Esther Wang MBA 2009/MPA 2010 is a co-founder of IDinsight, a global nonprofit research and analytics firm that brings data to decisions in global development. Esther recently joined the Elevate Prize Foundation, advising winners of the social impact award. From 2012-2024, she served as a Partner, COO and interim co-CEO at IDinsight, based in Zambia and Kenya. Earlier in her career, she was a strategy consultant with Bain & Company, co-founded a social enterprise in Tibet, and co-led various nonprofits. She was also a partner at the Bridgespan Group, advising nonprofits and philanthropy. Esther holds joint BS/BA degrees from the University of Pennsylvania’s Huntsman Program in International Studies & Business, an MBA from Harvard Business School (HBS), and an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). She was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship and a George Leadership Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership (CPL), an Echoing Green Fellow, and a Presidential Leadership Scholar. 

As she completes her term as co-chair of the CPL Alumni Council, Esther reflects on her path to HKS, her CPL experience, and the lessons she has learned working in both the private and nonprofit sectors.


Path to HKS 

What brought you to Harvard? 

I worked in the private sector for over two decades before deciding to attend HBS and HKS. My faith drew me to look for ways to serve and give, and as I entered my professional career, I saw that even my early career skills might be useful in improving lives. I had started to explore social impact paths while working in consulting and felt like there were a lot of things I had learned by osmosis. My education at HKS, which wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for CPL, helped to round out my experience. 

How did your CPL experience influence your career trajectory and professional development, specifically as you co-founded IDinsight?  

I volunteered to serve on the CPL Alumni Council because I see my CPL and HKS experience as pivotal in my personal and professional life. Because of CPL, I was able to attend HKS, which is where I met the other students who went on to co-found IDinsight with me. As a part of the Reynolds Fellowship in Social Entrepreneurship at CPL, I was exposed to many inspiring leaders, both within my cohort and beyond. A group of us met weekly to explore our nascent ideas, which was an important part of the genesis of IDinsight. Summer funding allowed us the opportunity to test our proof-of-concept internships. We participated in business plan competitions on campus to practice sharing our ideas and to benefit from the feedback and mentorship available. The Harvard network and affiliation helped us to build credibility in the early days, and the Harvard impact has been long-lasting for IDinsight. Nearly all of our founding Board members were Harvard classmates and many of our first hires were from the Harvard network.  

What were the most significant takeaways you learned at CPL, and how do you implement them today? 

I loved the diversity of experiences I encountered at CPL. I met people with different types of backgrounds, stories, and careers. The more stories I learn from others, the more open minded I am. I appreciated CPL’s investment in opening my eyes and giving me so many more data points to consider and reflect on as I stepped into my own leadership shortly after my fellowships.  


Nonprofit Work Experience 

What’s special about working in the nonprofit sector? 

I have met equally ambitious and high-achieving people in both the private and nonprofit sectors. In the nonprofit sector, there is more emphasis on collaboration, or what is described as the “big tent.” Everyone is working toward a common goal, and there is a baseline of values alignment across the field that leads to generosity rather than competition. 

What challenges have you faced in the nonprofit sector and how have you overcome them? 

One personal challenge I have faced is overcoming the uncertainty of being “off the path” or not being on a conventional professional route. It helped me tremendously to have a co-founding team for support and encouragement. We had to learn how to find investors who believed in the mission of our organization, to tell our story in ways that resonated with our audiences, and to show our impact clearly. 

The ultimate goal of my social impact roles has been to improve the lives of the vulnerable and in need. My co-founders and I have been so proud of the many colleagues around me who I’ve seen grow and flourish through the years. Many of them took a risk to join a small nonprofit startup with a vision, and we’re so happy that it was a great launchpad for their future paths. 

What were two critical lessons you wish you knew prior to founding IDinsight? 

1) Having less experience can be a positive. Starting with a clean slate, a fresh perspective, and an open mind means you can see more possibilities. I had to learn quickly to not let my age or the newness of our ideas to hinder me. 

2) Relationships are essential to the success of an organization. No matter how good the idea, how solid the data, or how obvious the solution, if you don’t have trust and human connection, progress is slow or impossible.  

What advice would you give to current students who are in the idea/planning stages of a startup?  

Go for it! If you wait until you have full clarity, you’ll never start. The best way to learn is to find trusted mentors and peers and get in the game. Ask someone who has more experience than you and help others wherever you can – this will come back to you one hundred-fold. 


Alumni Experience  

In what ways do you think that alumni involvement enhances the overall impact and effectiveness of CPL?  

The alumni community has grown considerably since I graduated. The potential to bring connections, experiences, and wisdom to this community is exciting. I believe that the alumni have a lot to offer from their different perches in the world. I hope that I can continue to support and help current and future students and shape CPL’s future impact.  I hope for the CPL experience to continue well beyond campus and continue to contribute to careers, impact, and friendships. 

I have been floored by the richness of our alumni community as well as the professional excellence of the CPL staff. I believe that the alumni have a lot to learn from the students and younger alums, as perspective are changing as the world involves. I’ve learned to keep touchpoints and the door open, so that when I do have the bandwidth to engage, I already know what I can do to support the CPL community.  

What advice do you have for students and alumni who wish to make a meaningful impact within the HKS community?  

For students: Focus on relationships and not spreading yourself too thin. Identify what brings you joy and how to thoughtfully spend precious months. Also, think about HKS as the beginning of a lifetime of affinity. Make the memories and expect to continue to stay involved in different ways after graduation. 

For alumni: Stay connected! I have been so pleasantly surprised to be a part of the very active Harvard Club of Kenya and to re-engage with CPL after years in Zambia. I’ve found that if you reach out and put in effort, there are so many wonderful people and relationships available to us, no matter where you are in the world and in your career path. 

This community will always be for you.