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Industry Focus: Impact Investing

In this series, we ask current Yale SOM MBA students to share their experiences interning and recruiting for positions in their industries, as well as the resources at SOM that have helped them in the process.

Norbert Cichon  ’21

Norbert Cichon headshotPre-SOM experience: Prior to business school, I spent roughly a decade in private equity, most recently as a senior analyst in my firm’s strategic investments group. I sourced, evaluated, and structured privately negotiated transactions, primarily across insurance and specialty finance. We were also responsible for new fund and venture ideation, including the underlying financial and tax modeling.
Summer internship: I spent my summer with Acumen America, a venture capital group investing in high-impact, early stage entrepreneurs across health, financial inclusion, and workforce development who aim to tackle the challenges of poverty and improve the quality of life of low-income Americans. My duties spanned the full transaction life cycle—deal origination/sourcing; entrepreneur interface; financial valuation; deal diligence, structuring, and execution; macroeconomic condition monitoring; market/regulatory analysis; and post-investment portfolio company support.

Why did you choose to enter impact investing?

Ecosystems which engender representation, inclusion, and access to resources are key to unlocking individual human capital—and thus broader economic and social potential. Conversely, financial, systemic, and cultural exclusion creates recursive bottlenecks to socioeconomic ascendancy by virtue of rendering key mobility levers—education, nutrition, homeownership—unattainable. While my professional experience has shown me the transformative power of efficiently functioning markets, it has simultaneously highlighted the plight of those cut off from such structures. I believe that when traditionally underserved individuals and communities finally receive access to deserved resources they use them productively by integrating into formal economies, sending children to school, starting small businesses, and building wealth they can then pass on to future generations. More simply put, when we transition individuals from suboptimal to objectively better situations—be it socially or economically—they are likely to capitalize on the opportunity. 

What was a typical day like during recruiting season?

The key thing to prepare yourself for when pursuing a “non-traditional” field—such as impact investing—is that your recruiting cycle will look nothing like the bulk of your classmates’ process. Consulting and investment banking recruiting is an institutionalized machine—with standardized deadlines, predictable incoming class sizes, and multiple on-campus events. The impact investing search is nothing like that. With a few notable exceptions, most firms recruit just in time; positions open up on an as-needed basis and are filled within four to eight weeks. Additionally, the landscape is much more fragmented; firms are smaller, niche-focused, and more geographically dispersed. This makes the work you do in the lead up to recruiting season much more important. Networking, speaking with alumni, and keeping a general pulse on the space is key to putting yourself in the best position to succeed once roles actually do begin to open up.

How was your summer internship experience?

Fantastic. I’ve always enjoyed the analytical aspect of investing, but the context within which I worked prior to SOM was never quite the right fit. My time at Acumen never felt like work—the white papers and articles I read were ones I would have dug up in my free time anyway. Diligencing entrepreneurs by speaking with community members reliant on the ventures’ products did not feel like research, but rather a chance to learn more about an impact intervention the effects of which I’ve always been curious about. I feel extremely fortunate to have finally found a field that perfectly marries my personal interests and professional skillset.

Was there a class at SOM that helped you develop key skills for this internship?

Having come from a technical finance background, my focus at SOM has always been to fill knowledge gaps on the impact assessment, measurement, and implementation side. To that end, I would recommend considering Inequality and Social Mobility, Inclusive Economic Development Lab, or Social Entrepreneurship in Public Health.

That being said, if you want to pursue impact investing but have not had the chance to accrue much technical or investing experience in your career, there are some great classes to get you started. I would suggest taking a look at Entrepreneurial Finance, Private Capital and Impact Investing, Patterns in Entrepreneurship, or—and especially if you’re focused on international development work—Market Failures and Economic Policy in Developing Countries.

The best part about SOM is the ability to fully curate your electives experience. Given your previous career and life paths, many of these classes may not be the right fit. Or maybe they’re the perfect fit. Either way, you have full autonomy to design an experience that best suits your future goals.

What were some of the most valuable resources at SOM that helped you during your search?

I found the MIINT program to be invaluable during my first year, both in terms of technical prep as well as the opportunity to meet and closely collaborate with 25 likeminded graduate students across the university system. Diligencing a venture capital investment is infinitely different from the questions you ask and the fracture points you focus on in private equity. MIINT did a solid job of introducing me to the broad strokes of the former, forcing me to recalibrate my thinking from the latter, and framing the entire process in the context of social entrepreneurship. Additionally, the help of faculty and the executive fellows Yale brings onboard was incredibly helpful. Make sure to tap into such resources as the Program on Social Enterprise, Innovation, and Impact or the International Center for Finance.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while recruiting?

Non-traditional recruiting is purely a numbers game. There are fewer spots, and you have to work a little bit harder to find them. Inbound, on-campus traffic is significantly lighter than for the more mainstream career routes, and the onus is squarely on you to reach out, network, and cultivate relationships. While that may sound intimidating and discouraging—and it can definitely be both at times—it’s by no means all bad. You’re hitting pause on your professional life for two full years; this should be hard. Doing the bulk of your own research, vetting companies and sub-industries, and speaking with alumni forces you to methodically fill out the mosaic of exactly what you like—and, equally important, what you don’t like. The goal at the end of the day is not just to land a job, but to learn more about yourself and the professional environment you truly want to be in.

Do you have any advice for prospective students looking to work in the impact investing space?

First of all, be patient and don’t fight the recruiting cycle. (Almost) all of your friends will have offers in hand before you do; that’s just a function of the calendar, not some barometer of your qualifications or self-worth. You only get one shot at an MBA. If you’re here to focus on social impact, or anything else for that matter, don’t get swayed and distracted by the allure of a more mainstream path offering you peace of mind by December or January. That’s not why you’re here, and—again—just finding a job is not your goal. A little bit of stress and a few sleepless nights will be well worth the Spring-2 satisfaction of landing an offer you’re actually passionate about.

In terms of impact investing per se, take full advantage of the university-wide resources that can facilitate a broadening and deepening of both your perspective and understanding of the key issues. Within the social impact space, I’m most passionate about investment structures aimed at addressing socioeconomic inequality. To that effect, I found Yale Law School classes focused on critical race theory to help me more fully appreciate the systemic nature of the issue at hand; Yale School of the Environment classes focused on project finance to help me think about how the structure can be applied to funding resiliency finance; and real estate-focused SOM classes to help me contextualize affordable housing construction.