January 7, 2021

A man with short dark hair and glasses standing in front of a front loader construction truck.A fancy necktie prompted Ryan Alam MPA 2018 to rethink his career.

Three years out of college, Alam was a successful analyst at a Southern California investment firm, where he helped deploy millions of dollars of investments on behalf of business executives and institutional investors. He was staffing a meeting with a major client when he looked down at the necktie he bought for the occasion and thought, “What would my grandfather say about this? Would he be proud or chide me if he knew I had spent money on a silly necktie to impress a rich client?”

His maternal grandfather was a cotton farmer on the border of Texas and Mexico, and Alam’s father, who immigrated to the United States from Pakistan as a teenager, lived at the YMCA until he could get on his feet. “And here I was sitting in corporate boardrooms, acting like a big shot and making wealthy folks wealthier,” says Alam. He reflected on his family’s humble beginnings and felt he ought to be doing more.

“It was around that time that I discovered impact investing” says Alam. “It felt like what I wanted to be doing—leveraging my interests and skills in finance to create a more equal world instead of drive us further apart.”

He left the investment firm and teamed up with a former colleague from Angola who was working on a business to revitalize the agriculture industry in her home country. They entered pitch competitions, secured some early funding, and even obtained a 1,000-hectare land grant from the Angolan government—but they ended up folding the effort because they came to understand they would need a much larger investment to scale a successful operation.

“I realized I was innovating in the dark,” he says. “I didn’t know how to raise philanthropic capital, productively partner with government, or build a sustainable social enterprise. I had a lot to learn—and I wanted to learn from others who’d faced similar challenges.”

a man with glasses poses with four other men in traditional garb in Ghana.
Ryan Alam MPA 2018 (right) with community members in Ghana.jpeg

At Harvard Kennedy School, he says his professors and peers shaped his perspective. “I learned how capital partners finance international projects, how to build multi-stakeholder initiatives, and how to measure impact. HKS helped prepare me for some of the early business development work I did at Zipline,” the $1 billion Silicon Valley-based drone company he joined after graduating from the Kennedy School. “I was the company’s first employee in Ghana. I worked with the Office of the Vice President and the Ministry of Health to build the public-private partnership for the company’s national-scale government contract. I ran around government offices with PowerPoint slides, hired the founding team, and together we built the world’s first drone-based medicine delivery network. Today, every few seconds, someone in Ghana receives a medical delivery from Zipline.”

The need was acute. Hospitals in rural areas often lacked the capacity to store cold-chain or expensive products such as blood and vaccines, leaving many patients at risk due to unavailable medicines. Enter Zipline, which uses drones to deliver lifesaving treatments to patients. He gives the example of a woman experiencing postpartum hemorrhaging. “She’s in dire need of a blood transfusion but the hospital doesn’t have her blood type. This is a huge driver of maternal mortality. But now, hospitals can call Zipline and our team sends it right away; within five or six minutes after the call, the product is on a drone flying to the hospital where it can be immediately administered to the mother.” Today, the company has more than 100 employees in the country. The vice president of Ghana recently celebrated the project’s success as it has delivered tens of thousands of vital medical supplies to patients across the country.

A man with short brown hair and glasses setting up a demo drone in an office.
Alam setting up a demo drone in the vice president's office.

After a successful launch in Ghana, Alam focused on Zipline’s entry into the U.S. market, where it has recently partnered with Walmart to deliver health products to patients in their homes. In early 2021, Alam begins a new role as vice president at Citibank in New York, where he will lead early-stage impact investments for the bank’s $200 million Impact Fund.

“Like any of these transitions, it’s often complex,” he says. “I was fortunate to be an early employee at Zipline, where I got to work with an elite team to build something from the ground up. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, learned a lot along the way, and I want to use those lessons to help other early-stage social enterprises reach the scale that Zipline has. In Angola, we realized we needed mentorship and resources. If only we could have talked to experienced operators and get support from experts—and that’s what I went to HKS to seek out. I would love to offer that multiplier effect to other social entrepreneurs who are building their own ventures.”