How Business Can Truly Be a Force for Good

Before I talk about my experience, I want to tell you about Ahmed (name changed). Ahmed graduated with a degree in hydraulic engineering from the UAE, before completing a traineeship with the Ministry of Agriculture in Gaza. Unsure about his career goals, he decided to open a supermarket with his brother, where he was the general manager in charge of inventory management, customer service and financial record keeping.

Two years ago, Ahmed moved from Palestine to Brussels, searching for a better life. In that time, despite his varied professional experiences, he has relied on inconsistent temp work, mainly behind a bar or manual labour. He spends his free time learning English and Dutch, or doing online courses in a variety of disciplines recommended to him.

Ahmed, like many others, is a refugee.

He is not alone – as a society, we are witnessing unprecedented levels of displacement due to conflict or persecution, with 68.5 million people forced from their homes over recent years, of which 25.4 million have official refugee status (UNHCR, Tapping Potential, 2019). This not only represents a humanitarian crisis, but the challenges of integrating into local labour markets also result in a criminal waste of talent and resource, especially at a time when all countries are competing for top talent from diverse backgrounds.

Ahmed’s issue is not his professional background – his issue is in being able to articulate his background in a meaningful way to the Belgian public employment agencies, breaking language and cultural barriers that seem to invalidate his rich life experiences.

This is where Skilllab comes in, an Amsterdam-based start-up that aims to empower everyone to access equal opportunities, regardless of their network or background.

Skilllab achieves this by uncovering pathways to employment through an AI-driven assessment of a person’s skills, background, and experiences, delivered through a mobile app in their native tongue, resulting in a full CV with a comprehensive skill profile and occupation matching.

The focus is on those most at risk of being excluded or displaced from mainstream employment opportunities due to migration or automation, with refugees being the primary target segment. Skilllab’s product enables local governments and municipalities to have more meaningful discussions with their refugees, saving refugee case workers hours of time in interviewing and interpretation, and leading the refugees to an ecosystem of opportunities to achieve their unique career goals and meaningfully contribute to society.

I was fortunate to be awarded an INSEAD Social Impact Grant that enabled me to work with Skilllab over the summer.

They were a perfect blend of factors – a company that was addressing a major social issue in society, combined with an interesting and innovative technology product, and a sustainable business model that sought to bring together profit and purpose.

A few months prior, Skilllab won the Google AI Impact Challenge, which provided them not only with access to an ecosystem of support and resources from Google, but also a grant to enable short-to-medium-term growth. It was the perfect time for the team to pause and really take stock of the progress that they had made and make active strategic choices about the future direction.

Over the summer, I worked closely with the whole founding team to co-create an end-to-end business strategy and roadmap, leveraging both my own background and experience as a strategy consultant and learnings from my INSEAD courses. Through a series of key workshops, we aligned around a common direction and goals, from defining a company “North Star”, to outlining a clear business and operating model, developing company-wide OKRs, to detailed implementation plans and an underlying cultural blueprint.

In doing so, I dived into every nook and cranny of the business, from understanding the sales cycle and generating leads, to deep-diving into our machine-learning data model, while also developing the team’s internal capabilities around human-centred design and strategy development.

In doing this project, I was not only able to get a real view into the stark realities of building a startup, but also test some of my core assumptions about the realities of aligning profit and purpose. In my INSEAD electives of Strategy & Impact and Sustainable Business Models, we had explored case studies of companies that sought to build sustainable businesses that were also truly socially impactful.

It was immensely gratifying to work with a group of incredible people who clearly wanted to have a similar kind of sustainable and meaningful impact on society, setting an example of what business could achieve.

This really resonated with me, as I truly believe that if business keeps driving the false dichotomy between profit and purpose, then purpose-driven companies will never be mainstream. It is only through understanding gaps and developing innovative solutions to people’s problems, with associated sustainable business models, that business can really be a profitable and productive “force for good” in the world.