A big leap into the unknown or just getting home?

April 27, 2015

My name is Gilles Renouil and I come from the corporate world where I spent almost 20 years, starting as a civil engineer on international construction sites and going through various leadership positions in the (re)insurance industry in underwriting, client management, risk management, strategy and finally leading the cyber project of a big reinsurer. And now, I begin 2015 as the microinsurance director of Women’s World Banking, a global nonprofit devoted to giving more low income women the tools and resources they require to achieve security and prosperity…. What made me make such an abrupt change?

I suppose there comes a time in one’s life when you start to question what you have achieved so far and challenge the status quo. When the sun has passed over your head and you start to see your shadow in front of you, some of us start to think about what we learned in the morning and how to maximize our impact in the afternoon. This is what happened to me. I was looking for a real change, a shock so to speak. I was ready to take on a challenge, but not just any challenge. It needed to be an inspiring one. The opportunity to take over responsibility for, and further develop, the microinsurance activities of Women’s World Banking fit that description. And it was particularly exciting because it would allow me to continue to apply my experience from the reinsurance industry while increasing social impact, and learn so much about nonprofit organizations.

Part of a trend?
As I transition from corporate to nonprofit, there is something particularly interesting that I am observing at the moment: there is a sort of convergence of activities between nonprofits and corporates whereby both sides have started to realize that they need each other to achieve their long term goals. Nonprofits need to develop sustainable business models that will allow them to generate their own revenue to invest in their mandate, thereby making themselves less dependent on donors; on the other hand corporations are getting more pressure from customers and investors who demand more and more clarity about the social impact of their commitments. This is a unique situation where applying corporate techniques within a mission-oriented organization can make a job particularly attractive. And this is exactly what Women’s World Banking is in the middle of: I can see that I am joining them at a watershed moment. After 35 years of successful advocacy of women’s financial independence, the organization has strengthened its cash flow with a more than 50 percent increase in grants compared to last year, the launch of a for-profit investment fund, and our continued expansion into insurance products. For the first time in many years, leadership is able to plan with less immediate financial pressure and more strategic long-term thinking. But as in corporate business, nothing is ever taken for granted here. Our donors, like corporate shareholders, also have very high expectations. A mere look at our project management standards or financial reporting puts any doubts to rest. Admittedly, finding only top professionals here gives me more confidence for the challenges ahead.

Becoming part of the team
I feel fortunate that my first week in New York was the reflection week, a rare time in the year where everyone gathers into the head office and there I witnessed this team’s incredible dynamic. Everyone speaks up regardless of level or role. Even after an entire week, I find it difficult to say who reports to whom and coming from a huge corporation with labyrinth levels of bureaucracy, I can say without a doubt: this is so refreshing. The creativity was really visible when the organization took time to reflect on the past year and set targets for the new year by illustrating our experience as though it was a river. Then we broke up into small groups and shared our “experience rivers”. I can feel the positive energy everywhere and despite having just met everyone, it feels as if I had been part of the team for ages. So immediate was this feeling of team spirit that I was drawn to participate in a group pantomime demonstrating the economic role of women in rural areas, a nice way to share the successes of my new team from the previous year. I am a bit overwhelmed by such honest and creative sessions and it just reminds me that, apart from everything else, I also came to broaden my horizon and get out of my comfort zone.

Having set off from the familiar waters of corporations to the rapids of the unknown, I was expecting some anxiety but instead I struggled to find the right name for another unknown… the positive feeling that came over me in New York. I probed for a while in vain, but our President and CEO Mary Ellen Iskenderian found the words for me in her inaugural staff address at the new space in the Chanin Building: “we have arrived home”.


Follow Gilles on Twitter: @faqingwa