warren ang

With the continued focus to integrate ESG into Corporate Strategy & Operations, Page Executive is keen on playing our part to help draw stronger awareness within our business community by launching our latest Conversation with Social Impact Leaders online.

In every episode, we are going to invite one leader from the social impact sector (non-profit, public, social enterprise, education) to share more about his/her passion in this arena as well their advice and tips on the marketplace.

This time, Page Executive's Gabriel Nam speaks to Warren Ang, Founder and CEO of GDI East Asia. Here are some of the key highlights from the conversation:

As a leader, what is your biggest pain-point when it comes to talent management in the space? 

Attracting top talent into the impact sector is a shared pain-point for those of us in East Asia / South East Asia, where there is still only a handful of organisations genuinely looking for and able to absorb this tier of talent. 

We are looking for an incredibly rare mix of top-tier strategy and execution capabilities, local language and cultural depth, demonstrated passion and curiosity for impact at scale, and the entrepreneurial willingness and risk-taking to jump into start-up environments.

It is getting better as we grow our own internal talent base, and as more vehicles emerge requiring top talent in the impact space, but we need more players so that there can be an industry to enable diverse career paths for those wanting to work in impact in Asia.

Despite the challenge you mentioned above, we see that GDI hires quite a lot of ex-management consultants. How are you able to put them to work in social impact and what is the attraction for consulting talent to join GDI?

We do not just do the strategy, we build and scale the initiative too - it means that you get to create and see the results and impact of your work. In my conversations with young management consultants, seeing the real impact of their work is increasingly important to them.

The part that is often more refreshing to ex-consultants is getting to drive and own the ideas for scaling impact. This is in stark contrast to the nature of consultants as a service provider, where success is largely measured by number of projects, profitability, and client satisfaction. For us, we focus long-term on 2-3 big bets in each market, where our primary measure of success is 'the extent to which our initiatives create impact at scale relative to the problems we seek to solve'. 

Functionally, the closest thing to GDI in the for-profit world would be VC/PE portfolio managers who identify start-ups or growth-stage companies with potential, and partner for the long-term to scale their results. There are two differences: first, our results are in scaling the impact of the organisations vs. the financial return of the organisations. Second, the types of initiatives we incubate are often multi-stakeholder in nature, and seek to facilitate collaboration across public, private actors. Meaningful collaboration does not usually happen on its own given the different agendas, interests of actors. It often needs new entities and initiatives to anchor, facilitate and execute win-win projects. 

As an ex-management consultant yourself, what are your rewards and sacrifices (e.g. financially or psychologically?) of working for a non-profit?

The rewarding parts…

I have always believed that I am not in the social impact space because of only altruistic reasons. I also believe that social problems are more complex and interesting to work on than the corporate or business challenges I worked on at the start of my career.

When I was in strategy consulting in the private sector, there is an agreed upon definition of success (maximising shareholder value), and there were blueprints to look at in terms of how others did competitive or market-entry strategy. In the social sector, there are multiple, often conflicting measures of success, and there are rarely blueprints to look at. What’s the blueprint to address the large and growing mental health challenges? Or for how education needs to change in the age of AI? Or how we can strengthen the value of the social sector in solving social problems in Mainland China? To people who like strategy, problem solving and building things, the lack of blueprints is the fun part.

The power structures governing social problems are also far more complex than market-forces alone; it requires an ability not just to look at the problem from a content or issue perspective, but be able to understand the system that it is a part of, politically, culturally and socially. Elevating up to the systems' perspective rather than a single organisation perspective, is the other fun part for working as an 'architect' to create impact at scale.

One of the biggest rewards for working in this space, is the satisfaction of working on problems that matter, at the systems' level. It is the satisfaction of knowing that you made a real contribution that might not have happened otherwise. If you were to leave your job in the corporate world, there is always someone to replace you, but often in our sector, if our teams didn’t tackle these challenges, solutions may never have happened. 

The required mindset adjustment….

Financially, getting the pay-levels up to make it acceptable for top tier talent is still a work in progress in East Asia / South East Asia. As the industry grows, it will get better over time, and it is also something that candidates need to realise they can contribute to, by helping to create value.

What candidates sometimes have not yet realised, is that their salary in the corporate world is not a reflection of their universal labour market value. It is a reflection of their job’s value in a given company’s economic model. You are given that salary because that is a reflection of how much money the company makes from you being there in that particular role.

Your value in the social sector might be completely different, depending on your ability to create value in this ecosystem. For example, many foundations in East Asia had no history of engaging professionals to work in partnership prior to us working with them. It takes time to demonstrate your value, but once you do, you are able to raise the salaries of the team because people are always willing to pay for quality work and partnership.

Like any new market-build, the talent that the social sector needs now are the ‘early adopters’ and the ‘early majority’. If you are willing to adopt that mindset, then it’s possible to invest time and get to top tier salaries for the social sector.

If you are considering working in social impact space, the first decision is to ask yourself whether you want to work there full-time. Once you decide this, then you should compare the salaries of those who get to work in social impact full-time. In this industry, there are opportunities to earn top tier (for the social sector) and comfortable salaries. It may take 2-3 years of your investment, but you can play a key part in creating your future job and the compensation you receive.

In reality, the financial rewards on an absolute basis will not match what you can earn by staying in the private sector. However, what you lose in pay, you often more than make up for in terms of impact, culture and personal fulfilment.

Many professionals ask us about making the switch from corporate to impact, but it is not always as easy and straightforward as we think. When is the right time in your view?

There is no right time for everyone, but if you have had significant experience in the corporate sector, and you are convinced that what you want to do in your career is build initiatives that have large scale social impact, then there is no better way than jumping in and doing it. You cannot learn this in master's programs, or by staying in companies where it is not their mission or focus.

I have seen quite a few cases where individuals join a corporate foundation or impact team with lots of excitement, only to realise that the priority for impact is highly correlated to business performance, and it is never going to be 'core business'.

Jump into a vehicle where impact is the core business, and you can build your own track-record of designing and building impactful initiatives. What matters in our sector is your track-record, and what you have been able to do, as opposed to your titles.

I would also encourage people to be creative and taking small steps, particularly if big life changes feel less possible. You can still be in a corporate role, but start engaging with organisations you admire. Taking a significant leave of absence to do a secondment (6-12 months) is a great way to get to know the impact space, whilst still retaining your safety net.

> Photo credit: Yidan Prize Foundation


About GDI:
GDI (Global Development Incubator) is an incubator for ventures and initiatives that create social impact at scale. Our track record includes 40+ social impact ventures and initiatives, many are multi-million USD efforts tackling systems change across multiple issue areas such as poverty alleviation, education, health, climate, and social inclusion.

About Warren Ang:
Warren is the Founder and CEO of GDI East Asia. He works with foundations and NGOs to design, build, and grow initiatives to achieve large scale impact and systems change in Migration and Livelihoods, Health and Mental Health, Education, Disability Inclusion, and Poverty Alleviation across Greater China, and South Asia. 

In addition to scaling impact ventures and initiatives, he is regularly engaged with philanthropic foundations for long-range strategic planning, where his work has shaped hundreds of millions of USDs of grant-making. He also sits on the Judging Panel for the Yidan Prize for Education Development.

Prior to GDI, Warren was a strategy consultant in both private and public sectors, and has served in executive positions at NGOs, grant-making funds, and impact investing funds. Warren holds an MBA with Distinction from INSEAD. 

About Gabriel Nam
Gabriel is the Partner of Page Executive, leading the ESG, Strategy and Transformation practice in Asia. Based in Singapore with Asia-wide coverage, Gabriel advised his clients on senior-level executive searches across industries throughout Asia. In addition, Gabriel is also an active member in conducting senior talents searches in social impact and business/professional services sectors with 15+ years of experience in research, recruitment/executive search, and leadership roles at various organizations. 

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