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New CEO to Lead TDi into Next Phase as Bessi Graham Stands Down

15 September 2017 at 9:46 am
Wendy Williams
Impact investment and social enterprise pioneer Bessi Graham has announced she will be stepping down as CEO of The Difference Incubator in December.

Wendy Williams | 15 September 2017 at 9:46 am


New CEO to Lead TDi into Next Phase as Bessi Graham Stands Down
15 September 2017 at 9:46 am

Impact investment and social enterprise pioneer Bessi Graham has announced she will be stepping down as CEO of The Difference Incubator in December.  

Graham, who co-founded TDi alongside Paul Steele, announced on Thursday that after seven years building, piloting and growing the organisation she would be handing the reins over to Anthea Smits.

She told Pro Bono News the announcement marked the end of a succession plan that the board had been working through for the last two years.

“It’s been a piece in progress for a while now, and has always been the plan that I was the right person to kick it off but I never had the thought that it would forever be my baby,” Graham said.

“I think I’ve always been someone who is a fan of that situational leadership and that in different phases of an organisation or a country or whatever it is you are working with, different leadership styles are appropriate at different stages of development.

“So the component that was right for me to lead I’ve done and now the best thing is to have a different approach, and style and skillset to do the components that will consolidate and grow TDi from here, which is what Anthea brings.”

Graham said while it was strange as a founder to let go of the organisation, she was confident about the state of the business.

“It is quite funny actually, even when you want something to happen and plan for it to happen, there’s that aspect of just the amount of blood sweat and tears that go into it, you think oh boy letting go of that,” she said.

“But I think for me what is lovely is to have this really confident sense that it’s both in a great place, I am handing something over that I’m proud of, and that actually is positioned to go and do great things in the world.”

But Graham, who is looking forward to some rest and relaxation before exploring new opportunities in 2018 that continue to build the impact investment market and “broaden the horizon of what’s possible”, said she had achieved different things to what she had anticipated when starting out.

“I always say to people if you had said to me seven years ago when we did the first pilot that this is where the market would be at seven years later, I probably would have cried,” she said.

“I genuinely, and this speaks probably to my unrealistic expectation, but I genuinely thought it would take 18 months to get to where we are now. The aspect of what I hoped to achieve has taken so much longer in this market than I knew it would.

“But I think that is like any entrepreneur, if you actually knew how hard it would be and how long it would take you possibly wouldn’t do it. And so it is a good thing I was naive.”

She said there were a lot of aspects that she was proud of, particularly around TDi’s role as a marketplace builder.

“It was never just about growing one organisation or finding the low hanging fruit or easy groups we could work with, it was about saying what would we actually need to do to build out capacity in organisations that are doing great things socially or environmentally but help them be able to access resources, broader than what they currently can, so not just have models that could take on philanthropy or government funding,” she said.

“And so the pieces that I’ve been most proud of being part of are actually those marketplace building things, so things like designing the NAB Impact Investment Readiness Fund, it’s our role that we’ve played that’s more an education and awareness building piece, so our free breakfast forums, and YouTube videos and the components of the conferences I’ve chaired and the pieces that are trying to shift people’s sense of what is possible and changing their views that we actually don’t just have to choose ‘am I a not for profit that does good in the world and has no sustainability and has to constantly ask for money’ or ‘am I a for profit that only focuses on profit and doesn’t care what it’s impact in the world is’. They’re not actually our options, we could be more nuanced in that.

“From a TDi perspective we always talk about the component of our work trying to inspire or help people actually realise that doing good and making money is an option, you can do those things without compromising on either side of that equation.

“So those bigger marketplace building pieces and our role in helping think about that is what I’m most proud of, and then the actual pulling off of building a sustainable business model for ourselves was always important.

“I’m someone who likes to practise what I preach and so I don’t like telling other enterprises to build a sustainable model if I don’t have one, so achieving that was a critical thing for me.”

Corinne Proske, chair of TDi’s board, said it was no insignificant feat.

“I have seen firsthand the need for TDi, to bridge the gap between the for purpose and for profit worlds. Not many people have been able to achieve this, so it is no insignificant feat that Bessi has managed to build a sustainable business in a sector that has for so long been reliant on grants and philanthropy to keep it afloat,” Proske said.

“I can say with confidence that this would not have happened if it wasn’t for her extraordinary personal effort and sacrifice, and uncompromising vision for TDi.”

Graham said her advice to Smits, who joined TDi in March 2015 as deputy-CEO, was to stay responsive and keep pushing boundaries.

“While I want her to build on that DNA that we built into TDi to get here, I’m saying to her and the leadership team, just as there was a phase of growth that needed my style of leadership to kick it off, there will be things that they as the leadership team will have to grapple with and go ‘you know was this part of who TDi was or what the market needed in the early phase and that’s changed and now we need to move on from here’,” Graham said.

“So I think it is that freedom to take the business where it needs to go, and to continue to be responsive to the market and not just say this is what we want to do so we’ll power on, but to actually say where are we getting traction, what does the market need, what are the things that not for profits need help with, how do we do that?

“And I would like TDi to not lose that cheeky edge, to keep pushing the boundaries a bit and try and get both the sector and those in it to think differently and engage with what is possible and not just what we can already do.”

Graham said there was still a lot of potential in the social enterprise space.

“I’ve been saying to people, TDi has done great things, but I don’t think it’s even scratched the surface of what it will do in the world and I would say the same thing for social enterprise, and I would say the same thing for impact investment. It is the beginning,” she said.

“I’m always someone focused on the bigger picture and a vision of where we really want to land and how do we crack entrenched social and environmental problems and on that front I don’t think any of us have got even close to where we need to be. That doesn’t take away from the fact that there is great work happening and people doing incredible stuff but I don’t think that all of the conversations or all of the focuses are doing that piece of living up to expectations.

“I think when we fall into the trap of being either too self congratulating or patting ourselves on the back with impact investment or social enterprise or whatever has done amazing things, you end up being quite internally focused and staying niche and on the sidelines, and these issues are massive entrenched social problems, they’re not little niche issues that can be solved with small amounts of money or time or focus, so we have to make impact investment, social enterprise, business as a tool for good, actually mainstream. We have to make it be something that can be engaged with beyond just helping people feel nice or a bit of CSR on the side, it has got to be more mainstream than that and I don’t think we’ve cracked that.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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