Nat Robinson | MBA ’07
Author and Advisor | Denver, CO
Nat Robinson was recently the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Juhudi Kilimo Company Limited which provides micro-asset financing to rural smallholder farmers in Kenya. Nat is originally from the U.S. but has traveled, worked or studied in over 60 countries across six continents in the areas of business, nonprofit and government. Nat has an MBA from the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt.
What is exciting about your current role and its intersection with social reererprise?
I recently concluded a book-tour across the country where I was able to speak with fantastic groups of students from Northeastern University in Boston, Vanderbilt University, the University of Denver and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in California. I am currently living in Colorado and working with the University of Denver to set up a cross-disciplinary business accelerator called Project X-ITE. My role is to help the university integrate social enterprise into the initiative. We are planning a social entrepreneurship conference in November this year where we hope to generate a lot of interest around the theme for Colorado. I especially love how social entrepreneurship in the academic environment draws extremely passionate and driven students from all of the graduate schools across campus.
What was unique to your experience in Kenya that led you to found Juhudi Kilimo? Why not start a social enterprise in the United States or another country?
The rural subsistent farmer communities in Kenya and throughout East Africa are some of the poorest and most marginalized in the world. I studied extreme poverty in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar but poverty in sub-Saharan Africa is unique. The lack of infrastructure and the high level of corruption seem to exacerbate the challenges of the poor. I wanted to work in a challenging place where few other social enterprises were addressing the problems of food insecurity and poverty. Of course there are major challenges with poverty in the US and other countries. My personal passion is working abroad and interacting with other cultures. I found that I was able to quickly gain credibility and acceptance in rural Kenya where I may have struggled to gain similar traction in communities across the US. When we were starting Project Pyramid, we were criticized for neglecting our backyard and focusing on the international component of poverty. I believe Vanderbilt is now working with domestic and local social enterprises in addition to the international organizations. My current work with Project X-ITE is specifically focused on domestic social entrepreneurs in the Denver area. Certainly some of my work in Kenya can be translated to help local entrepreneurs in Colorado.
At the Social Venture Summit you spoke about creating an integrated impact model. Why is it important that entrepreneurs think differently about how they create social impact?
Yes, I believe that the solutions to the extremely complex and difficult social problems will come from an integrated and cross-disciplinary approach. A business model that can address social issues such as poverty reduction, access to rural healthcare or providing urban sanitation while still generating financial returns can be incredibly powerful. This is at the core of the whole social entrepreneurship movement. The capital markets provide significantly more potential to solve global social problems than philanthropy and governmental aid alone. These unique social business models exist all over the world but are extremely difficult to operate at scale. The larger organizations tend to run into trouble in balancing the social impact with the financial returns. We have seen this in microfinance organizations like SKS in India and Compartamos in Mexico that both ran into trouble for maximizing financial returns at the expense of their low-income clients. The social business models that can closely integrate social impact and financial return will face fewer of these trade-off challenges at scale. I tried to manage this social-financial conflict at Juhudi Kilimo by working in a niche market with rural smallholder farmers. Even so, we still struggled to charge below-market interest rates while generating positive financial returns to our investors. Some of our solutions came through the deployment of new technologies to lower our operating costs. I am a big believer in experimenting with new technology to reach better outcomes.
Can you identify an experience, maybe an interaction or a course, during your time at Vanderbilt that pushed you towards social impact work?
Perhaps not a specific course but I was heavily involved in the Net Impact student group while at Owen. This international organization works across business schools to promote awareness around social entrepreneurship and using business for the general social good. Of course my experience of starting Project Pyramid with my classmates certainly played a big role in pushing me towards social impact work. The fascinating class conversations with students from the business school, divinity school and economics program provided me with a diverse set of insights on the problems of poverty alleviation. The classroom discussions expanded into our inaugural class trip to India where we were able to meet with social businesses and interact with their clients. I also joined the class the following year to Bangladesh where I was first exposed to the rural agriculture equipment leasing businesses. The same type of leasing business I helped deploy through Juhudi Kilimo in Kenya.
What advice do you have for those entering careers focusing on social entrepreneurship?
I have been telling student groups across the country about how exciting and rewarding a career in social entrepreneurship can be. However, I would highly recommend that a young professional spend several years in a formal institution before starting a social enterprise. My time as a management consultant at Accenture became quite valuable as I was setting up the structures and business processes to start a company. My formal work experience and MBA also seemed to put my new investors at ease. Passion and drive are certainly important in a career but if there is no structure to channel that energy it can result in frustration. It may be unappealing to many recent graduates to work for a large bank, consulting company or multinational organization. Yet that experience and credibility will open many more doors for a social entrepreneur.
You’ve recently published Creating a Cash Cow in Kenya: Adventures in Starting a Social Business and Living in Africa that discusses many of the challenges you faced and overcame while launching your venture. Which of the lessons learned that you recount in your stories do you find most important to your success?
Setting up a company in a place like Kenya required a heavy dose of patience and persistence. Progress seemed to move at a fraction of the speed of life in the US. This frustrated many expats in Kenya who were looking for quick results. I found it critical to dig deep and keep going or trying new things after hitting the walls of failure. You have to love what you are doing. The stress will become too debilitating otherwise. Now that I am back in the US, I am not sure I truly appreciated the personal support network of friends I had built up in Nairobi. Being able to spend a relaxing weekend with good friends away from the crushing pressure of running a company was essential to staying sane.