Investing in Emerging Markets & Unlocking Opportunities with Sean Ahn

In this episode of Business Beyond Borders, we are joined by Sean Ahn, an investment officer at IFC, the private sector investment arm of the World Bank Group. With over a decade of experience, Sean has led remarkable transactions across Asia Pacific and beyond, covering diverse asset classes such as equity, mezzanine, distressed, corporate, and project finance. His expertise spans across multiple sectors, including agribusiness, consumables, natural resources, and infrastructure.

Prior to joining the IFC, Sean has also taken on various roles in prominent financial institutions such as Clearwater Capital Partners, Bain & Co.’s Private Equity group, and Goldman Sachs. 

*The responses provided here have been rephrased for brevity and clarity. For the exact answers and a comprehensive understanding, we strongly recommend watching the full video podcast or tuning into the audio podcast.

Q: Can you share more about your role as an investment officer at the International Finance Corporation (IFC)?

In my role at IFC, I source and assess new investment opportunities globally. This covers diverse sectors like agribusiness, consumables, natural resources, and infrastructure. A significant part of my work is dedicated to evaluating the financial sustainability of these opportunities on behalf of IFC.

Q: What led you to embark on a career journey with IFC?

Growing up in Indonesia, I was passionate about contributing to a developing country, and IFC seemed like the perfect avenue for international work. After business school, I applied and joined IFC about eleven years ago, which allowed me to bring my global insights and industry knowledge to the table.

Q: Could you share an example of how cultural understanding played a role in your negotiations or interactions?

In negotiations, especially with non-English-speaking companies, incorporating a few words in their local language during discussions can ease tension. For instance, during a negotiation with an Indian company, I requested a break and asked for a bottle of "pani" (water), which lightened the mood. Making an effort, even if with some grammatical mistakes, helps in building stronger relationships across the table.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your global role at IFC?

The diversity of my role is what I find most enjoyable. Working with colleagues from various backgrounds and roles within the institution adds richness to the experience. I can focus on investments in Asia, my primary area, but also have exposure to different geographies, as exemplified by my work in Nigeria a few years ago.

Q: How do you measure the success of projects at IFC and ensure their sustainability in terms of impact?

A good project is assessed based on universal criteria, but at IFC, we emphasize its alignment with the development needs of emerging market countries. We incorporate key development outcomes into financing agreements, such as the engagement of a company with smallholder farmers. This provides a tangible measure of the project's developmental impact.

Q: How do you balance financial outcomes with development impact when evaluating opportunities?

Rather than seeing it as a balancing act, I view financially sustainable projects as inherently developmental. If a project generates good returns, it's likely contributing positively to the community, unless it involves illegal activities. The key is to invest in projects that align with IFC's mandate in emerging market countries, ensuring both financial success and developmental impact.

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