Figuring It Out as a CEO - Building Markets

Figuring It Out as a CEO

by Radha Rajkotia
May 15, 2024

As a CEO, people often ask me how things are going at Building Markets, which is often followed by, “And how are YOU doing?” I think this comes partly from personal interest but also from the recognition that being a CEO can be a lonely, uncertain job. You use your best instincts, knowledge, and resources to make decisions, but you can never be 100% sure, and the buck (or lira, pesos, or kyat!) ultimately stops with you. 

So as these questions came up at our board meeting a few weeks ago, I shared my current “headlines and hunches.” Headlines on where we are and what we can feel confident about, and hunches about where we are headed, but which will become clearer with more information, experience, time, and always a little bit of luck.  

My main headline: we have lots of reasons to feel optimistic. Here’s why:

First, I feel confident that we are building a strong infrastructure to move along the path to scale. I have shared this chart from Mulago Foundation with Building Markets’ board members many times, situating where I believe we are on that path. 

When I first joined Building Markets, I thought focusing on business development and geographic expansion would be the core driver of moving us along this path. But we have learned in the past year (sometimes through painful lessons) that we also need to refine many of our programming tools to ensure that they are replicable, scalable, and fit for multiple languages. This has involved standardizing our data capture so that it aligns with the interests of multiple users, including buyers, researchers, financial institutions, and small businesses themselves; assessing and learning what is needed for the technology to amplify Building Markets’ unique success factors and have strong options for how to build more scalable models; evaluating and refining our training and mentoring methods to ensure that they are replicable across multiple markets; and finally, designing (and now fundraising for) a working capital fund to bring flexible low-cost capital to small business leaders who need it the most. This is difficult but foundational work, but we are moving in the right direction. 

Second, we have increased our business development by 200% from this time last year. This speaks to the increasing strength of our internal business development muscle but also the fit of our work with multiple funder agendas. We know that small business leaders are critical to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems, from climate change to disaster response,  and poverty reduction. Our growth in business development shows we are finding more opportunities to make this case with funders who are aligned. I am excited to see this continued growth. 

Third, Building Markets’ focus on small business leaders is unique in the international development space. We offer a unique, market-based solution for small businesses to grow, and we are differentiated by being able to serve as champions for small business leaders in economically vulnerable communities.  This is an opportunity and responsibility that our team holds dear as we consider the tremendous role that small businesses, and the private sector more broadly, play in moving global priority agendas from gender equality to addressing climate change and reducing poverty.    

But while these trends give us much to be excited about, there are a number of questions that I still don’t have the answers for and a combination of research, experience, and serendipity will show us the right path. Here are my hunches:

First, to achieve scale we need to expand our presence into Africa. We have a history of strong performance in Liberia and Mozambique, but we need to re-enter Africa with a view to geographic markets that offer regional advantage in terms of trade and language links. This may also require a sectoral focus that supports growth trends on the continent, such as in pharmaceutical supply chains, waste and recycling, agribusiness, or early childhood development. 

Second, our recent strength in serving displaced populations is an asset, but it shouldn’t be limiting. Building Markets’ Find-Build-Connect model is effective because of its simplicity and the fact that it can be applied to a variety of geographies, sectors, and populations. For us to maximize on the potential of this model, my hunch is that we should not over-index to just displaced populations.

My final hunch is that payers at scale will be buyers.  They have both the capital (procurement and supply chain dollars) and the pain point (need for reliable, low-cost suppliers) that our model can serve. The doer at scale is less clear. My hunch is that it will be a combination of either large NGOs or Chambers of Commerce and the private sector, but how this configuration will fall into place is less clear.  

But here’s the thing… And it’s another reason to be excited. We don’t need to have all the answers right now. So while being a CEO can be uncertain, I am excited that we get to hypothesize, test, learn, and re-strategize as we go. It makes the impact-generation journey fun and allows me to give our team, board members, partners, and funders the confidence to know we are all on the same learning journey. Who can ask for a better job than that?

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