Inspirational Woman Interview: Esther Hsu Wang

Esther Hsu Wang is the Chief Operating Officer and Founding Partner at IDinsight, an international development organization that uses analytical and quantitative tools like experimental evaluation methodologies, monitoring and performance management systems, policy design consulting and scale-up support to enable clients to design better policies, rigorously test those ideas, and take informed action at scale to improve lives. Esther has overseen IDinsight projects in health, sanitation, agriculture, and education across Africa and Asia. She brings consulting and management expertise having worked with Bain & Company, Shokay, TechnoServe and TAMTAM – Together Against Malaria in China, Swaziland, Uganda, and Ghana. Esther holds bachelor’s degrees in International Studies and Business from the Huntsman Program at the University of Pennsylvania, an MBA from Harvard Business School, and an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School. Esther is also an Echoing Green Fellow and a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow for IDinsight, a Reynolds Fellow for Social Entrepreneurship and George Family Fellow at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership.

You are the Chief Operating Officer and Founding Partner at IDinsight. What inspired you to co-found IDinsight and what are some initiatives you’ve led as COO?

Esther Hsu Wang: We started IDinsight to improve lives by making powerful measurement tools accessible to those making decisions on the ground. We thought our team was uniquely placed to fill this gap and so we made the leap.  As COO for the past few years, my goal has been to establish IDinsight as an excellently run organization with a supportive and high-performing culture.  I been a part of exciting growth from a team of 4 to more than 100 working at any moment across a dozen or more countries worldwide.  I’ve also built out a Global Operations team that has overhauled our people processes (recruiting, hiring, training, professional development, etc.) and implemented goal tracking systems to execute our global strategy.  My role involves tracking the many moving parts of our growth and stewarding/supporting IDinsighters’ experience around the world.

What are some of the biggest data-related gaps in international development and how does IDinsight seek to fill these gaps?

Esther Hsu Wang: When we founded IDinsight, most measurement-related activities were conducted for global research and/or accountability purposes.  However, there was much less activity designed to guide real-time decisions and actions for practitioners on the front line.  IDinsight was set up to fill this gap by directly helping practitioners to generate / use evidence specific to their context.  Another fundamental problem is that the agenda to serve the poor is largely set by a limited set of powerful players.  We have an exciting effort with GiveWell – a philanthropy organization – to use preferences of potential beneficiaries to inform their giving recommendations.   It would be amazing if such practices became more widespread. Finally, we’re pushing practicality and utility of investing in data and evidence for decision-makers- our innovation team is developing real-time tools that make it even easier to use good data. We’re constantly evolving to identify new needs and opportunities that IDinsight can uniquely fill to influence the sector towards more informed decisions.

You currently work in Zambia and have lived or worked in China, Swaziland, Uganda, and Ghana. Can you share your experiences living and working in such a wide range of countries?

Esther Hsu Wang: I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel as a student and young professional and many of these adventures led to me to personal and professional crossroads and precious experiences. All of these experiences have also overlapped and woven within each other in unusual ways. China was a formative chapter since I speak Mandarin but had never been to Asia until university. I was able to see different parts of China through studying abroad and then the Shokay chapter (see below). I met my husband in Swaziland. Uganda and Ghana were my first forays into research and set me up to understand the nuts and bolts of field research. Zambia has been a wonderful place to build a team and life and it comes full circle because I speak more Mandarin here than many other seasons of my life! Each place allowed me to see life from a different view and challenged me in formative ways.

Can you tell us about Shokay, the social enterprise you co-founded, and what led you to co-found it?

Esther Hsu Wang: I joined my best friend from college, Carol, in exploring ways to bring social enterprise to remote, poor parts of China. I was keen to learn more about this nascent field of “social enterprise” and was intrigued that my consulting skills (I had been working at Bain & Co.) could be useful. Carol is an incredible entrepreneur and I was really fortunate to learn alongside her as we started making the Shokay idea reality. Shokay brings to market socially responsible textiles such as yak down while creating a livelihood for those involved. In the early days, we chased yaks across the Tibetan Plateau, woo’ed early supporters, collected down (soft hair) from nomadic herders, figured out how textile manufacturing works, marketed our products at trade shows, and buried my New York apartment in yak-product inventory!  There was also a yak cheese business in the mix. This was a unique adventure and I am so proud of Carol’s achievements and Shokay’s beautiful, meaningful products.

Outside your work, what are your favorite pastimes?

Esther Hsu Wang: These days, I love spending time with my family enjoying the (relatively) simple life in Zambia. My two young kids are full of wonder and exploration and a complete joy.  We love being outdoors (Zambia is great for that), and I enjoy running and swimming.  We enjoy having a diverse community here who are frequently also deeply committed to service through their vocations and interests. I try to keep up with friends and family in the United States as well – technology/internet has improved a lot since we first got to Zambia!

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Esther Hsu Wang: Of course the woman who has sacrificed the most for me and had the greatest role in my life is my mother. I think of her a lot these days as I am also now a full-time working mom living a country other than that of my birth. I am well aware that despite all the demands on her time, my mother always gave 100% to whatever task was at hand. On a different note, I really admired Abigail from the Bible – a courageous, quick-thinking, independent-minded, bold woman in a time when being such a person was very risky.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and/or resources?

Esther Hsu Wang: Some memorable reads: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. These days, I read a lot about parenting and kids online and a favorite movie is Inside Out. We’re currently reading about dinosaurs and African birds in my house too.  I find relevant topics to my line of work in Stanford Social Innovation Review and various international development blogs.

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