We all know that 2020 has been a year quite unlike any other. Most of us have had to rethink our daily lives - from how we work to the way we socialise. It became the year of the mask, the year of Zoom and the year of public health messages.
In 2020, Invest for Good celebrated its first anniversary, and I published 40 interviews with a range of authors, academics, impact investors, social entrepreneurs and changemakers. These are people who are using their money, influence, skills and experience to help make the world a better place. Some choose to invest in innovative solutions that address global challenges, whether that be climate change or the cycle of poverty. Others created businesses to tackle all number of injustices. Without exception, I was inspired by their stories and was able to draw from their expertise and insight.
While many challenges remain and many questions go unanswered, what I draw from the work of Invest for Good is hope. A deep sense of optimism that stems from knowing that there are so many talented individuals and organisations who are resolute and committed to changing the status quo.
My first interview of the year was with Alnoor Ebrahim, a professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. It was a timely interview - Alnoor had just published his book Measuring Social Change, one that he had spent nearly a decade thinking about and four years writing.
Embedding himself in several organisations with socially stated aims, the author was asked time again how they would know if they were truly making a difference. In other words, “What has been the value for money?” There was no easy answer, but he identified four social change strategies: niche, integrated, emergent and ecosystem. How you measure impact therefore is largely dependent on knowing which of these strategies applies to your project, venture or business.
He also revealed his love of literature, singling out poets Seamus Heaney and Tomas Tranströmer for giving him perspective when he was immersed in writing his book. “They helped me realise that the universe of human experience is bigger than the world you inhabit in your head.” I think we all need to be reminded of that sometimes.
A whirlwind of energy and ideas, Suzanne Biegel truly deserves the title of changemaker. Founder of Catalyst at Large, this entrepreneur and investor has spent over a decade ensuring the flow of capital to gender-smart investments and initiatives. It is work that she did not envision still doing today, but she believes it will be a long time before investing in women is normalised and no longer requires its own label.
One of the organisations she has backed is Apolitical, a global learning platform for governments. With free access to courses, articles, events and connections, Apolitical is used by public servants in over 160 countries. “My backing a company like this is partly how I think we can change the world. I believe that their leadership, as women, is part of what is making them successful.”
Companies founded solely by women only attracted 2.7% of the total capital invested in venture-backed startups in the U.S. in 2019. It is a sobering fact, given that the Harvard Business Review published research proving that start-ups founded or co-founded by women performed better than those started by men, generating a 10% higher cumulative revenue over the same five-year period.
It was hard to interview anyone without touching on the importance of being sustainable in our world of dwindling natural resources. Few championed the cause more than Monica Jain, the founder of Fish 2.0, a global forum bringing together investors and innovators to grow the sustainable seafood sector. Since its launch in 2013, the network has worked with more than 600 entrepreneurs, 500 investors and 50 sponsors on issues such as climate change mitigation, aquaculture technology, and seafood trade and distribution.
Seafood is a fragmented industry mainly because people fish where they live. For that reason, it is hard for entrepreneurs to forge useful connections across countries. Fish 2.0 is changing that, making it easier to access a community that is committed to sustainability. For seafood businesses, it can mean getting the crucial investment that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
“One of my happiest realisations was a couple of years ago,” Monica said. “When we recognised that the businesses involved with Fish 2.0 were growing so quickly, not just because of the investment they were receiving but also because of the strong connections the network was providing.”
In spring, Ayla Schlosser reminded me of an important lesson entwined with being a leader: knowing when it is time to let go of the reins. She had founded Resonate, an organisation in Rwanda that trains women to develop their confidence and leadership skills, enabling them to fulfil their potential and create positive change in their communities.
Transitioning to life in Rwanda after living in the United States wasn’t always straightforward and there were plenty of challenges that came with being a young solo founder. In particular, Ayla felt the pressure of coming up with all the answers on her own. Resonate, however, became a big success, so far training over 8000 women. Sixty percent of participants in the programme went on to take a leadership role, while 36% founded their own businesses.
Ayla realised that at some point she would need to let go of the business she had nurtured. She told me, “To truly embody the mission of our organisation, Resonate should be led by an East African,” she had determined. She stepped out of her day-to-day role in 2019 and took a position on the board of directors. With her valuable experiences to fall back on, Ayla is now supporting others in doing impact work globally.
Arlan Hamilton’s life story is the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. Little surprise, then, that it became a book. It’s About Damn Time chronicles how she went from being homeless in San Francisco to founding Backstage Capital, a venture capital fund that so far has invested about $7m in 130 companies. All of them are founded by at least one woman, a person of colour or a member of the LGBT community, people who are underrepresented when it comes to investment dollars. As a gay black woman, Arlan had experienced untold rejection, until someone invested $25,000 in her idea.
She took that money and immediately started the fund, picking up some impressive backers along the way. Today, each company that Backstage Capital invests in gets between $25,000 to $100,000. “I look for people who are doing things that I feel I couldn’t do today, or it would take me a decade or more to figure out,” Arlan told me. Determined to give back and help others, Arlan is also funding full-ride scholarships for two black students, one at the University of Oxford and the other at Dillard University, her mother’s alma mater.
No one embodies the qualities of an “entrepreneur” more than Nathalie Molina Niňo, who launched her first startup at the age of 20. She recognised that white men were the biggest beneficiaries of venture capital dollars. Not content with the status quo, she wrote Leapfrog, a bestselling business book targeting female entrepreneurs. It was a book she wishes had been written earlier: “When I started my very first company in 1996, I was an avid reader of business books and magazines. Unconsciously, I had become used to a situation where 90 percent of what I read did not apply to me.”
Leapfrog features 50 business hacks that Nathalie has picked up from entrepreneurs like her. A favourite is how the owners of a high-end lingerie company exited their business. Hanky Panky was an iconic brand built over 40 years. When the founders looked to sell it to someone else, they couldn’t find anyone who would keep its values intact. So, they sold it to their employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, giving all 170 employees shares and control of the company.
“That embodies the spirit of the whole book,” she said. “Too often, choices are framed between a limited number of options, and we are told to function within these constraints. I believe that there is always another way; it is just a matter of imagination.”
Boulder, Colorado, may not have the glamour of New York but it does have a high concentration of wealth, an entrepreneurial spirit, a very educated community and scenic hiking trails. It’s also home to Green Alpha Advisors, an asset management firm that invests in solutions to systemic risks, from widening levels of inequality to resource degradation. How? By looking for companies that are indefinitely sustainable and efficient without damaging the planet. As an impact investor and Chief Operating Officer, Betsy Moszeter looks for those companies which can earn her clients a financial return while generating a positive social or environmental impact.
She told me that COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to “recalibrate” some of our underlying systems that are slowly grinding to a halt, whether through corruption or habits that are becoming increasingly unsustainable. Betsy argued that times of disruption let innovative solutions come to the fore, advancing a different way of doing things. “Of course we’re never going to get to our ideal of a zero-risk economy,” she admitted. However, it’s her view that we would all be better off by trying to work towards it. Through its strong investment principles, Green Alpha does just that.
Impact investing has come a long way in 20 years. Michele Giddens remembers a time when you were either a philanthropist or an investor - but the lines have become increasingly blurred. Michele is the joint CEO and co-founder of Bridges Fund Management, a specialist sustainable and impact investor, working to apply investment strategies to a range of societal and environmental challenges. It’s her view that impact investors no longer have to accept financial trade-offs to achieve attractive, risk-adjusted returns alongside impact.
Bridges Fund Management invests in four core themes: Healthier Lives, Future Skills, Sustainable Planet and Stronger Communities. To date, the company has raised over £1bn in capital and made more than 160 portfolio investments across these four strategies. It has also achieved some powerful impact. In Future Skills, for instance, its investments have helped over 3,000 young people achieve better educational outcomes in the UK.
Michele sees pioneering new impact-driven investment strategies with the potential for wider adoption as an important part of the firm’s mission: “We are always trying to think: what is the new tough thing that we could do? What else can we pioneer in terms of using finance for good?”
Claudio Pedretti has a strong conviction: to help both people and the planet. It’s this which drives his work, to deploy renewable energy through a series of businesses he’s started from scratch since 2012. Bringing renewable energy to places such as rural Africa has a positive effect that gets multiplied. For example, reliable energy can be used to provide access to clean water and be used for irrigation; it powers fridges to store perishables, medicines and vaccines; and it can be used to light schools, laboratories and hospitals.
Through Windkinetic, one of his companies, Claudio built a solar mini-grid for a farm in Zambia which employs former street children. The farm also has a successful gelato factory, supplying Italian ice cream to 15 shops across Zambia. Yet in this part of the world, the power can be out for as much as 15 hours a day, creating a huge issue for keeping things cold. The mini-grid supplied the farm with clean, reliable electricity that negated the need for expensive diesel generation, which is more polluting for the planet. "As an entrepreneur, you are making a positive impact by creating jobs, but working with the deployment of energy takes that impact to another level,” he told Invest for Good.
In wealthier countries, we take access to technology for granted and expect it to keep getting more sophisticated. In other parts of the world, however, people are being left behind by technical advances. It’s estimated that 3.6 billion people don’t even have access to the internet and are digitally disenfranchised and disengaged. Determined to change this is Doreen Bogdan-Martin, a director at the International Telecommunication Union.
Doreen is spearheading a project called Giga, with the ambitious aim to connect every school in the world to the internet by 2030. This comes at a cost of $40 billion every year until the project’s end. While funding Giga is a complex challenge, Doreen believes that COVID-19 has given the project even more urgency: “There were people who doubted that connectivity was important for tackling some of the world’s biggest developmental challenges. I think they’re all convinced now because we’ve seen what it’s like not to be connected when you’re living through a global pandemic like Covid.”
For Giga, there’s an imperative to get to a solution and quickly. The project falls under the umbrella of the UN’s 2030 Agenda, underpinned by the ambition to deliver the 17 Sustainable Development Goals including ending world poverty and hunger.
COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on many people’s lives. For some of those working in the social sector, it has created a funding challenge that can make it impossible to deliver on their mission of helping others. Stepping into this breach is the Open Road Alliance, a market leader in social sector bridge funding. The ORA provides one-time loans and grants to social enterprises and nonprofits experiencing unexpected roadblocks that can derail their impact.
In the spring it experienced a huge surge in demand for its services, with triple the number of enquiries it normally gets. “The hard part is that with all that demand, there’s about $150m of requests,” said managing director Caroline Bressan. “Typically, we’re giving out $1 million to $2 million in charitable grants a year and $10m in loans a year. It’s hard seeing that level of need.”
Since 2017, the ORA has loaned $32m. The majority has come out of its Impact Fund, a first-of-its-kind bridge financing fund that helps social entrepreneurs move from impasse to impact. Caroline told me that as deep as this pandemic is, the world is and will continue to be unpredictable. “We as funders, both philanthropic and impact investors, need to be ready to respond to that if we are focused on ensuring impact.”
This month an important reminder that the world’s most pressing problems aren’t going to be solved by governments acting alone. To make serious progress on issues such as climate change mitigation, we need serious money. Encourage Capital is finding “solutions investing”. Co-founder and partner Ricardo Bayon defined it this way: ask yourself what problem you want to solve and the impact you want to have, then go about figuring out what capital flows are necessary to get that outcome.
His firm partners with experts on a variety of issues and it’s an approach that is heavy on due diligence and research. One recent project saw Encourage Capital spend a number of years working out how investment can be used to solve persistent water scarcity issues in the Western United States. It came up with a range of solutions which balanced financial returns against the desired impact in a comprehensive report called Liquid Assets.
As a result of the findings, others have adopted some of the ideas. One of these is Blue Forest, which developed a financial product that uses private capital to finance forest restoration projects on lands at risk of catastrophic wildfire. “I’m proud of Encourage Capital for some of our investments, but I’m just as proud - maybe even more proud - about how our ideas have filtered into the investment world in a different way. Some of our ideas have actually moved the needle,” Ricardo said.
That’s a wrap for 2020. To all my readers and interviewees, thank you so much for sharing this journey with me. I hope that you have enjoyed the interviews, intended to widen the network of people who are using business as a force for good and in recognition and gratitude to all those so dedicated. 2021 will be filled with more stories of changemakers and business leaders.
In the meantime, I wish you a peaceful holiday season. May the world be a better, happier place in 2021 and beyond.