Causal Design_GoFinal-w meta.mp3
11:37PM Oct 30, 2019
from Georgetown University, this is venture forward a series of conversations with entrepreneurs in around Georgetown, in which we discuss the startup they've launched, the obstacles they've encountered, and the small wins that have made all the difference. Here is your host, Jacki Abbey.
Keith Ives is one of those people who is most at home when he's in a developing country. sporadic electricity, water faucets that run dry, leaky tin roofs and meetings held alongside of flooded agricultural sites rather than inside conference rooms. These are factors of everyday work life that Keith has been embracing for over a decade on the disaster relief and international development teams he's worked with in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Kenya. Nepal, just to name a few. Five years ago, Keith and a fellow grad student at Georgetown, turned a year and research project into an international company that helps nonprofits and government funding agencies like USA ID design and evaluate projects in developing countries. Here is Keith Ives, co founder of causal design. Keith, welcome to the podcast. Thanks Great to be here. You're running a company in the international economic development space. Tell me about how your company causal design helps USA ID and international development organizations do what they do better on the ground.
Well, with all the the jargon and lexicon of our industry, I'd say we help them with knowledge management, and monitoring, evaluation research and learning systems. What that means to the rest of the world. Yeah, in layman's terms is that we try build a bridge between practitioners. Those are the people working on the ground in communities working to improve the welfare of impoverished communities build a bridge between them, and the knowledge base or academia. So you think about organizations, institutions like Georgetown University, are putting out cutting edge research on what works. But a lot of times those reports sit in the libraries. And the knowledge doesn't get distilled down to the people who need to know it to inform their programs on the ground.
So in practical terms, how do you get that knowledge to the people doing the work?
Well, we read a lot. But we also do researchers. Exactly, yeah. So we are researchers. Our core work is actually in research, management and research creation, but doing applied research research that answers the questions for the practitioners on the ground, you're running a water and sanitation program and rural Cambodia and you want to know what the optimal prices tonight nudge rural households into buying a toilet, we can help figure out exactly what that price point should be how much a subsidy would need to be to encourage the most poor families into buying that product and improving household level sanitation.
I think that's a great example. So the seller then doesn't need to guess at how to price the toilet to get the families who need it to buy it. That's exactly right. What did you learn from your work in disaster relief with the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, that fed into the company you're now running?
logistics, logistics, logistics, really. So my job especially now as the CEO, is to try and coordinate a bunch of economists, researchers, really smart people who like to dive really deep into narrow topics. Get into the weeds, right? And I guess that's only half of the company. That's only half of delivering a product is having People who can find the right answer. The other half is how do we mobilize consultants around the world? How do we track our HR? How do we track flights and movements, security protocols, invoices and billing computers, serialized inventory like all of those other pieces, then the nuts and bolts. When I was with Doctors Without Borders, I was always surprised to find out that there weren't that many doctors. There were a lot more logisticians, HR managers, admin financial controllers, that really are the backbone of that organization. And all those people are needed to get the right doctors to the right place exact to solve the health problems that they need. Exactly. So as a company, yes, we are a research firm, but we take a lot of pride in the logistics and support staff and functions and systems that we have that support our teams.
Would you say that's one of the things that really sets you apart among research based firms.
I would say when we were a brand new startup in year one, we probably had more real bus systems than anyone else in their first year. And a lot of that was my background doing logistics in the Marine Corps for the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. I brought that to the company, your starting
point was much different.
I think today we have some of the same growing pains of every other startup is continuing to mature all of our systems at the same time, both improving our product quality, our customer service, our admin and HR all at the same time. That's pretty tough. But yes, I do think logistics and project management is one of our value adds in the research space.
Keith, you were in the Marine Corps for a few years. And the work you did well in the military uniquely equipped you at a young age for a career in disaster response and humanitarian relief. Tell me a little bit about that.
Well, I was really fortunate right out of the Marine Corps, I got a job with the American Red Cross doing disaster relief. I've been doing logistics for the military. There's only a few places a few employers that will give a 20 year old the responsibility for millions of dollars of logistical coordination and the middle One of those, one of the few, one of the few. And the Red Cross actually jumped on that experience, and helped me translate that into a job working in humanitarian response relief afterwards. And I spent a few years with the American Red Cross, working on domestic response to wildfires and floods and hurricanes before I moved to Kenya, and started doing similar work internationally. For the Red Cross. No, so I started with a small grassroots organization in Kenya. And there was actually focused on more traditional development work rather than humanitarian, aware we were working with women's self help and support groups or HIV support groups, working with them to create small businesses, what we call self help groups to finance their work, and spend about a year with them in Kenya before switching to Doctors Without Borders. MSF as they're also known by the French acronym, and I started working as a logistician with them.
For listeners sake, just tell a little bit about what Doctors Without Borders does. Sure.
Doctors Without Borders is an independent neutral humanitarian organization. They're they're kind of known as the international first responders when there's a major humanitarian crisis that's a natural disaster, or conflict or anything like that that's kind of causing or exacerbating human suffering. It's a group of physicians and nurses, epidemiologists that go in with the logistical support of project managers like
usually small planes, but
sometimes small planes, canoes, motorbikes, whatever it takes to get to those often really difficult contexts that they work in and, and that's where they specialize is really going where a lot of people aren't able to are willing to go to help people.
And you're with them for how long for one year, did that feel like a fit for you? That seemed like a good use of the skills that you had developed. It
was a phenomenal and fascinating fit. One hand, the logistical skills experience, the awareness of my context and security concerns, all of those things fit like a glove. With MSF, on the other hand, I had to learn an entirely new lexicon in a place where I had a lot of pride in being a marine. And having served. This was also a community where the humanitarian community where they were very apprehensive and even nervous about having a veteran in the ranking, because you can especially think of some of the the tensions between the American military community and the international humanitarian community. They're not natural partners. And so I had to learn a new lexicon. I also fully embraced and adopted humanitarian values and ideals, and really launched a new career line for myself there.
Were you getting restless with Doctors Without Borders? What was it that prompted you to step out of your career and go to grad school full time?
mentors and supervisors have been telling me you really need to get a tangible skill set in probably a master's degree if you're going to be a leader in this in this career field.
And that took you to Georgetown. That's right. All right, where did you study in Georgia, and
so I was at the McCourt school when I started, it was still the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. And while I was there, they became a school and took on the name record and record school public policy. And I was actually in their inaugural class for their mid PE degree, which is the Master's in international development policy. So
they were just figuring out what they were doing.
Well, I'd say that the faculty in the in the class will you know, nothing in the curriculum was was new, it was just bringing it all together into a unique degree that was clearly for International Development and not policy analysis at large.
And how did that work out for you there?
It was absolutely transformational for me. But I mean by that, I think there's only a few times in life where you completely shift your view on something where you you grab a new lens, a new skill set, and it changes the way you look at life.
Alright, so tell me, you went in with what lens and you came out with a different lens. How would you describe both with us?
So I think I went in With kind of an idealistic lens of, I just want to help people, no matter what it takes, and that's not a bad lens. I think that was a really that was a great lens. And I think especially in your early 20s, a lot of us are in that space. I had this
perspective at that time.
But I, I went in and then I learned about evidence based policy, I learned about program and policy evaluation, I learned about cost benefit analysis and efficiency and effectiveness and these concepts of saying, it's not just what you do. It's the counterfactual of what would have happened if you hadn't been there. And what was the cost of that work that you were doing? And could those dollars have been better used somewhere else to help more people more efficiently?
This is essentially the opportunity cost. Absolutely. And understanding that those analysis are fact based and can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of a program. I hear you're saying it's not just what people intended to do, but what impacted They actually have,
right. And I think that ties into what was also happening during this this period in the developing community at large, which is that rise of the concept and the ideals around effective altruism, and saying it is more than just good intentions.
And this was, what years,
I graduated in 2014.
Okay. So there was a shift in thinking in the international development community, is that what you're
saying? I think starting in the early 2000s, and then especially around 2010 2011 2012, we're seeing the availability of data, change the way that we do research and development economics and a shift from doing these kind of large Cross Country Studies, case studies or cross country regressions into getting into actually observing household behavior and setting up these rigorous impact evaluations or or RCT, randomized clinical trials, the way that we test medicines and the health side, testing our development interventions and going do these work. How do they work and having a confident welded in the end, how well do they work and what did it cost per person per hour. Come for it to work. And that was something from a data perspective, we hadn't had for the last 50 years, like we've had the last 10 years.
And I can speak to that a little bit. I was in international development in 1994 1995. And yeah, they're just beginning to talk about that, but didn't have the tools that they have now, to do that kind of analysis.
Absolutely. things that we can do with, you know, a 3g enabled cell phone or tablet, to collect data, aggregating it in the cloud, using open source statistical databases to analyze the data and spitting it out on a laptop and near real time. It's exciting, it's changing the sector.
Alright, so you were Emma court and talk us through when you started your business, why you started your business and the steps you took to get there.
Yeah. Policy degrees. Feel like two years of suffering through group projects.
Because they are Yeah.
You're suffering through statistics. You're studying you know, suffering directly. Economics and econometrics and you're really learning how to manage group projects. And myself and the co founder of causal design, right, Mr. McManus, we were we did a lot of group projects together and one of our lives in the same class. Yeah, we're same class, same cohort. And one of our last projects was to actually design a fake research project, find a fake organization that would be the subject of the research, find a fake donor to fund the research and in carried out,
wait, I thought you did this for a real organization?
Well, we decided we were going to do it for a real organization. And so for our final project for this class, we came up with a research plan that would conduct a very rigorous impact evaluation on unconditional cash transfers used in the humanitarian context. Now a quick aside their unconditional cash transfers. At this point we knew worked and they were being used in development programs all the time.
I'm gonna stop you right there and just ask you to translate that into layman's terms.
So over the last over the last, let's say 10 years, there's been a shift from going into a community and giving out in kind goods, blankets, tarps, buckets. Yeah. And shifting towards just giving cash directly back there's that there's no organization that's led a lot of this charge called give directly. We're essentially creating more of a social safety net, and also moving away from the paternalism of aid and saying, I know what you need. Exactly. And we're saying, really what the constraints here you know, which is his money, and if you had the money, you'd be able to buy and take care of the things that you need any increase the outcomes, around welfare, nutrition, things like that, that we care about as an international development community. So typhoon high on adjust hit the Philippines. And we designed a notional study a kind of a paid a desktop study of how we would do a rigorous impact evaluation on a humanitarian program focused on giving away these unconditional cash transfer. To those affected, the families affected.
And so you are two students about to graduate diving into this project. Absolutely.
And we write the concept note. And we actually take it to Mercy Corps, which is a well known American International Development Organization.
There's a large office in
DC has a large office in DC. They're based out of Portland. But they have global operations. And I think over 40 countries now, and they were responding to the Philippines, exactly the typhoon. And so we gave them this and said, Hey, could you just give us some feedback? Because we're in the ivory towers of academia right now, is this pie in the sky, or we've never actually done something like, we never actually done something like this. And further impact evaluation is becoming very common in international development, and usually more of the stable contexts, like Kenya or Rwanda, or even India, but it's not being done in in those crisis zones and post conflict post disasters were saying, Would you consider doing Something like this. And they came back and said not only would be be willing to do something like this, we want to have a conversation about you doing this for us. And that conversation suddenly through the switch for tomorrow night ago. Oh,
stop looking for jobs.
They started a company.
That's exactly right.
And you've been doing it ever since we have. What's an example of something you would do differently at the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders? Or wish those organizations would do differently? Based on what you learned in graduate school?
I think one of these things is already happening. I don't think there was an intentional focus on knowledge management, when I was in those positions of really understanding sincerely understanding what everyone else already knew.
And that's what you mean when you say knowledge management,
I mean, when I say knowledge management is is who can we learn from Are we looking and learning and trying to soak up information and identify where those other information points are? Before we dive in with our own solution? And I think in the emergency context, this is really hard. The storm hits the disaster hits. And it's a bit like the fire station, right? The alarms go off, people jump in the trucks and you go, and that's so we need to do in response.
And that's what you did at Red Cross currents, disaster relief,
right. More and more, we're seeing the response community, the emergency relief community, focusing on learning and looking back and going Hey, what did we learn from typhoon Hai Jaan, what did we learn from the Gorkha earthquake in Nepal that we can apply to the next earthquake and and not just from a logistical perspective, which is the easy thing to focus on, but also from what worked? What was most cost effective? What had the largest impact on the long run welfare of beneficiaries, not just the immediate needs, which is what we're often most focused on.
Keith, when did you know that the International Film Work would be a career for you, rather than just a job for a time. You were doing it for a long time before you went to graduate school in different capacities. And did you have a moment or a season where you thought I can see doing this for decades? Yeah.
2010 I was in Port au Prince in Haiti after the earthquake. And I was celebrating a birthday. And there was a moment and it stuck with me. It's one of those. You know, I think there's a few memories. Yeah. You just hold on to and you always feel and when I think about this, when I feel it, it was just one of those memories where I sat and I realized I was drinking a colt. 45 that was the beer we were able to get. I'm drinking I'm drinking my Colt. 45 thinking about my birthday and the past year and where I'd gotten and two things struck me One was that I had gotten there. I had no right arrived and I said I really want to work in international disaster relief. And here I was on the response to the earth. quaking in Haiti and going, Wow, it happened. This is where I want to be right. And then to Yeah, yeah, it was like this is this is where I want to be. And I'm going to be here for a while.
That's great. That is a good feeling when there's no place else in the world you'd rather be in right here, right now. Yeah, even post earthquake, right? Yeah, I've had that feeling in developing countries before. You know, waking up in the morning and having a really rough day ahead and saying there's no place I'd rather be
in right here. To be clear, I would have liked a different beer.
That's a given. Anyone in particular,
probably something with a little more hops.
coming at this from a little different angle, even in business now, five years, what would you say have been one or more of the primary challenges you faced as a business owner?
Well, to start, I had to realize that I was a business owner.
good place to start.
Give yourself I was researching And policy enemy analyst and humanitarian and fortune Good work, right just doing good work. And fortunately I had I had a strong background in logistics. So I knew how to run spreadsheets and supply chains and things like that. But moving towards managing a p&l statement was completely different. So that was the first pieces. I had to get my MBA on the fly, so to speak,
this was before the McDonough School of Business, combine the combined degree with the
a lot of people graduated with just that. Just that same need that you had
in hindsight, but no, that was hard. I had to learn how to hire people I learned about labor law and all of these other things that I didn't go into business to do. But when you're an entrepreneur, and you're starting off, you do it all.
You wear many hats. And what about in your industry? What would you identify as, as a challenge other challenges that you face in your industry that other companies don't?
Absolutely, I think selling so essentially We sell Research Services. We're professional services firm, but our clients are nonprofits, who are kind of tough clients. There is that well, one they're demanding, and rightfully so they're passionate, and they want the best products and, and they also have a lot to risk from these research products that we produce that talk about the efficacy of their programs, a bad report can really hurt them. And a good report can really bolster their success in fundraising.
So they're tough clients, particularly for someone who does what you do. Correct.
The other side of our industry is actually government contracting, and a huge amount of of the resources that support our clients. These nonprofits come from the government and some of our work as well as directly for government, US government, British Government, Australian government, so USA ID, right and in the USA, Id again, really tough client to be a company of our size. You know, we're considered as a small business by most standards under 79. Correct? That's right under 17 million is the government line for research and scientific services. We have to be compliant and all these regulatory systems, time accounting and audits, the way that we track every item on our bookkeeping and the way that no other private sector company would ever be accountable to.
And you need to do it in the same way that the larger firms Absolutely, absolutely. Who are well resourced, that's absolutely right. So you're so in that respect, you're competing with the Deloitte and Ernst and Young and
I'm contracting companies as an example. We're a subcontractor to Deloitte on a contract that supports USA ID with public financial management services, where we would help advise or evaluate public financial management systems for other foreign governments on behalf of USA ID. So Deloitte will come to us and expect our accounting systems to look like their accounting systems.
And as You can imagine that's not where most entrepreneurs kind of benchmark themselves for accounting systems in their first few years,
right? That's a great example. Tell me what is something, a mistake that you have made in the last five years that you would do differently? If you had a chance to do it again? Everyone's got it a basket of those. Can you give us one or two?
Well, the first one is we started off too cheap. You just you just didn't charge enough we didn't charge and then it
know the value. And it's hard.
Yes, to increase prices, you're afraid of losing your cash flow, you're afraid of losing your customers. And you've now established what you are worth,
right. It's hard to ask for what you're valued at in the beginning, because it feels too high, right? And then you set it lower and it's hard to raise it once. You
know, you can imagine when we went to submit a proposal in partnership with another firm that we consider equal to us okay in size and different skill sets and things like that and realized that our prices were about 50% of theirs.
So yeah, lesson learned.
My last question is, you're a member of the we work Georgetown space, the venture lab. We work as a shared workspace here in DC and other locations. Tell us how that has impacted you, your company culture, your, your work experience as a founder, if at all.
Right? Well, I'd start by saying we've been a we work member for a couple of years, even before we were allowed to lab open. That's right. And it is a great place for startup especially we have a dynamic staff size that scales up and down with projects. That's been great for us over and over your
ear off and bring you a new employee. Absolutely.
The real value that we found that the venture lab though, is that we're surrounded by coworkers and especially when you're small like us, and you miss having a team around you. And the camaraderie and the happy hours or whatever it is, we have that again, and I sit in a room with, you know, 60 other firms, I think at this point small firms all started by, by lawyers. And so there's never a shortage of someone to go and tap on their shoulder and say, hey, I've got a problem. Can you help me with this? And we all know each other, and we collaborate on a lot of pieces. In fact, our firm is partnered with another venture lab member, si, a strategic impact advisors. And we've now won two contracts together, and you met the venture lab. Absolutely. And are partnering together to be more competitive and and have had kind of a great success with that model. Oh, that's a great story. I'd also say yeah, personally, as as a founder, sometimes it is lonely, right? It's really lonely, and especially running a company with all your employees in different time zones. That's exactly right. And so, again, it just goes back to the camaraderie of not just other co workers and people sitting next to you, but also other founders.
Yeah, can't buy that. Great key thanks for coming in today really enjoyed this conversation.
Thanks for the time I did to
venture forward is a production of the Georgetown entrepreneurship initiative at the McDonough School of Business. Our production team includes Jacki Abbey Davis Aya and Ben Zimmerman. Thanks for listening. Until next time,