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Sarah Pearson re-joins the GIF Board

By Zach Johnstone, Director of Donor and Investor Relations  |   Posted 20th May 2022

We are delighted to announce that Sarah Pearson has re-joined the GIF Board of Directors.

Prof Sarah Pearson, DPhil (Oxon), GAICD, FTSE has extensive global executive leadership experience spanning C-suite roles in the public and private sector, including leading brands such as Cadbury and McKinsey. Her career has spanned being an entrepreneur, intrapreneur, innovator and inventor; a scientist, academic and women in STEM advocate; an investor and mentor to start ups; public servant and advisor to governments locally, nationally and internationally; and the development of collaborative innovation ecosystems.

Sarah represented Australia globally as the inaugural Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Scientist for the Commonwealth Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade, and continues some of this work through global Board and Advisory roles. She currently overseas over $1bn of Venture Capital through Investment Committees (Main Sequence Ventures), Boards (Global Innovation Fund), and Advisory Boards (Impact Investment Exchange). The remainder of her portfolio includes roles such as Director at RACQ and Paul Ramsay Foundation Fellow.

Her passion is to leverage emerging tech and innovation to accelerate economic growth, disrupt disadvantage, address global challenges, and leave no one behind. She holds a PhD in Particle Physics from Oxford, is the author on eight international patents, for cancer diagnosis and novel confectionary, and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

Meet Sarah Pearson


What most interested you about GIF?

When I first became involved with aid ten years ago I was asked by Julie Bishop, who was then Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, to sit on the DFAT InnovationXchange International Reference Group. I had previously provided my thoughts to DFAT around innovation, with a strong emphasis on finding new solutions to old problems in places they wouldn’t normally look – an Open Innovation approach that includes accessing ideas through global Challenges. During this time I encountered all sorts of people with great ideas, and ever since I have been convinced of the benefits of being entrepreneur-led: looking for innovators in the Global South with great ideas and supporting them on their pathway to scale.

This is what GIF is all about, and its venture capital-style approach to investing in innovators with the potential for social impact really resonates with me. I believe that entrepreneurs, and particularly locally-based entrepreneurs, are magnificent at overcoming challenges and barriers to prosperity, and with the right support from organisations like GIF there is no limit to the difference they can make when it comes to addressing major development challenges.

I am also interested in GIF’s commitment to inclusivity. We know that COVID has eroded decades of progress in improving the lives and livelihoods of the world’s poorest people, and this has been especially true for women and girls, as well as those living with the worst effects of climate change. I am supportive of GIF’s efforts to invest in innovations which are transforming unequal gender relations and increase the agency of the world’s poorest women and girls, as well as those which directly improve adaptation to and resilience against the climate crisis.

Which investments in GIF’s portfolio especially inspire you?

There are so many innovations in GIF’s portfolio that inspire me, but I’ll just call two out here.

The first is Educational Initiatives (EI), an India-based firm that develops personalised adaptive learning software. EI’s software, Mindspark, delivers personalised instruction to students in a classroom setting. Mindspark uses data to benchmark the learning level of every student and customise material to match their level and rate of progress. I love this because it’s all about using big data and AI to work out how to do something different in education. This is a leapfrog solution for quality education – the next generation challenge after the progress we have made on school enrollment – and the impact it is having on both individuals and the whole education system has been phenomenal.

The second is Lively Minds, whose team has created educational programs to give kindergarten children access to age-appropriate and interactive games designed to improve their cognitive skills, school preparedness, and health. The programs are run by volunteer mothers, who say that the program increases their self-confidence and agency. Lively Minds is now in the process of scaling its innovation nationwide in partnership with the Ghanaian government, and I am so inspired by the work the Lively Minds team is doing to give mothers the tools to make a difference in their children’s lives.

What is it like to be rejoining the GIF board, and how does being a GIF board member align with your values?

Having served on GIF’s board previously, rejoining feels like coming back to family. It’s an organisation made up of kind, generous, capable people who want to make a difference, and in Alix GIF has a leader who embodies all of these qualities. It is a pleasure to be a part of an organisation which shares my values around empowering people in the developing world and working closely with them to take their innovations from an early stage to achieving impact at scale.

What makes the GIF approach to impact investment unique?

I love the multilateral nature of GIF. This is all about countries coming together, alongside philanthropic and corporate partners, to find and fund innovation with the potential for significant and sustained social impact. GIF’s blended finance model might not be unique, but it is certainly rare – its ability to support innovations with the relevant financial instrument at the right stage of their development is critical, and helps to fill a gap on the capital continuum that innovators often fall into before they are ready to take on DFI or commercial funding.

I also think GIF’s approach to measuring and evaluating evidence is such an important part of its model, and in particular the way that it often provides innovators with grant money to conduct RCTs and measure the efficacy of their intervention. This is underpinned by GIF’s own Practical Impact methodology, which considers how many people an innovation, if successful, will reach, how significantly it will improve each of those people’s lives, and it then adjusts for risks. This is important because rigorous evidence of impact allows GIF to make the case for scaling successful innovations, as well as for innovation itself as an impact-effective and cost-effective means of mobilising development assistance and private sector capital.

Why is funding ‘innovation’ so important when seeking to improve the lives of those living in the developing world?

At the macro level, the need for innovation is clear. There is a shortfall for sustainable development in developing countries running into the trillions of dollars, and the challenges we face are deeply complex. There is a need to think differently about how we approach the world’s most serious development challenges, and funding evidence-based solutions with the potential for impact at scale is key.

At the micro level, I believe strongly that we should empower people with lived experience to solve the challenges affecting their own lives. I remember going to the launch of the Pacific Island Food Revolution, an innovative program that promotes local, healthy food, and being amazed by the sense of pride and empowerment that initiatives which are locally-led can bring about – it’s about much more than the money or indeed the original idea. I am proud of GIF’s work to provide innovators who already have the knowledge of their environment with the support they need to succeed.

Can you tell us about innovation in Australia and the Pacific?

In Australia, accelerating innovation capability and capacity has been ongoing for many years, but it received a real acceleration in 2015 when the government made it a policy priority and has been powering on since then. We have been working on ecosystem-growth, connectivity, collaboration, capability, and investment, with a recent push to support commercialisation of research, advanced manufacturing and global supply chains in a post pandemic world. Innovation is playing a vital role as we grow a high value economy, and I get particularly excited about activity in Australia’s regional areas who are grasping innovation to fuel diversified economies that are making a real difference in people’s lives. We still have a way to go on inclusivity, and many are stepping in to help more women take up innovation roles and entrepreneurship.

In terms of the Pacific, DFAT’s Scaling Frontier Innovation (SFI) programme supported innovative social enterprises in the Pacific to scale their development impact, and it has been phenomenal to see through the lens of this programme the growth of innovation in the region. Countries like Vietnam are really excelling in this regard, and thinking in an inclusive way – in terms of social impact and not just financial growth. Even in countries where you might be surprised to see innovation, it can be found – in Vanuatu, for example, I encountered a young entrepreneur who is harnessing block chain technology for sustainable fishing.

Innovation is thriving and flourishing in the Pacific, and there are examples of this in the GIF portfolio: from mClinica to OnlinePajak. It’s a truly exciting time to be an investor in global impact.