Esther Altorfer, 26
Born: France by Swiss parents
Esther Altorfer knew only one thing growing up—that she wanted to have an impact. After interning for a year in China at both Goodyear and UNICEF, exploring the possibilities of the private sector compared with NGOs, Esther discovered her path—impact investing and social enterprise.
She graduated with a double masters degree in finance and international relations, did a stint at an investment bank, joined a micro-finance initiative in Bolivia before landing her dream job as the Finance Manager at Sistemo Biobolsa in Mexico, a high impact social enterprise working in the waste-to-energy segment with smallholder farmers.
Esther believes we all have the power to make changes to the world at our scale and that everything we do has a knock-on effect. She believes in fearlessly chasing down advice from role models, networking like a boss and giving every thing you have in pursuit of a job that fulfils you.
Tell us about your current job in Mexico City.
I work for Sistema Biobolsa, a Mexican social enterprise that sells biodigesters to farmers. Biodigesters transform manure into renewable energy and organic fertilizer. So basically what we’re doing is transforming problems—waste, flies, bad smells, pollution, expensive energy and fertilizers—into savings for small farmers by helping them to replace expensive and unsustainable fossil fuels with the outputs of the biodigesters.
We have several sizes of systems, so we can work with a wide range of farmers, from subsistence farmers who have one cow to small industrial farms of 300 animals. This represents a huge social impact.
I have always wanted a job that’s meaningful. I understand that that’s not the case for everybody but I need to be passionate about my job. I need to believe in every single thing that I’m doing.
I am the finance manager so I do everything from managing daily cash flow to managing our internal micro-finance program. We’re working with Kiva, an innovative American nonprofit which does crowd funding for clients of social enterprises. They have been on-lending their money to our clients to provide them with interest free loans to purchase the systems, which is crucial in reducing the initial financial barrier for farmer’s participation.
This year, I have also focused on negotiating and closing investment deals with impact investors who are helping us to scale and replicate Sistema Biobolsa across Mexico and in Latin America!
So this is your dream job then?
Yep. It’s very exciting and more or less what I was dreaming of doing when I was a student. The combination of working for the empowerment of smallholder farmers, renewable energy, organic farming and inclusive finance with a smart team is how I would describe my dream job.
That’s great and so rare!
Yeah, I had been looking for so long for something in renewable energy. I have always wanted a job that’s meaningful. I understand that that’s not the case for everybody but I need to be passionate about my job. I need to believe in every single thing that I’m doing. I have worked in jobs where I wasn’t passionate and I wasn’t fulfilled and I don’t want to do that ever again.
There are phases in life when you need something stable and structured so before arriving in Mexico I worked for an investment bank. It was great because I was working with an impressive international team, the office was really nice and I was learning lots. But I was providing financial advice to multinational companies whose business models I do not approve of for ethical and environmental reasons. I don’t think that they’re responsible and they’re not moving society towards my vision of a human, caring and united society so it was a bit difficult to be helping them to grow through the advice I was giving them.
Then this opportunity came up…
And you jumped on it! So what do you think makes a job meaningful, specifically to you?
To me it’s being a positive change in the world, and making the world more just and fair through sustainable development. Helping people who need help but not by providing them with free things, rather providing them with meaningful solutions to improve their living standards.
Every opportunity I have had so far, I have looked for it, consciously.
I don’t think NGOs have the answer to everything, so I’m really focused on social business (in its strictest definition). For me I need to feel that I’m making a change. Not just by empowering farmers and allowing them to make a living but also by changing consumer attitudes. Instead of going to Walmart, people should be going to the farm down the road and helping a person by consuming their products and rewarding the person who grew the plants instead of the intermediaries.
When people meet you for the first time, what are their greatest misconceptions about you?
It really depends on who it is and where I am because I tend to adapt to the people that I am around. If I am with my friends who like to go out in fancy clothes and chit-chat about new restaurant openings, I can behave in a similar way. If I am with my friends at an organic market, I can say that I spent the afternoon gardening and had worms on my fingers. So I’m not sure but I think the biggest misconception they could have is to think that I am only one of these things, that I only belong to one of these worlds when I actually cross through all of them every day because, in fact, they are not that different!
So where do you want to be in ten years time? Will you still be in Mexico?
In ten years I could be anywhere! I could be in the Parisian suburbs in a house with a garden and little kids or I could be somewhere like Kenya, perhaps with children there also…I don’t know. I do want to be close to my family in France at some point in time, but there are so many countries and cultures I am curious about.
Career-wise are you happy to let the path reveal itself to you or are you formulating which direction you want your career to take? Are you walking in a particular direction deliberately?
Every opportunity I have had so far, I have looked for it, consciously. I Iove networking, I love meeting new people and I have no problem approaching a total stranger and telling them that I am a fan of what they’re doing and asking to meet with them. So I think I have been really looking for opportunities and then taking the ones that I think are the best.
But as for what my actual next step is after Mexico and after Sistema Biobolsa, I don’t know. I have no idea, honestly.
What would your advice be to younger budding social entrepreneurs?
There’s two things. Never, never give up and don’t believe people who tell you it’s too soon to take that leap. I have heard so often that you need to do three years at an investment bank or you need to do three years at a consulting company before you can add value to a social enterprise or to an impact investment fund but I refuse to believe it.
So my first piece of advice would be to stay focused and convinced and give every single cell of your body to finding your dream job and the second one is to accept that it might take a bit longer than you think!
Great answer! What do you think we should be talking more about, as a society?
I think we should be talking less and doing more. If everybody would do the things they talk about, it would be very different world. My key message is always that you’re a consumer, you’re a voter, you’re a person living in a society with the power to influence politicians and influence big companies. You can send a message through your votes and through what you choose to consume.
We all have the power to change the world at our scale and everybody should start doing it.
We can all do things. Nobody can do everything but we can all do something. I’m aware of my carbon footprint, I take planes and things like that, but I am doing other little things where I can, same as everybody else can: car-sharing, buying local food, doing voluntary work, avoid using plastics and packaging, smile to people in the street…
Do you believe that one person can change the world?
I think everybody who talks about change and who embodies change can change the world. We all have the power to change the world at our scale and everybody should start doing it. Just swapping clothes with your friend instead of going to H&M or growing your own tomatoes in the garden and appreciating the time that it takes to grow something is change. These very little things but they make a difference.
Pierre Rabhi is a farmer and philosopher that I admire a lot. He created the ‘Mouvement des Colibris’ (Hummingbirds Movement) based on a legend he tells. It goes like this: One day, the whole forest was on fire, all the animals were scared and looked around at the burning forest feeling helpless. Only the little hummingbird was active and kept flying back and forth to throw drops of water on the fire. After a while, the animals got agitated and said ‘Hummingbird, you are crazy! You won’t put out the fire with those tiny drops!’ and the hummingbird answered, ‘I know, but I am doing my part.’