BY WILL BURCHELL
Will is a second-year international development student. Prior to SAIS he spent time as a Peace Corps volunteer and as an energy markets analyst.
The IDEV Summer Internship Series highlights the experiences of IDEV students participating in internships this past summer. Each year, IDEV students intern with various development organizations around the world. These internships are generously funded by SAIS donors, and offer valuable opportunities for students to gain real-world experience between their first and second years at SAIS.
Ulaanbaatar is not often the first destination that comes to mind when seeking experience in the financial sector. But as it turns out, I learned more during a summer in Mongolia than I could have imagined.
I had been set on working for a multilateral institution, such as the World Bank or European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, for years. But when I got to SAIS, I took a corporate finance class that made me realize if I was to work at one of those institutions, I would rather be in a direct banking role, as opposed to research or project support. I also realized that there is a lot of impactful work that can be done inside the realm of traditional finance.
SGI Frontier Capital, the firm that brought me to Ulaanbaatar, in the heart of Mongolia, is a private equity firm with heavy focus on the firm’s return on investment. They use a ‘double bottom line’ approach that influences every decision the firm makes—meaning that outside of the financial profit, there is an emphasis on the social, environmental, or economic impacts that the firm’s investments create.
At SGI, the team is very hands-on with their portfolio, interacting with these companies frequently, so these impacts are apparent in daily work. In my first few weeks, the team got me involved with their work on a company that we didn’t have equity ownership in, but that we were providing financing to in collaboration with OPIC, via a debt facility. The company was operating in a remote part of the country, bringing quality sustainable housing to an area where most people lived in concrete apartments or gers, the traditional round tents often associated with Mongolia. By developing this housing project, the company—and SGI—was contributing to better quality of living for the entire town: gers are often associated with high pollution due to the need to use fire for heat in the winter, and lack of sewage systems or running water.
For a variety of unfortunate reasons, the company was experiencing financial difficulties. As their primary financier, we had to meet with company management as well as housing customers in order to diagnose the problems and figure out how to proceed. It was a great experience that gave me a taste of the impact that private firms like SGI can have on a developing economy, where bank financing is frequently hands-off and expensive.
Throughout the summer, I was able to work on a variety of projects: dealing with multiple industries, and various stages of the private equity process, from deal origination to investment exit. One of my biggest takeaways is the importance of articulate writing and communication is for businesses—an area where SAIS students can add great value. The investment process involves thorough research and detailed memo-writing, culminating in brief presentations to a committee that ultimately decides whether or not to pursue an investment. Financial modelling is only a part of the entire process, albeit an important one; the skills we learn in the classroom apply to multiple aspects of the financial services workflow.
The opportunity to work in Mongolia for the summer was amazing, and I am glad that I took advantage of it. While I didn’t get to shoot a bow and arrow from atop a horse as I had hoped, I did learn how important the private sector and financial institutions are to a country’s development, and my internship helped shape the approach I will take as I search for full time employment this upcoming year by taking more classes focused on global finance and economics and by adjusting my search towards smaller private firms where I’ll have the chance to gain a lot of early experience.