day.
Christopher Reichert: Net promoter scores are difficult to get into that range that shows positive momentum. Right? So you have to really work hard to get a good score in that.
Bridget Akinc: I think I'm incredibly proud of our team's efforts in this area. We are currently in the surplus— Apple surplus Starbucks levels, both on the volunteer side. We are nearly at a 100% on teachers in terms of recommendations for their colleagues. Which says that we're doing something very well in terms of making sure that we're meeting their objectives and their goals.
Christopher Reichert: That's excellent. How did your time at Sloan change you? Your thinking or...
Bridget Akinc: It’s a great question. Well first of all I came in to Sloan not quite sure that I would ever be accepted from my standpoint of saying on the application I would be like, "I would like to work on social challenges specific to education in particular." I wasn't quite sure whether or not a business school was going to look at that and say, "Sure, that sounds great." Or, as a management school, if they were going to say, "What we're really out to do is create managers for industry." I think that the thing that I have learned the most in looking at my peer group now, six years out, is to say that even if folks stayed within industry, I think that it has reshaped all of our work in the degree to which we think about our place and role as leaders inside of the enterprise and beyond, right? Perhaps in community and other things.
I look at one of our classmates, who went off and founded a number of technology companies, but then became an engineer at an organization called Omaze. He leads the engineering team over there. Omaze is trying to be the first privately held company to donate $1 billion to nonprofit organizations around the world. They do it with lots of fun, with celebrities and other things. But I look at somebody like that and I chatted with Duke last year before Leading With Impact, and I asked him how is it that you would say that Sloan shape you? He's like, "Because my entire purpose is in doing something where we're part of a greater good."
I feel like that was one of the moments, that for me was most surprising. I read the mission on the wall and to find it as a lived experience as something that was critically important to the folks who were my peers, was something that was both incredibly inspiring, and also in some ways reassuring to the person that walked in not knowing that this was necessarily the place that was ready for somebody that was a social entrepreneur.
I think the other aspect to it that I'm learning more and more about, especially through working with Nelson and the peer groups that we teach through the Leading With Impact program, is just how much the other part of that mission is improving management, the science of management. There is an enormous amount I think that we can learn, about how it is that we reach out and solve social challenges. Both from the standpoint of the role of the company, the role of the enterprise and the role of a leader as a member of a community. I believe that that measurement piece, the discussion that you and I just had, is one of those places where we're redefining the way that the study of management in this way is conducted.
Christopher Reichert: I had a question for later, but I'll ask it now, is what's your definition of success? And that could be in your own life, that could be in the work that you do and that could be just generally.
Bridget Akinc: Well I've been reading a lot about Toni Morrison and her life recently. She was a professor of mine actually at Princeton and I think the loss of her contributions has really hit me hard as just a luminary in this world. I think one of the things that she talked about a lot in the context of her work but also in the context of her teaching was the fact that we all, I think, aim to be a part of something greater. That there's this sense of individual, in many ways we reflect on how uniquely individual we are as human beings. We have our own thumbprint, we have our own signature. I think that in many ways we are about being unique and individual, but that life is really about our connection to others and trying to be a part of a greater piece.
I think that notion of how it is that there's a sense of belonging that was her focus. A lot of her writing was how to create a sense of belonging when you didn't have blue eyes. That was her very first book, you weren't going to have blue eyes and it seemed like everybody around you desired blue eyes or had blue eyes and how to think about your place in the world in that way. For me, this notion that our purpose in being here, our success in being here, is being a part of something greater.
Christopher Reichert: Something greater and seeing as you have blue eyes. Did you squirm uncomfortably?
Bridget Akinc: I think that's the interesting thing for me. I had the opportunity to take two classes with Professor Morrison. One was a class that was just her class on canonical literature in the American literature context. We were literary critics for that class. The second class was a student initiated seminar on her works. In that way, many of the students took that class because they uniquely identified with her writing as being a life experience or a family life experience. Right? If you reflect some of the historical aspects to her work that they could find nowhere else, that it wasn't being written in the same way that you could find if others through the white lens. I went as a listener, I went as a learner, but I also learned more from this aspect of what creates a human condition? What is it that is humanity? And I think when you strip away the white lens and the privilege and the gaze, what are you really all about?
That was a challenge that she posed in a way that I had never heard it posed before. I think that you can oftentimes, I went to a Catholic school, you can wrap yourself and do good stuff. You can wrap yourself and I feel good about the work that I do or the person I am. But when you open yourself up to that vulnerability of saying, “Who am I really?” and “Why am I really here? What is this really all about?” That can be something that's really both alarming but a huge opportunity to learn both about yourself and about our human condition.
Christopher Reichert: It sounds like it has informed your journey in the work that you've done over the years and your board work and whatnot.
Bridget Akinc: For me, I feel like I'm a consummate learner in this space because it isn't something that I think we ever, "I learned that and I checked that box." I think that we are learning as a society, we are learning as a nation, what it is to really be a community of diversity. But I think that for me, it's an important element to drive everything that is about creating that sense of community, by starting with the value of the human being underneath. It's something interesting, we've been doing this project at Building Impact over the course of this month, it's really simple. We are doing 75 peanut butter sandwiches every day for a population of folks that are homeless. It's a street outreach for individuals experiencing homelessness, and we're partnered with the St Francis House in Boston. When you go into a volunteer group, they're ready to roll up their sleeves and say, "I'm ready to make peanut butter sandwiches."
One of the activities that we asked them to do before they ever get started is a simple 10-line exercise, which is to fill out "I am" blank. So I am, and then you pick 10 things that describe you. We asked them to do that in groups. They're doing that with their colleagues at work, which is maybe a little bit out of the norm. Right? Sometimes relationships with family come up, “I am a sister, I am a brother, I'm a father, I am a mother.” Sometimes it's aspects related to connections to other… So “I'm a dog mom,” I'm a-
Christopher Reichert: Singer.
Bridget Akinc: Exactly. But then quickly we start to have a conversation with folks a little bit about, when you have a cocktail party type of thing, how do you introduce yourself? It's usually one level deep it might get two level deep. Right? And it reminds me of this class that we had with John Van Reenen in the Executive MBA Program. Professor Van Reenen ran this class where he had us interview one another for three minutes back and forth, but answering the question, what is your purpose? It was phenomenal. It was one of the most amazing experiences being able to really understand at the core what was driving somebody to do this 20-month program. “What is your purpose? What is your purpose for being here?”
We asked folks to do that in this exercise. Then we asked them to reflect on the fact that oftentimes when those that are experiencing homelessness are coming to seek services or coming to a street outreach van to get medical help or to get a sandwich, they are identified by one label and one label only.
Christopher Reichert: Homeless. Right?
Bridget Akinc: Exactly, and they lose all of those other contexts. Oftentimes the experience of homelessness strips us of family connections, strips us of the ability to be able to tie back to the profession or the passions or the things that we have, because we are identified and in survival mode in just executing against one label, which is homelessness.
Christopher Reichert: I look at my daughters and there are times when I reflect and I go, “Okay, here I am, I'm not a kid anymore.” Sometimes you get lost in the journey of the job or whatever it is. I try to think back on what was I thinking back when I was 6, 8 or 10 or 12? What did I want to be? That whole question of “What are you going to be when you grow up?” kind of thing. I find it clarifying in some ways, to go back, okay, some first principles or what's a continuity of thought that I've got that can guide me if I have a fork in the road?
Is there a “do over” you would do at Sloan if you had to? Whether it's a class or...
Bridget Akinc: Yes, my “do over” would be to spend more time here with my classmates. So 50% of the class of my cohort was traveling in and 50% were local and I was one of the folks who was local. I was juggling a little bit with working through the timeframe. I was juggling the responsibilities I had at work and the responsibilities I had at home. I didn't ever quite feel like I had enough time in any of those places. I remember at one point my daughter had lost her tooth and it wasn't the first tooth, but it was still one of the early first teeth-
Christopher Reichert: They're always significant.
Bridget Akinc: It was very significant. And I remember being up super late working on a problem set or something from Sloan and forgetting to slide the tooth fairy money, slide that underneath her pillow. And having that moment where of course the next morning I had to explain that because of her positioning, it was probably important that she tried to do it all over again the next night so we can make sure. That maybe the positioning was a little difficult for the tooth fairy to get under her.
But from my standpoint, there were moments like that where I felt like, "Oh gosh, I'm too absorbed in this work that we're doing on this problem set." And there were also moments where I feel like I missed that night out where everybody had the opportunity to hear this really great story about somebody's own life trajectory, that kind of thing. The thing that gave me the greatest happiness was actually hearing people's fireside chats. During the Executive MBA Program, there's this opportunity for folks to give a fireside chat about their life's journey. That for me was the most enriching part of the cohort experiences to be able to hear that trajectory that people were on and where they were hoping to go.
Christopher Reichert: It's interesting, I wonder if the MBAs do that as well, or if that's an Executive MBA, given that they're probably working harder to create community because there's half that are just distant and half that are-
Bridget Akinc: I don't know if it's done. I would highly suggest it… It was a really impactful way to build a set of bonds between classmates, but also to have a greater appreciation for the journey that people had been on so far.
Christopher Reichert: And learn about their journeys.
Bridget Akinc: Yes.
Christopher Reichert: What's the last thing you really geeked out about?
Bridget Akinc: I guess for me this week I have been reading a lot about the randomized controls of Esther Duflo. I have read and admired some of the work that she had done before and I'd watch her TED Talk and that kind of thing. But the fact that we have, in our midst here at MIT, somebody who is the youngest woman to ever receive a Nobel Prize in economics, only the second woman to ever receive it. The gift that she has brought, I think, to the nonprofit sector in terms of a meaningful way of taking investment. Right? There's a lot of new literature that's talking about impact investing, how to take dollars that are applied to social challenges into an impactful arena and to make sure that those dollars go towards those goals.
I think from my standpoint, we get mired a lot of the time in looking at things in a, well I think of it as an old school way of simply saying, “Did it go to the program or did it go to the infrastructure?” At the end of the day, no private enterprise ever has to say, or even public enterprise, has to say, “Well we spent this much on our infrastructure in order to spend this much on our product creation.” That reconciliation, if we follow System Dynamics at all, and you understand that in terms of the reinforcing loops associated with it, if we make investments in professional development and infrastructure, we're going to have a greater degree of success in the outcomes. I think that the notion that she was able to give a tool to a set of challenges that were wide ranging. From vaccines on one side to educational outcomes on the other, but that application of a randomized control that would validate an approach or cause changes to an approach before policies could be cemented in stone. That to me was a really cool thing to dig into a little bit more this week.
Christopher Reichert: The randomized control, and we don't have time to go too deeply into that, but I am going to have to look at that offline. But “randomized control,” tell me what those two words mean in this context?
Bridget Akinc: What she was wanting to do was basically to be able to say the way that we study in medicine, the way that we study in science, in any other arena where we take a randomized control and we say, “We're going to apply a set of interventions to a control group and then we're going to have a set of interventions that are not applied.” We want to be able to see what outcomes change when we apply. The question, for example on kids' educational attainment, was “What if we apply more textbooks versus more tutors?” What is going to be a greater outcome for students in terms of their educational proficiency in a given topic?
It was specifically focused on kids who didn't have access because of chronic absenteeism, didn't have access to a consistent school schedule. They were able to take a control group and say, let's apply the intervention of extra textbooks and let's apply the intervention of extra teachers, time with teachers, and to see what produces a greater outcome. Is it lack of access to material? Or is it lack of access to that individual who's going to take me through it, that teaching aspect? I think that's what was meant by the “randomized control.” The outcome on that one was teachers by the way, which I love as a former teacher.
Christopher Reichert: Go teachers!
Bridget Akinc: Yes.
Christopher Reichert: Well I'd like to thank Bridget Akinc, CEO of Building Impact and a 2013 Executive MBA graduate of Sloan for joining us on this episode of Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, and I'm your host Christopher Reichert. Until next time.
Bridget Akinc: Thank you. Thanks Chris.
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