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Impact and Ikigai: A conversation with Yana Kakar, Dalberg’s outgoing Global Managing Partner

In 2013, the partners at Dalberg made an audacious-at-the-time decision to elect Yana Kakar as the firm’s Global Managing Partner. As a relatively less tenured partner, a woman, and pregnant with her first child at the time, she was not the conventional choice, but perhaps a fitting one for a firm like Dalberg Advisors. Founded on the belief that a purpose-first professional services firm could compete and scale in a world crowded by profit-first management consultancies, Dalberg has dared to be different since its inception. In 2016, the partnership re-elected Yana to serve a second and final term as Global Managing Partner, and at the end of this year, she passes the proverbial torch to Dalberg’s GMP-elect, Edwin Macharia.

Founded on the belief that a purpose-first professional services firm could compete in a world crowded by profit-first management consultancies, Dalberg has dared to be different since its inception.

Yana’s vision and strategy have helped Dalberg Advisors grow not just in size, but in significance. She has expanded the capabilities of the firm, emphasized innovation and agenda setting, and enabled Dalberg to bring high-impact initiatives to market with partners across the public, private and philanthropic sectors. Under her leadership, revenues have grown three-fold, offices have increased from 12 to 27 worldwide, the number of employees have doubled, and new business lines in human-centered design and impact investing have been established and successfully scaled.

As Yana’s final year as Global Managing Partner draws to a close, the firm’s newest Partner and global lead on diversity and inclusion, Afua Sarkodie, helps ring in Dalberg’s next chapter by reflecting on Yana’s stewardship and hopes for the firm’s future. As one of Yana’s longtime collaborators, Afua has had first-hand experience with the mentorship and vision that have helped define Yana’s tenure.

Key: AS = Afua Sarkodie YK = Yana Kakar

AS: As you reflect back over your tenure, what are some of the meaningful moments that come to mind? 

YK: Looking back, I am struck by how small steps laddered up to major moments. For example, one of my first rallying cries as GMP was for Dalberg to “amplify our voice” on the issues that matter to us. At the time, we needed to communicate with the world more actively about what we knew was (and wasn’t) working in global development. Our mission demanded it, even if our days didn’t seem to allow time for it! That shift toward amplifying our voice has led to Dalberg shaping some of the most important dialogues in development. This in turn led to our increasingly setting the agenda around those topics, and ultimately creating new initiatives and coalitions for action on those agendas to generate impact at scale. 

When I see how Convergence has already catalyzed over USD 400 million in capital for the SDGs, it makes me very proud of Dalberg’s part in moving a powerful idea through strategy to implementation and impact

Our journey designing, incubating and launching Convergence, the global network for blended finance, is an illustration of this. We were an early and insistent voice on the need for innovative finance to unlock private investment for the SDGs. This ultimately led to a wonderful partnership with the World Economic Forum, OECD-DAC, the Government of Canada, and the Global Development Incubator, and together we created a new organization – Convergence. When I see how Convergence has already catalyzed over USD 400 million in capital for the SDGs, it makes me very proud of Dalberg’s part in moving a powerful idea through strategy to implementation and impact.

AS: As you look ahead to 2020, what positive or negative trends are you seeing that you would highlight as important for anyone working in global development?

YK: In just a few weeks, the clock starts on the final 10-year sprint toward the deadline for the Global Goals. I feel very frustrated with the world’s collective lack of progress in the past five years.

I believe all of us need to spend less time diagnosing the problems, and more time rapidly prototyping, piloting, and either scaling or abandoning potential solutions.

When I look across the marketplace, I see two trends that can help drive action: the rise of activism and the closing of critical data gaps. First, the spike in activism signals there is enormous human capital to be harnessed. From women-led activism like #MeToo and #BringBackOurGirls, to youth-led activism on the climate, to business-led activism for stakeholder rather than shareholder value, we have more allies than we realize. If the global development community finds ways to support these struggles and bring citizen activists into our community, the impact potential of that collective action will be enormous.

Through our joint “Neutral Is Not Enough” pledge, we took the leap at Dalberg to say that we will apply a gender lens to all of our work.

Just earlier this year, Dalberg took a step towards aligning more actively with gender equality activism. Thanks to two of our partners, Gaurav Gupta and Madji Sock, we joined forces with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), Educate Girls, and UNICEF to make a public commitment to proactively promote gender inclusion across our organizations. Through our joint Neutral Is Not Enough pledge, we took the leap at Dalberg to say that we will apply a gender lens to all of our work. While this is a drop in the ocean of what is needed, we are energized to be activists on this topic ourselves, not just advisors. And I wonder – what would it look like if everyone in the development world did the same? 

The other trend I would highlight is data. We’ve long bemoaned the lack of data in development but actually there has been a step change in the technology and tools we can utilize to close critical data gaps. It is important because by embracing these we can develop and deliver more demand-driven solutions to development challenges.

Dalberg is working actively in these spaces, launching new platforms like The Human AccountAIDA and LOCAN that analyze and interpret data related to issues such as financial health, disaster response and job creation. Thanks to James Mwangi, our Executive Director, all of the Dalberg businesses work more seamlessly than ever to create platforms and products that provide impact well beyond the clients we directly serve.

AS: What are your hopes for Dalberg going forward?

YK: My hopes for Dalberg center on the role I believe it can play in the world. We can do more than just scale our own operations and initiatives – we can and should inspire others to start similar social enterprises or to embrace similar principles. Dalberg is a demonstration of success deriving from values-led decision-making, not despite it. If you speak to the values that people hold, and do innovative and impactful work, you can attract the top talent of the next generation and together change the world. I wholeheartedly believe the biggest idea Dalberg ever had was Dalberg itself. We are the blueprint for a new category of company that I hope to see grow greatly in the coming years.

AS: And on a personal note, what is on the horizon for you? 

YK:Over the coming few months, I’ll be delighted to be supporting Edwin, our GMP-elect, as he transitions into his new role. I also plan on helping our leadership execute on Dalberg’s recent commitments to gender inclusion and climate action. In addition, I learnt about a concept called Ikigai a few years ago. It is a Japanese term that roughly translates to ‘reason for being’ or ‘purpose in life’. It is found at the intersection of what the world most needs, what the person loves and is uniquely good at, and what someone will pay them for. In the past six years, I have spent much of my time dedicated to finding and making real Dalberg’s Ikigai. I am now looking forward to spending time reflecting and exploring my own Ikigai, and seeing what new adventures will unfold.

AS: Final question for you! Over the last six years I have admired yourleadership and been truly inspired by watching you raise two small children while being the managing partner of a multinational. As a new partner and a mother of two myself, what advice would you give me?

YK: Assume you can do it. That’s it. Abandon any preconceived notions you might have about what a ‘mother’ or an ‘executive’ should be or do. Put one foot in front of the other, try to quell the critical voice in your head, and let yourself live your way into your own version of what it means to be both. Prioritize self-care (now I am preaching what I struggle to practice!) and try not to make decisions from a place of fear. You are better than you know, and even if you can’t see how you will make it all work, assume that you will. And you will.

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