Social Impact: Harvard MBA's Tech Start-Up Gives Voters Voice

Harvard entrepreneur Elsa Sze has used an MBA degree to switch from consulting to the management of a technology start-up with a political edge.

Two years ago a young Asian consultant took a political trip to Chicago, in the US state of Illinois. An investment banker by background, Elsa Sze had joined the Obama Campaign’s policy unit to help America re-elect is first black President.

Her quest for a corporate career was swiftly forgotten when she was sent to Ohio, a battleground state, to canvas locals on Election Day. After helping an elderly woman travel to a voting centre, and realizing that US citizens could only “make a difference” through the ballot box, Elsa began turning toward a new employment path.

She had spent her post-banking years as a research assistant at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, before quickly transitioning to McKinsey & Company, the consultancy, in New York.

That career lasted less than two years. But her next endeavour, Agora, may be as much of a political success as Obama’s second election campaign.

Bourne from a cadre of Harvard students, Agora is an online town hall hosted by political representatives which seeks to give the electorate a voice.

But it is not a non-profit. The company seeks to generate revenue by charging US cities a monthly subscription fee for hosting an online community, and by selling micro-advertising space to companies, based on anonymous sets of big data gleaned from its users.

“I want a commercially-viable model to solve a huge social problem. For us the social mission is how we can empower citizens to have a voice in their democratic communities,” says Elsa.

“We use tech to make democratic participation more inclusive [and] more interactive,” she adds.

As CEO, Elsa is key to ensuring the 9-strong company blossoms from university start-up to mass political appeal.

Along the way, she has completed a dual MBA-MPP (Master of Public Policy) at America’s highest-ranking business school, which she graduated from in May this year.

But it has not be an easy ride. She has had to settle for an entrepreneur’s wage after forking out tens of thousands in tuition to attend Harvard.

“I live in a tiny, tiny studio,” Elsa says from her start-ups home in Harvard’s i-Lab, an incubator.

Not that she has any reservations. “In the past when I’ve worked in consulting, living in luxury condos, I’d wake up and be stressed out. [But now] every day my worries are – will I make a difference? Will I help somebody [to have] a voice?”

She may have left the corporate life behind but it is her days as a business analyst at McKinsey which she can thank for her ambition to merge public and private sector into one fledgling business.

Working for the consultancy – and previously the IMF – during the 2008-09 period of financial turmoil, she witnessed plenty of crisis.

“I realized there was a misunderstanding that the two sectors have,” says Elsa, her all-American accident occasionally dropping hints her of Hong Kong roots.

This misunderstanding must be addressed to solve economic challenges. “I realized [that] I wanted to solve the greatest problems in the world, and I couldn’t find them in my old job as a consultant.”

Her co-founders certainly share her vision. “They come here not because they want to share equity – they care about the mission,” Elsa says of her employees, who work part-time and full-time.

Significantly, there is a distinct Harvard influence that courses through Agora. Sarina Siddhanti, current COO, met Elsa while on the Harvard MBA, while program manager Nada Zohdy is on the Harvard MPP and Antonio Coppola, Agora’s data scientist, is studying a Bachelor’s.

German lead developer Ricardo Muniz Crespo was flown into Massachusetts after impressing from a distance. Ricardo will be tasked with expanding their web presence. The start-up’s technology will be crucial in determining its success. It has been in beta-mode, restricted to certain demographics, but Elsa plans a public launch this year.

Agora already operates in Cambridge and Summerville. It is targeting younger professionals – who do not usually engage in politics in huge numbers – and minorities who lack the economic resources to be politically engaged, but whose votes are still crucial to US politicians.

But it is not limited to cities. There are “urban developers” interested too, Elsa says.

Technology also comes into play with Agora’s micro-targeted advertising. “The most important data from a person is the values that define who you are,” says Elsa.

“In commercial interactions between consumers and companies, they [consumers] are not straightforward in their values. We capture data while they interact on those issues. We can [then] take a transaction fee and display [an advert] in a non-intrusive way.”

While she calls the venture a social enterprise, it’s clear her business brain is at work here. Born in Hong Kong, Elsa moved to the US and studied economics and political science at the University of Chicago in 2004.

Then came internships at UBS, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs – some of the biggest Wall Street investment banks – before starting work at the IMF in 2008. She moved to McKinsey in 2009, where she spent about two years on the East Coast advising companies.

Financial investments to social entrepreneurship is a strange transition. Does she think her banking background is useful today?

“The skills I got are tremendous – I got my work effort from being a banker. From consulting I learnt to structure problems and think in a systematic way – in a start-up, everything is chaos,” she says.

But Elsa has to make sure that she implements her thinking. “A tendency I have got to get away from – consultants are very theoretical. I’m also good at presentations,” she laughs.

In 2011, Elsa left McKinsey and enrolled in Harvard’s joint MBA-MPP. “What I got from business school is – how do I think about building a successful social enterprise?”

Studying at the Kennedy School has been of huge benefit to running Agora, but Elsa values her cohort more than the education.

“That gave me a sense of empowerment, that I can be a change-maker… That inspiration I got from students [and] professors about the urgency of now has changed how I think about what I want to do,” she enthuses.

The influence of Harvard’s i-Lab has been significant: “Before we were accepted, we were just a team scattered across campuses across the world.” Being nestled with other start-ups is also beneficial. “We strive together. It’s a community,” she adds.

But every so often, when she isn’t working on Agora, Elsa checks her Facebook page and discovers that all her friends who have “normal jobs” post pictures of themselves on vacation in the Hamptons, a summer playground for New York’s wealthy.

“I turned down a six-figure job to take this full-time,” she says. “But the process has already paid off way more than that six-figure salary.”

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