Carnegie Mellon University

Amy Badiani

May 05, 2020

Investing in nonprofits with Amy Badiani

By Bill Brink

When Amy Badiani was a child, her mother took her to India to spend summers with her grandparents. They were communal, social creatures, entrepreneurs who owned a garment business, and they built their house on top of a well, a prescient decision when a drought hit.

Badiani's grandparents shared water conservation tips with neighbors, including how to pump water from wells and how to sanitize waterThey also checked in regularly with community members to share advice.

“I noticed that I couldn’t do anything to make it rain, yet I could do something to help with the levity,” Badiani said. “I got together with my cousins and friends and went door to door and gave free tickets for story-telling and dance performances that we would have on the street in India for anybody to come and watch and enjoy and laugh during a time of tension. I remember my grandparents were really proud of that.”

Badiani, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2011 with degrees in International Relations and Politics as well as Policy and Management, never lost that desire to help the community. She is now the program manager of the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund, or SV2, a philanthropic organization that invests in nonprofits.

"I wanted to understand and be a part of funders' efforts to empathetically support social ventures," Badiani said.

Carnegie Mellon’s interdisciplinary approach attracted Badiani out of high school, during which she championed the development of a cultural and social impact center and started a community garden. She saw parallels between those experiences and the way Carnegie Mellon approached holistic problem solving.

“I loved Carnegie Mellon’s focus on interpersonal connections, learning about the student life program, as well as just some opportunities of how to really connect with the Pittsburgh community,” she said.

A world history class in high school sent Badiani down the International Relations and Politics path. One of her final projects in high school, a human rights case study, opened her eyes to the refugee populations in Myanmar, and she knew she wanted to further explore human-rights issues and international development in college. She created a hands-on opportunity in the summer of 2009 and learned valuable lessons through failure.

Badiani co-founded Project Rwanda, a community-led initiative that partnered with an NGO called One Laptop Per Child to develop lessons in programming, music, and acting for primary-school students in Kigali. It was, she said, “a total fail.”

“We sort of tore everything up when we got to Rwanda because it didn’t work, the teachers didn’t want to be a part of it,” she said. “We had started with the technology and not the people, and we sort of flipped that and started with the people.”

The students saw music as a way to bridge language barriers, Badiani said, and they wanted to display their new skills in a community showcase. Badiani and her team made connections with local universities to set up a mentorship program, and the project became successful.

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“It was neat to also hear an international NGO like One Laptop Per Child tell us that they were redesigning their program to be more community-centric, based on what they had experienced with us,” Badiani said.

As graduation neared, Badiani found that people who held jobs in international development and human rights, even entry-level positions, had graduate degrees. She wasn’t in any hurry to leave CMU – “I felt like I didn’t squeeze all the juice that I could out of my experience” – so she got a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Management in 2012. 

"Even though this decision made sense in the moment, I was unsure about what I'd actually want to do after graduation," Badiani said. "I was so energized by, and grateful for, the support -- morally and financially -- of my family to explore the possibilities."

Her first job after graduation, with the International Institute Community Development Corporation in St. Louis, introduced her to the potential impact of entrepreneurship on community development.

A woman from Senegal who ran a hair-braiding business touched Badiani. St. Louis experienced a lot of gun violence while Badiani worked there. After one of the refugees whom Badiani’s organization was supporting, a man who had recently arrived in the United States with his family, was shot, the woman decided enough was enough. She turned her hair-braiding business into a community wellness center, teaching her clients how to start a business and how to build credit. Watching this reminded Badiani of the importance of social innovation. She wanted to work globally, so in 2014 she joined Ashoka, an international community of social entrepreneurs and changemakers.

After nearly five years at Ashoka, working in Washington, DC, and Africa, Badiani wanted to work locally again and joined SV2, in Silicon Valley. The organization provides unrestricted one-year and multi-year grants, as well as impact investments to social ventures. SV2 has invested more than $5 million since its launch in 1998. Badiani and SV2 streamline or eliminate application and reporting processes to support nonprofits in doing their actual work.

“We bring together a lot of people in the Bay Area community to engage in grants and impact investments, learning programs, capacity building, and family philanthropy,” she said.

Badiani shared three pieces of advice for prospective and current CMU students. Use empathy and action, she said, to solve problems. Start by starting; just go, don’t worry about failure. The third: Use Carnegie Mellon as a testing ground of sorts.

“For me, when I was on campus, that was during the G20 [summit, in Pittsburgh in 2009], and using that as a time to raise awareness of human rights issues,” she said. “Just plenty of opportunities and support at the university to really use the experience as a playground to test or further develop ideas, or get a sense of what you would want to do in the world and the impact that you want to have.”