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Episode
79

Zak Kaufman

Co-founder and CEO

Ep
79

Improving Data Management to Maximize Social Impact

Oct 5, 2021
With
Zak Kaufman
45:58

Improving Data Management to Maximize Social Impact

With 78 employees working across five offices on five continents, Vera Solutions is a social enterprise and B Corp that helps for-profit and nonprofit organizations measure and track their impact, and Founder and CEO Zak Kaufman is here to tell us more about the change that they make. 

While working in monitoring and evaluation for an organization in South Africa called Grassroot Soccer, Zak and his team were faced with data systems that couldn’t really keep up with the needs of the organization, especially with Grassroot Soccer just being given a huge grant to scale up their operations. To solve this, Zak had an idea, one that was unthought of at the time, and this was to migrate their systems to Salesforce, a CRM system. This turned out to be a brilliant solution as this then solved their data problems and allowed them to collect and analyze their impact data in a more efficient way.

Quickly realizing the significance of what they were doing, Zak and two of his colleagues sat down with Grassroot Soccer’s CEO and COO, and they came to an agreement that they would leave Grassroot Soccer to form Vera Solutions. After a few years, Zak was faced with another major issue: both his co-founders leaving. Thankfully, the company survived it which, in part, Zak attributes to Vera Solutions having a strong “ikigai.”

Zak also talks about the four pillars of good monitoring and evaluation, which they wrote an article about on Salesforce. He also shares his formula for measuring impact data, and speaking of impact, one of the main products or services of Vera Solutions is Amp Impact, which helps clients measure their impact data at the portfolio level and also portfolio data to manage the entire lifecycle of an organization’s projects.

Despite the notion that charities and foundations would be hard to sell their services to with their often limited budget, these organizations understood the value of what Vera Solutions was offering, and so the need was there. The demand slowly started to increase, and they would hire one employee after another. Today, with their 78-strong team, Vera Solutions has worked with over 325 organizations, and their clients range from social enterprises to impact investors to nonprofit organizations and more.

In 10 years, Zak hopes to live in a world with a social sector that is not only accountable, transparent, and data-informed, but also closer to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.


Zak’s key lessons and quotes from this episode were:

  • “There's a little bit of a perspective that, ‘Well, we're a charity, therefore we don't have money to spend on these kinds of things,’ and I think that that kind of mindset holds the social sector back, and it's a mindset that's going away.” (11:23)
  • “We're also seeing the private sector starting to get more interested in social impact and environmental impact.” (11:50)
  • “We had the privilege to see the sector and the space from a lot of different angles and start to see the diversity of needs that are out there but also the commonality of needs across different organizations.” (13:10)
  • “Amp Impact isn't trying to be 100% of what everybody needs or really 100% of what anybody needs. It's trying to be 60-70% of what everybody needs, and the remaining 30-40%, that comes through configuration of the Salesforce platform.” (27:04)
  • “If you can execute well and you've got, really, a purpose that aligns with what you're good at, what you're passionate about, and what the world needs, I think you're quite set up for success.” (30:59)
  • “I do think it's super important to just have the right people around the table from the early days and continue to make sure you've got the right people around the table as the company grows.” (33:51)
  • “In a lot of social enterprises and startup companies, the role of CEO is one that is constantly being reinvented. You need to be ready to and willing to constantly reinvent yourself, and what you're focused on, and what you're responsible for.” (35:16)
  • “I think that that's really key to the success of an enterprise and of an entrepreneur is not seeking to be the smartest person in the room any of the time. You want to have people who are better than you, who are smarter than you around the table, and you want to constantly make sure that you maintain that attitude and that mindset.” (36:51)
  • “You want to invest in the culture. You want to demonstrate that you care about the culture, and you want to invest in it.” (41:19)
  • “You have to change what the world looks like.” (43:12)

In this episode, we also talked about:

  • How Vera Solutions came to be from Zak’s work with Grassroot Soccer (2:30)
  • Finding clients (9:12)
  • The four pillars of good monitoring and evaluation (15:39)
  • Amp Impact: how it was created and what it does for clients (22:55)
  • How Zak and his two co-founders created Vera Solutions (29:16)
  • The Japanese concept of “ikigai” and how this influences Vera Solutions  (30:24)
  • The impact of winning an Echoing Green Fellowship (31:26)
  • The co-founders living and working on different continents and how they managed their globals teams (37:41)
  • The world in 10 years according to Zak (42:07)

Transcript of the episode

Maiko Schaffrath  00:02

You are listening to Impact Hustlers and I am your host, Maiko Schaffrath. I have made it my mission to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to solve some of the world's biggest social and environmental problems. And for this reason, I am speaking to some of the best entrepreneurs out there who are solving problems such as food waste, climate change, poverty, and homelessness. My goal is that Impact Hustlers will inspire you, either by starting an impact business yourself, by joining the team of one, or by taking a small step, whatever that may be, towards being part of the solution to the world's biggest problems. It's really great to have you on the show today. Welcome to Impact Hustlers, Zak.


Zak Kaufman  00:56

Thanks, Maiko. Great to be here.


Maiko Schaffrath  00:58

Thanks very much. You started Vera Solutions in 2010 after working for a charity called Grassroot Soccer in South Africa. You actually seem to have stopped working there in the month that I arrived in South Africa, because I started working in South Africa for the Goethe-Institut, which is the German Cultural Center in September 2010. So, that's really exciting to see. Did you leave in this month or did you stay in South Africa a little longer?


Zak Kaufman  01:30

Yeah, yeah, we just missed each other, and you just missed the World Cup, the 2010 World Cup as well.


Maiko Schaffrath  01:37

I just came after the World Cup, but I still got some of that enthusiam in the country. It was a really amazing country, I think, to work and I worked there for a total of one and a half years, for one year for the Goethe-Institut and a half year for the German Embassy and got to see a lot of work there. Yeah, so we have some shared history in terms of where we lived. So, in 2010, you actually worked for this charity. You stopped working for them. And during your work for that charity, you really saw a problem around how do we even measure our impact in a way that's efficient and that's not relying on paper and excel sheets. Tell us a bit more about the problem you discovered at the time, and how you initially solved it, and how you set up Vera Solutions at the time?


Zak Kaufman  02:30

Yeah, definitely. I mean, you could say Vera Solutions really kind of spun out of Grassroot Soccer, and it really came from what we learned and the transformation that we went through there. So, I moved over to South Africa in 2008 and, really, was stepping into a role overseeing monitoring and evaluation. That's sort of formerly what it's called. Informally, the data guy who's managing all the spreadsheets and data systems that we had for tracking our programs. Actually, Grassroot Soccer is an organization that's always been really committed to measuring its impact, evaluating its programs long before I got there. They partnered with a number of different evaluators, and I think that comes from the top. Their founder and CEO is a medical doctor and has always really wanted to make sure the organization is on the cutting edge of evaluation and really understanding its impact and using that to inform its programs. The challenge we ran into was actually on the data front. The data systems weren't really set up to be able to get the intelligence that staff needed day-to-day, week-to-week and weren't really set up in a way that was scalable when I arrived in 2008. We had been, as many organizations were, incrementally growing and growing. What was interesting about that time was we were about to get a big grant from the US government to scale up the program in South Africa from 5,000 kids coming through it per year to 50,000 kids coming through it per year over the next three years. And so, that's going to mean a bunch of hiring, lots of new staff, new policies and procedures, just much more maturity as an organization. We really needed to mature our data system, so the systems we had in place at the time where data got collected on paper in the field, it got entered into Excel spreadsheets every three months, and so just kind of sit on paper for three months, and then it would get entered in by staff. Once every three months, they would take days away from running the program in schools, or community centers, or soccer fields, wherever they're working, and they would be punching the numbers into Excel and then email it into Cape Town. And then, it would get aggregated into this monster Excel labyrinth. And so, there are a lot of inefficiencies and weaknesses with this. You had data quality issues, manual aggregation of data. Each step, mistakes are getting made and data quality is suffering. Motivation of staff in general; there weren't feedback loops that were getting back to the staff who were collecting the data, who were capturing the data. And so, they kind of felt a little bit like they were being policed. It was just this one-way flow of data from the field to the local office to the head office to the funder, no feedback loops that show them how we're doing. So, what we did was- the wacky idea that I had was overhauling this paper and Excel system and moving it onto the Salesforce platform which, at the time, 2008, 2009, was a really wacky idea. Not very many organizations were using Salesforce in this way. If you know Salesforce, it's the world's leading CRM system used by 150,000 companies, tens of thousands of nonprofits now, but primarily used for sales, marketing, that sort of stuff. So, in the nonprofit world, that's fundraising data. Fortunately, I've gotten to know Salesforce really well starting in 2006 administering the Grassroot Soccer fundraising system, which was on Salesforce, and so that's kind of where this idea came from. I realized the disconnect that we had this wonderful fundraising database with data on all of our donors, the donations, our events, and it was driving intelligence for the CEO and the development staff, helping shape the strategies and the initiatives that we were doing. And then, on the other hand, when it came to programs, it was paper and Excel and this long lag of information and this one-way flow of data up without feedback loops. So, I had this idea that, actually, Salesforce as a platform could be as powerful for tracking program data and impact data as it is and was for tracking our donation data or fundraising data. And so, that's what we did, and it turned out to be a really amazing idea. It totally changed the way that the organization worked. We really democratized data across the organization. We went from a system where no one had visibility on how we were doing, really, except for one person at the top of this data pyramid to a model where everybody had access to data that was relevant for them. Dashboards were kicking out to staff and even to the facilitators and coaches in the field, printed off and put on the wall of our offices, and data started to become kind of water cooler conversation. It started to shape informal competition between sites, and it wasn't just, "How many kids are we reaching? How many kids are graduating through the program? How are we doing towards our targets?" That was important, but it was also, "How are we doing in terms of changing knowledge, and attitudes, and communication for the youth that were coming to the program? How are we doing in terms of HIV testing and referral for treatment?" And so, we were capturing a wide range of different types of impact data, but that started to really shaped the way that the organization was working, was running its programs. We also put in place a system that was scalable. And so, as we were growing 10x in South Africa, opening offices in new countries, and so forth, we had one consistent, strong data system that then grew and evolved as the organization grew and evolved and that they're still using now, 12 years later. So yeah, that was the transformation that Grassroot Soccer went through, and the challenges that they were facing, and the transformation that we went through back in 2008, 2009.


Maiko Schaffrath  08:25

Got it. And then, you spun out Vera Solutions and you basically started selling the service. Initially, you were a pure consultancy working with charities and foundations. How did you go actually about acquiring those? I can imagine charities, foundations are probably quite hard to sell to, or even if you want to sell to them, they have stretched budgets or very limited scope to pay you higher rates. I can imagine that it's much more profitable to be a McKinsey-like consultancy work of corporate. So, how did you go about it? Especially, you actually bootstrapped the company. You didn't raise any investment. You just went for it. How did you go about that at that time?


Zak Kaufman  09:12

I think it helped in the early days that we didn't need our clients to pay really high rates, and we were super passionate about what we were doing. So, what started happening in 2009, actually, was other organizations started coming to us and saying, "Hey. We heard about this system you guys have built. Can we take a look?," and we would demo it to them and they would say, "This is exactly what we need, but we run a clinic," or, "We run a program for orphans and vulnerable children," or, "We're trying to improve our grant management," or, "We're running a gender-based violence program." And so, the needs were quite similar, but the data structures they needed, the tools that they were using to track their program, and so forth were different. So, the platform was a good fit, and the services to configure the platform to meet the need, set up the data flows, the dashboard, the interfaces that they needed was a good fit, but we couldn't just do exactly what we had done with Grassroot Soccer. So, there was a need for some some consulting services there. And so, what we started doing actually was consulting within Grassroot. So, Grassroot Soccer would be contracted to do some consulting work, and a couple of colleagues and I who had worked on the initial system took on the first few projects that way. Quickly, it grew beyond the mission of this adolescent health education program and organization. And so, it was that time when we sat down with the CEO and the COO and talked about this, and the opportunity that was out there, and what we wanted to do, and we came to the agreement that Vera would spin out, and we became a B Corp to pursue the opportunity that was in front of us and to help out more and more organizations. I don't think at that time that we thought, "We're going to serve hundreds of organizations and this is going to grow to 80 staff." That wasn't really the ambition. It was actually working with the organizations we were already talking to that had already identified, "Hey, we've got this need. It seems like you guys could be a good fit for helping us." So yeah, I can touch on what's it like selling to organizations like this. There's a little bit of a perspective that, "Well, we're a charity, therefore we don't have money to spend on these kinds of things," and I think that that kind of mindset holds the social sector back, and it's a mindset that's going away, I think, in a lot of ways. We're seeing the social sector starting to pave more like the private sector in many ways, starting to use the kinds of tools that are used in the private sector. We've been seeing that over the last decade, for sure. We're also seeing the private sector starting to get more interested in social impact and environmental impact. So, there's definitely two real macro trends and almost like the convergence of these sectors into a space that's actually quite aligned in terms of what it's trying to achieve. It's been fascinating for us, because we're working on both sides of that sort of invisible aisle, if that makes sense. We're working with for-profit social enterprises in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and helping them put in place systems that are both tracking the impact of their work and the services they're delivering to their clients or customers, but also really tracking their business by tracking the purchases that they're delivering, and the sales that they're closing, and the supply chain, and so forth. So, we're doing that with social enterprises. We've done some work with impact investors as well, helping them with managing their portfolios and tracking the impact of their portfolios. And then, also certainly very much working with nonprofits, whether they're community-based organizations, or whether they're international NGOs, whether they're foundations that are supporting nonprofit organizations. So yeah, we have quite a diverse portfolio that we've worked with over the years, and we've now worked with over 325 organizations since we got started. So, we had the privilege to see the sector and the space from a lot of different angles and start to see the diversity of needs that are out there but also the commonality of needs across different organizations.


Maiko Schaffrath  13:23

Amazing. I'd love to dig a bit deeper on your philosophy on measuring impact and how you actually do it. You now have a product called Amp Impact which is the main core of what organizations that you work with use to measure the impact and make it transparent. Obviously, since 2010, a lot of things have changed. Like you say, I think charities, foundations become more entrepreneurial in how they do things, more tech-driven, I think. Some of the best ones are probably indistinguishable from some of the best for-profits in terms of how they work and what tools they use, and the sector has probably come a long way. But at the same time, obviously, the companies that we cover here on the podcast, on Impact Hustlers, are very often for-profit impact companies. I think, similarly, they need to think about some of these issues as much as the charities and foundations work with. So, you have this not-so-great example of TOMS shoes. The whole model of TOMS shoes is basically buy one, give one. This was actually what it was, at least for many years when they started. People bought a pair of shoes and they donated another pair of shoes, and there was a lot of problems with that model. They made an impact study themselves, and they realized that they had a net negative impact with what they were doing. So, on paper, it sounded all very great, but they realized, "Okay, actually, we're doing more harm than good with what we're doing," and they changed their approach completely. Now, they're supporting, local community projects, and I believe they're on a better path right now. It's not as easy to just set up a business and say, "Okay, I want to have impact, and it's going to work out somehow. I'm just going to run the business." So, with this long-winded introduction, my question to you is, what's your advice to both charities and foundations but also to impact-driven businesses on how they should think about measuring impact and what's your philosophy at Vera for that?


Zak Kaufman  15:38

So, we've written up a piece for salesforce.org on the Four Pillars of Good Monitoring and Evaluation. It starts, basically, with good strategy. So, you're planning out, you're putting in place a logic model. You're planning out the indicators that you're going to be tracking. You really want to make sure, and I'll come back to this, but you really want to make sure you've got a mix of indicators that give you a sense of your reach, scale, but also indicators that give you a sense of your depth. With the TOMS shoes example, the challenge there is really how much of a change are we achieving per individual, or per household, or per community? And you really need to make sure you've got a balance there. So, it starts with a strategy and plan, and if you haven't written up a theory of change or drawn up a logic model that shows, "Here's how we're getting from the inputs and activities to the outputs and outcomes and the ultimate impact that we're working towards," that's the first step. Go back to go back to step one, so it's the strategy and plan. The second piece is data collection tools and methods, so making sure that you're you're set up to collect data in alignment with the plan and the strategy that is going to have minimal bias in it. You're going to be set up to be able to account for confounding that might turn up where something is actually changing the outcome that you're not collecting data on. You need to be able to get all of the data that'll help you ensure you've got an informed understanding of what's going on and what you're achieving at the later stage. The next pillar is around systems, so good data systems, which is a big part of where Vera has come in over the last decade, so making sure you've got systems that are flexible, systems that have features that help you when it comes to data analysis, visualization, simplifying workflows, saving people time and headaches. Systems is often a neglected part of the puzzle that we found. You can have a really good strategy and a really good data collection tools and methods, but if you're just doing paper and Excel, or if you're just doing "pick your favorite mobile data collection tool" and putting that into a big CSV file, ultimately, somebody's got to pull that data together to make some sense of it. And so, the systems become really important. And the last pillar is around capacity. So, capacities, I break capacity down into capable person hours. You actually need enough capability. You need the right skills to be able to collect, and manage, and analyze the data, but then you also need enough person hours available to be able to apply those skills, so that you aren't stretching your staff too thin, and I think that that's another area where we see the sector's often underestimating. Whether we're talking about social enterprises, or we're talking about NGOs, oftentimes, people underestimate the skill needed and the time needed to be able to do a good job when it comes to collecting, managing, analyzing, visualizing, and ultimately using impact data. So, those pillars, I would say, is a good way to think about it. And then, the second major piece of advice is, again, coming back to that strategy and that plan. We think about impact data, and this is coming from my epidemiology background, we think about it as [reach x effectiveness x the magnitude of the problem that you're working to solve]. Oftentimes, organizations are actually very good at collecting reach data, and that's really done through monitoring. It's done through day-to-day routine data collection. It's oftentimes counting the participants that are coming through the program, but reach is super important to that impact equation, and not just counting but also making sure you're setting up to be able to break down the, whether it's participant numbers, or whether it's households or geographies, or whatever it is, to disaggregate and break out that reach in ways that are meaningful and give you the insight around who's benefiting from the program. The second piece is effectiveness which is, how much are you moving the needle per person, or per household, per community, per animal, whatever your unit of reaches? How much is the needle getting moved per unit? Which is tricky. I mean, there's a spectrum of rigor that you can apply when you're looking at measuring effectiveness. On the one side is just surveying your participants afterwards and getting some feedback from them or getting answers to self-reported questions around what kind of change they feel like they've seen. On the other side of the spectrum is running randomized control trials, where you're randomizing which individuals go through the program, which individuals don't go through the program, and then following them over time and comparing the the change that's observed. There's a lot of options within that spectrum, so it's not either/or. Obviously, randomized controlled trials are expensive and time-consuming and not the kind of thing you're going to be constantly running lots of RCTs. So, I think finding the right balance and the Goldilocks solution when it comes to outcome evaluation tracking effectiveness is really important. And the last part, the magnitude of the problem, really, that's in there just to help us remember that if we're trying to move the needle on malaria, we can be distributing insecticide-treated mosquito nets, for example, we know that if children are sleeping under insecticide-treated mosquito nets, it reduces incidence of malaria significantly, so we have good data on effectiveness. An organization that's doing that kind of distribution doesn't need to go run an RCT to assess the effectiveness of their ITNs. We know it's an effective intervention. They probably are focused more on the reach and then also uptake, and process, and utilization. But if they're focused in an area where you have very low malaria incidence, they're going to have less impact than an organization that's really focused in part of, let's say, Cameroon, where there's really high malaria incidence. You're going to have way less impact if you're doing mosquito net distribution in Vermont. Stating the obvious, but the point is it is very important to consider the magnitude of the problem. It may not just be geographic. It may be different types of individuals or types of communities that you want to consider who's going to be participating in this intervention or benefiting from a service or product.


Maiko Schaffrath  22:27

Got it. And then, let's talk a bit about Amp Impact and the way it works. I understand is actually quite flexible, right? So, whatever type of metrics organizations are measuring, they can usually kind of track it with Amp Impact. Can you give us an example of maybe one of your customers or, hypothetically, how somebody would use the platform and kind of transform their work through that?


Zak Kaufman  22:54

Yeah, definitely. So, Amp Impact really emerged from our first five years. It emerged from the common needs and common patterns that we had seen across, that time, dozens and dozens of organizations we had worked with. We found that, while on the ground tracking impact, the data collection tools and data structures that were being used actually varied quite a bit organization to organization at the more aggregate level. So, when we're talking about tracking the impact of an organization's portfolio of projects or programs or tracking impact for an investment or grant that we've made, the data structure is actually really consistent, and the sets of interfaces that people need or pages, components that people need in a system were really consistent. And so, what Amp Impact is set up to do is it enables you to do, on the one hand, impact measurement at the portfolio level, and then on the other hand, portfolio management, so you can manage the whole lifecycle of your projects, or grants, or programs, or investments and then also determine, "Here are the objectives we're working to achieve." You can build out a whole log frame for what we're trying to achieve in terms of the impacts, outcomes, outputs for this particular project, let's say, and then you can connect indicators to those objectives. You can say, "Okay, well, we're trying to improve maternal health as an outcome." You can set up indicators or use standard indicators like the maternal mortality ratio and link that to the outcome you're interested in and then set targets for what you're trying to achieve with your program, whether that's a reach indicator for the number of individuals that are coming through a program disaggregated by sex and by age, or if it's an effectiveness or depth indicator, so looking at how much change are we observing in reported risky behavior, or how much increase are we seeing in savings for farmers, for example, how much are we reducing tons of carbon. Really, any kind of indicators will work. It is definitely set up to be super flexible in that sense. A good example is the Aga Khan Foundation. They're headquartered in Switzerland and working across 18 countries, I believe. They're managing data for their whole portfolio of grants and projects with Amp Impact. They use Salesforce to track the inbound pipeline of grants that they're working to bring in. And then, as grants are won, they're building out log frames that are aligned with what they're submitting to their funders and then setting targets, tracking the results that they're achieving across all those projects. They were actually one of our earliest customers with Amp Impact. We now have about 60 organizations that are using the product to manage their impact data and manage their portfolio data.


Maiko Schaffrath  25:54

Got it. And how does your business model work with them? Do they pay a subscription fee and is the consultancy separate to that? How does it work? How long do you actually stay and consult? Is that an ongoing thing or just a setup thing? How does it work?


Zak Kaufman  26:10

Yeah, it varies a bit organization to organization there. Amp Impact has an annual license fee that organizations pay in addition to the Salesforce licenses that they pay. And then, there's a consulting engagement to really discover, understand the needs of a client, design the solution that's going to be needed, leveraging the components of Amp Impact, build out the system that's going to be needed, migrate legacy data into it to replace whatever system we're replacing if there's an existing system, test out the system end-to-end, facilitate testing with the organization itself, user acceptance testing, and then do training and supporting the rollout. So, there's a consulting component. Just as the consulting engagements we've always done over the years, there's consulting work to do around Amp Ipmact. I guess the way to think of it is Amp Impact isn't trying to be 100% of what everybody needs or really 100% of what anybody needs. It's trying to be 60-70% of what everybody needs, and the remaining 30-40%, that comes through configuration of the Salesforce platform, which is the world's leading platform for this kind of data and really any kind of data. It's incredibly configurable, flexible, interoperable, and so forth. That's really the philosophy that we've applied to Amp Impact as a product, keeping it very flexible, leveraging the flexibility of the Salesforce platform, so that we're able to deliver 100% solution to clients, but that the product itself isn't like a "plug and play" sort of solution, if that makes sense.


Maiko Schaffrath  27:48

Got it. I'd like to dig deeper on your entrepreneurial journey and sharing some of the lessons learned, I think, throughout the last 10 years of your entrepreneurial journey. Just going back, obviously, to the beginnings, you bootstrapped the business. You, I think, initially had two co-founders that joined you in starting the company. Now, how many employees have you got? How many offices? Can you give us a quick overview of that?


Zak Kaufman  28:20

Yeah, we're 78 at the moment across five offices on five continents. So, we're quite-we're-


Maiko Schaffrath  28:29

There we go. So yeah, just to give the perspective for the listeners, coming from a bootstrapped business, maybe initially not even having any sort of massive costs, just trying to survive, obviously, to now having a massive team of almost 80 people globally spread all over the world, can you tell us about some of the biggest challenges around scaling from where you came from 10 years ago to now and some of the lessons learned throughout that journey and how you made this work? I mean, this is a big question, but is there a few nuggets that you can share on that?


Zak Kaufman  29:12

Yeah, definitely. I mean, I go back to the beginning. When we started, we were three people working part-time. Both of my co-founders had other full-time jobs. I was doing my Masters at the time, so this was kind of a side hustle, you could say. I think at the very beginning, we'd found that this is a massive problem. There's thousands of organizations that need this kind of service. We found that we had a really unique niche of skills for this in understanding the technology and Salesforce well, but also understanding the real world challenges and having experienced working around Sub-Saharan Africa, understanding, monitoring, evaluation, and so forth. So, we had an interesting and valuable niche of skills. It was a situation where clients were willing to pay for the services they were getting from us, especially if we're building out a good system that's going to be useful for them, and it was something that was just super fun, and rewarding, and inspiring work. I mean, you get done with one of these projects and are fired up to start the next one. Years later, I learned about the age-old Japanese concept of "ikigai"  which is you've got this reason for being, and it's the intersection of what the world needs, and what you're good at, and what people will pay for, and what you love. And so, I think we happenstance discovered that, actually, Vera has a really strong ikigai. I'm a big believer that that's a critical aspect of what will enable an organization to grow: good leadership and a strong reason for being. If you can execute well and you've got, really, a purpose that aligns with what you're good at, what you're passionate about, and what the world needs, I think you're quite set up for success. So, that's an important back piece of it. So, we were three co-founders that were working part-time. Eventually, we had enough work that both of my co-founders could go full-time. Eventually, we had enough demand that we could hire our first staff member and then another staff member. I think the first key inflection point for us as a company was winning the Echoing Green Fellowship back in 2012. This was a long shot. It's incredibly competitive. They have 3,000+ people apply for it each year, and they give out 20 or something. And so, with any of these accelerators, or awards, or fellowships, or programs, you give it your best but it's a crap shoot. You're kind of throwing your hat in the ring and hoping for the best, and that was a really important inflection point, because it injected a bit of capital into the company, about $80,000 at the time. It also brought us this amazing network of like-minded entrepreneurs, many of whom needed better data systems, so we started doing a lot of work with other Echoing Green fellows. That capital also enabled us to go take some risks, so we doubled the size of the team, and we grew from four to eight. We started up an office in India and started growing a team there and yeah, so I mean, that was an early sort of achievement but also just a key inflection point that enabled us to take some chances that then paid off in the coming years. Then, next challenge inflection point was both my co-founders left the company in 2014. If you think about it, a lot of companies would go under or go away. You lose two out of three co-founders at the same time or within the same year, that's a real operational challenge. It's a challenge to who the company is, what the company is about, and obviously, you just lose a lot of skill and muscle, and so working through that, I think, is one of our best achievements. I think the fact that we came out of that and managed to actually build out a company that got progressively stronger and stronger after that, I think, is really something that I'm proud of and I really accredit it to the leadership team we've had in place over the last five years. That was not something I saw coming at the very beginning 10 years ago. We didn't have the conversation of like, "What's going to happen if one of us leaves, or what's going to happen if two of us leaves? How are we going to make sure it's set up for success?" But I do think it's super important to just have the right people around the table from the early days and continue to make sure you've got the right people around the table as the company grows. That may change in terms of what the company needs. One of the things that I think was key was, really, a shared set of values among the co-founders, and while one of them was going to grad school and another was spinning off a sister company, they weren't leaving in a sense of "Done with this. Good luck. Whatever." It was very much a carefully planned out process, and that shared set of values, I think, got us through that tough time. We've had many more accounts over the years. I could-


Maiko Schaffrath  34:43

Got it. Got it. But once they left, how did you deal with the gap they left? Did you just hire for it? Did you try to find new co-founders or that type of senior support? How did you go about that?


Zak Kaufman  35:02

Bit by bit. I think we had grown a next level of leadership that needed to step up in a big way, myself included. I needed to step up into a slightly different role. I do think in a lot of social enterprises and startup companies, the role of CEO is one that is constantly being reinvented. You need to be ready to and willing to constantly reinvent yourself, and what you're focused on, and what you're responsible for, and that's something that, I think, has been a big part of my last 10 years with Vera is just staying on the balls of my feet and being ready to move this way or that way based on what the company needs as it changes. But I do think we built up a next layer of leadership that was ready to rise to that challenge, and that was really key. And then, we brought in a few other key senior leaders, I would say, over the next few years that really strengthened the company in different ways. Our CTO joined the company in 2015, and he's just an amazing guy who just really took our level of technical capability, and diligence, and maturity to a whole new level. Our CFO joined the company in 2018, and she's just brought the maturity on that side of the company to a whole new level, and that was an area where we really needed to mature and grow. I mean, there's many other examples, but I do think, for me, I look at the advice of, "You want to surround yourself with people that are smarter than you." There's a lot of truth in that. I think that that's really key to the success of an enterprise and of an entrepreneur is not seeking to be the smartest person in the room any of the time. You want to have people who are better than you, who are smarter than you around the table, and you want to constantly make sure that you maintain that attitude and that mindset.


Maiko Schaffrath  37:12

Got it. And then, the other topic I'd love to talk about, obviously, you have these global offices all over the world. What made you actually make the decision to establish those and how do you manage that structure? Are those quite independent or is it quite centralized? How do you manage all these different stakeholders, team members all over the world practically?


Zak Kaufman  37:40

Yeah, it's evolving a little bit actually. It's an area where we're constantly asking ourselves, "Are we doing this the best way, the most efficient way? Are we doing this in the way that's best set up for our staff to make sure they've got the support they need?" I would say from early on, we adopted kind of a "divide and conquer" approach. One of the co-founders moved to India and other moved to Kenya. We started up teams and built teams around them. I was based in London. I was supporting clients around Europe. And so, we kept things pretty independent. They would run their projects. We would run ours. We had one shared data system that we were using to manage the company, which is important. And then, we come together every three months or four months to sync up and make key strategic decisions and make adjustments as needed. Over time, as you can imagine, there was a need to set up an operations team. We needed more muscle for HR, and finance, and legal, and so on and so forth. And so, we were fortunate to bring on a Director of Operations, now our COO and Chief of Staff, back in 2013, so our quite early days, who's just really grown with the company and driven the behind-the-scenes work that's needed to keep a company like this not just afloat but also moving in the right direction. Over time, there's certainly been a need to grow that team around him and make sure we're bringing in world-class talent in finance, and HR, and all the other areas, not just in consulting, and product development, and product management, and so forth. So yeah, I mean I can tell you structurally how it's set up. We have a consulting division. We have a product division, so the team working on impact design and development. And then, we've got coming up an operations or global division, if that makes sense. That middle one is sort of shared services so, again, it's your HR, your talent, your learning and development, finance, legal, sales and marketing sits there, and then consulting is really around delivering services for clients. Within consulting, we have teams all over the globe, so driving, collaboration, and coordination within those teams has been really key to our success. But I think it's important, we could talk for another hour about culture. I do think we're a company that has a really strong culture, but I think it's also true that we've allowed for different cultures to emerge, and traditions and ways of working to a certain extent to emerge in the different places where we operate, and that's really been, I think, a good thing. We have elements of our culture that are globally shared and then elements that are quite local and people feel a super strong connection to the teammates that are in their hub, if that makes sense.


Maiko Schaffrath  40:52

So, this is also as an entrepreneur taking a conscious decision to let some control go over the culture. I think, very often, like the cliche startup founder, you want to control the culture, you want to make sure that everything is really the way you want it to be. But obviously, this is about some big shared values but then giving people the freedom to define the culture locally as well, right?


Zak Kaufman  41:19

You want to invest in the culture. You want to demonstrate that you care about the culture, and you want to invest in it. But if you don't allow the culture to develop itself, to evolve and emerge over time and change a bit, then you're going to be holding the company back, I think.


Maiko Schaffrath  41:38

Got it. I've got one last question for you. Your journey with Vera Solutions is about 10 years long, so far. So, my question is about the future. If you think 10 years ahead, how does the world look like in 10 years if Vera Solutions continues to succeed with what you're doing? How do you imagine the world, especially the world you're in, in terms of charities and foundation? How does that work?


Zak Kaufman  42:07

Yeah, I mean, our vision is really a social sector that's driven by accountability, transparency, and data-informed decisions. I think we've made massive progress, not just Vera, but the sector as a whole has made massive progress over the last decade. We've got a long way to go. We think of our impact as the delta that we affect in our clients' impact, and the clients we're working with range. As I said before, from small organizations to major international NGOs, like Catholic Relief Services, SOS Children's Villages, international major funders like USAID and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. So, if the systems we're building are helping those organizations to make more data-informed decisions, are helping the staff at those organizations better access the data that they need to inform the programs that they're running, I think that that is going to have a dramatic effect on, as a sector, our collective ability, not just the sector, but the world, our collective ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. You have to change what the world looks like, whether we're talking about poverty, whether we're talking about water and sanitation, whether we're talking about gender equality, whether we're talking about climate change. God knows we've got a lot of work to do, and there's no shortage of problems for us to all work on. And so, I think what's fascinating and fun but also challenging about our work is we're working across all of the 17 SDGs. We're working with clients that are having impact on, really, all of these things, and that's quite rewarding, but it's also a challenge, because we can't be experts in absolutely everything. I certainly am excited to see the progress that we can make against the Sustainable Development Goals. We've had some big setbacks and challenges with the COVID pandemic and the hope being that the world can bounce back well and hopefully that this experience has also spurred some innovation in the tools that we use, the the ways that we work as well that can propel the work forward in realizing the Sustainable Development Goals.


Maiko Schaffrath  44:31

Thank you very much for joining us today, Zak. It was really inspiring to hear about your journey from the small, scrappy, almost accidental business, running into a problem while you do some work into this global operation that's pushing the sector forward, I think. I actually used to work as a charity fundraiser. I used to actually work for SOS Children's Village fundraising in Germany, and I think that SOS Children's Village is an amazing organization, but overall, if you look at a lot of charities, I always got very frustrated how little data they actually provide to people that give money, so it's really great to see that you're pushing that forward and that the sector is moving and you're part of this movement that was much needed for a long time. So, thank you very much for taking the time today. Really inspiring to speak to you and hope to speak to you soon again.


Zak Kaufman  45:28

My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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