Inside the Performance Chain: An interview with Planet Habitat's Helen Ng
Helen Ng and I met at a book discussion with a group of business CEO’s in mid-town Manhattan. As she introduced herself and spoke about her company, Planet Habitat I could see that what she is attempting to do with Planet Habitat is massive and very exciting. When I called Helen for this interview, I had trouble keeping up with her rate of speech and thought. I hung up the phone sure this is a woman who will change the world. Here is a start on our conversation.
From the first page of a simple, clear website you can see the magnitude of Helen’s vision: Investing in the ‘Missing Middle.’ Affordable Living for Tomorrow’s Middle Class. Planet Habitat provides private equity and advisory services and describes itself as a “socially responsible US-India initiative.”
“My mission in life is an expression of my experiences. It is simply about, ‘What can I do with my set of skills to build bridges between the haves and have nots?’” Helen is someone who has no problem thinking big and, as in the game of chess, strategizes several moves ahead of where she is today. She has an engineering and finance background and has done most of her work in emerging markets.
“From a practical standpoint, I did not see a sustainable model. As a result, I pulled my nerd hat on and thought about: ‘How do you actually fix this?’ I decided the model needed to be recreated and co-founded Planet Habitat with a partner in India.”
What exactly is Planet Habitat?
“It is a platform that can serve the needs of the missing middle – tomorrow’s middle class around the world. It is still emerging as a model itself.”
Helen shared that this is the third iteration of Planet Habitat which is an important point to note all by itself. Sometimes the right model or performance chain isn’t obvious. Sometimes, particularly in startups and I would dare say in areas where there is no existing sustainable model such as the Planet Habitat universe, you need a willingness to try, adjust and if required – start over. You have to have Helen’s clear conviction about the long-term vision and her courage to try, let go, learn and start again.
You said the existing models are broken. What doesn’t work?
“From an operational standpoint, most are philanthropic. There is a ceiling to how much you can raise and do using donated funds.
“Also, there is too much dependence on the revolving door of young and mid-level managers, so you are constantly in a learning and retraining mode.
“Then if you look to the VC world, they are largely oriented toward technology. The sources of capital for this kind of work require a different profile.”
Can you describe how speed, predictability, flexibility, and leverage play into the performance chain you are building for Planet Habitat?
“Flexibility for us means that all the partners have to be as flexible as me. We need a mix of vision and shared accountabilities. The stew changes with the facts on the ground.
“As for speed, I do feel a time pressure. We want to respect the angel money from those that are supporting us and that adds pressure to produce results quickly. At the same time we also need visible projects that are off the ground and that can establish the next level of investment and commitment.
“Predictability is not much of a factor in our operations today. The balancing act is keeping the revenue as predictable as possible but only as much as we can without destroying the creativity and vision.”
Have you set long-term goals?
“No – our markers are short term. We have global ambitions but we don’t know how long it will take to move from our little Petri Dish to something that is fully developed. My thinking is in 3 – 6 – 9 month increments. We need to have realistic, tangible outcomes that we have delivered on, and grow from there."
Read more of my conversation with Helen Ng in ROAR: Strengthening business performance through speed, predictability, flexibility, and leverage. www.roarthebook.com
Pragmatic optimist with over 20 years of leading meaningful change. Sees every performance chain through lenses of speed, predictability, flexibility and leverage. Gets excited when smart decisions align with what customers value and generate stronger business performance. More about Chris.
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