From Practitioner to Portfolio Manager – Nicole Ballin – Perspectives On Impact

REDF is committed to developing social enterprise leaders. Portfolio Manager Nicole Ballin talks about her path from social enterprise co-founder to REDF, and why she’s committed to supporting emerging social enterprise talent.  

I have seen first-hand how challenging it is to build a social enterprise. After graduating from UC Berkeley, Haas School of Business, I joined the founding team of UpEnergy, a social enterprise that operates a distribution network in Uganda for high-efficiency cook stoves, water purification systems, and solar lights. For four years, I helped build the organization from the ground up and developed local leaders who continue to run the social enterprise today.

Working on the development of a social enterprise was an exciting step in my career path. After arriving in the United States from South Africa to attend university, I worked in finance and soon developed an interest in Microfinance. After business school, I met the founding team of UpEnergy, whose business idea aligned with my interest in developing countries, social impact, and infrastructure development. Since leaving UpEnergy, I have used my experience building a social enterprise to help other leaders – first as an independent consultant and now as a Portfolio Manager at REDF.

In providing hands-on technical assistance to REDF’s social enterprise partners, my first-hand experience has given me the confidence to know where I can add value. I understand the overwhelming nature of these leaders’ day-to-day responsibilities, which doesn’t often allow time or space to take a high-level, strategic view of an organization. When you are building and growing a social enterprise, it’s challenging to know what your blind spots are.

Knowing this, whenever I work with a new social enterprise, I begin with a diagnostic process. I ask a lot of questions and try not to make assumptions about what our leaders already know. I find it is important to remind them that it’s okay to not have the answers – that’s where REDF can help. Once I have identified challenges and opportunities, I can begin to mobilize REDF’s funding and resources to find solutions. As I approach my one-year anniversary at REDF, I have developed dynamic relationships based on trust with the organizations I serve. They understand that REDF is here to be their problem-solving partner.

Working with REDF’s partners has confirmed my strong belief that for social enterprises to be successful, we must invest in strong leaders. If we are not investing in talent, infrastructure, and operations, then our recommendations and support on business and programmatic elements cannot succeed. I believe that these are the foundational elements of an organization – without them, programmatic outcomes can’t be realized.

Recognizing the importance of supporting talented leaders – who are inspiring in their commitment to their mission and work – I began creating two talent development initiatives for REDF’s national portfolio members. This summer, REDF will host its first Future Innovators Cohort, targeted at high-potential, middle-managers in the social enterprises that we fund. We have also launched a six-month executive coaching program for outstanding senior leaders in our portfolio.

The support from REDF to pursue this initiative – and other ideas that are of interest to me and my portfolio teammates – is just one reason I appreciate working at REDF. This is the most collaborative and diverse team that I have ever worked with. I feel challenged and have had great opportunities to grow as I move from practitioner to funder.

Perspectives on Impact – Meet Our Staff Blog Series highlights our team’s unique backgrounds, expertise, and contributions to REDF’s mission.