When Stephanie Nieman joined SJF Ventures in 2013, she wasn’t simply advancing her career, she was finding purpose. The firm, with over $250 million in assets under management, invests in high-growth companies that are bringing positive social and environmental solutions to the market. Not only does SJF provide much-needed capital for early-stage businesses, the 12-strong team also offers their knowledge and expertise to help them achieve their impact goals.
SJF Ventures typically invests in innovations that improve patient, student, employee, and other beneficiary outcomes, as well as in models that protect the environment. While Stephanie finds working with entrepreneurs exciting, the incredibly rewarding aspect of her job is seeing how creative solutions to intractable problems have helped people lead better and more productive lives. When she’s not working to bring about positive change in the world, the mother-of-two enjoys running and reading books to her children and has developed deep expertise in Harry Potter.
Invest for Good asked Stephanie to tell us about some of her current projects and why she believes that business is making progress in shifting away from prioritising profit above all else.SJF Ventures invests in companies for typically five to seven years. Many companies have been able to achieve high growth because of your investment and belief in them. Can you tell us about one of those?
We first invested in Cecelia Health four years ago. It pairs diabetes patients on a one-to-one basis with certified diabetes educators [CDEs], to help them become more successful in managing their diabetes as a chronic condition. Cecelia specialises in working with harder-to-reach, harder-to-motivate patient populations, serving over 100,000 people in the U.S. to date. Many are patients who may even be in denial that they have diabetes and are not engaging in their health.
What Cecelia has found is that, for some patients, technology or an app is not going to be enough to help them overcome whatever personal obstacles they have in managing the disease. People need human empathy and problem solving to meet this challenge. Cecelia has found a way to leverage its technology to scale human touch, pairing coaches with patients over several months. We’re excited about their work and they’ve doubled in growth just this year. They’ve grown their CDE network significantly and they’re showing really strong results in patient outcomes.
It’s not just capital that you’ve given Cecelia Health…
We work as partners with all of our companies and have helped Cecelia to understand how to make investments in its technology platform in order to continue to scale and to reach more patients. We’ve also advised on how to study the outcomes of patient results, which is challenging in the U.S., given limits on patient data access. We’re also now helping the company navigate some product expansion and deepen its clinical expertise, which is also a larger impact opportunity to become more clinically engaged with patients.
Products can be challenging to bring to market. Why?
We’re often investing in innovation. We may fundamentally believe that this innovation, business model, or technology is going to transform the market, but the exact year when that happens is the harder thing to nail. Most of our companies are not yet profitable and it can be challenging to deliver a product to market that a customer is not yet ready to buy today, especially if you’re selling into the U.S. healthcare ecosystem, K-12 education system or perhaps power utilities, none of which is incredibly fast moving. There may be existing bureaucratic structures in the way.
Market timing is an issue that almost all our companies face, and we have to help them navigate how to prudently make investments for growth in that context. We have to make sure that a company is delivering a product that will sell and it’s not overinvesting, such that if it’s a couple of years off in market timing, it can buy itself the time to wait for the market to catch up with it. It can be difficult knowing that a solution delivers impact but may not yet be able to deliver financial results. It may be hard to walk away from those potential investments, but that’s part of our work. We have to find companies that can deliver both.
You used to work for B Lab, a nonprofit looking to accelerate the vision of business as a force for good. It also certifies companies that are adhering to strict social and environmental criteria. What drew you to that work?
I was incredibly inspired by this idea that companies were choosing to identify themselves as a little bit different, as mission-driven. And many want to be held accountable for that, both in terms of their legal structure and then also in terms of the performance of their underlying business models and practices - how they affect many different types of stakeholders: their employees, community, supply chain, and the environment. Becoming a certified B Corp has a high-performance accountability threshold, so it has strength behind it. Once a company has demonstrated its legal commitment as well as its performance threshold, it becomes something it can use to distinguish itself in the market.
B Lab has found that a company’s certification often has the most appreciation internally with employees. Increasingly, people want to find purpose at work and they want to know they’re working on something bigger than themselves.
You were once one of those employees looking for more meaning from your job...
I grew up in a small town in North Carolina and was intrigued by the world of international business and finance. I wanted to move to New York and to Wall Street, to understand how those markets worked. Right out of undergrad I went to work for Lehman Brothers, largely for hedge fund clients in public equity investments. I found it incredibly exciting, but I was surprised that I didn’t find a lot of purpose behind it. I was spending a lot of time working on things that I didn’t feel were meaningful.
At the time, Lehman was interested in putting together a group working on a pro-bono basis in microfinance. I was allowed to work on that and was amazed to find how much purpose I got from that work. I had much more personal fulfillment when there were deeper social impacts behind what I was doing, with real outcomes for people. I went back to business school to pursue a more impactful career and found out more about entrepreneurial models and venture capital in the world of impact investing.
As someone who has now spent over a decade in business and finance, what are your views on standardising how you measure impact in an industry or sector?
I think it’s possible to create tools so that people who have different definitions of impact can agree on some common frameworks, common systems or common thinking. But I don’t believe there can be one definition, one metric, that everyone will align to and want to use. Some of the best work today in creating common frameworks of how to analyse impact is coming out of the Impact Management Project, which is great to see.
The industry is also moving away from the idea of measurement as the main goal. A decade ago, when I started working in impact investing, everybody wanted to talk about impact measurement. Today, we want to talk about impact management, which is starting with goals or expectations that you want to see through your investment and working to achieve those. The idea is not to just sit back and passively trust everything is working and collect some data, it’s about actively working towards that impact and contributing to it. Yes, measurement is one component to understand, but management is fundamentally the more important activity.
Do you think progress is being made in how companies operate, shifting away from a culture of corporate greed to corporate good?
I do think we’re making a lot of progress. In the field of impact investing, we believe that one can make strong financial returns alongside impact. We’ve seen this belief grow as more families, foundations and institutional investors take an interest in impact investing. It’s no longer the view that there’s a trade-off to be made financially; it’s increasingly seen as a sound and exciting investment thesis. The change is also being led, I think, by consumers and employees who are demanding multi-stakeholder views and that social and environmental performance is included in the role of companies. It’s creating an economic system where we work for those considerations to be more embedded day-to-day into the capital markets.
Do you have any doubts about our ability to change as a society?
I'm pragmatic and I know that the social and environmental challenges we face today are greater than ever. They’re big issues for us to resolve as a society, and I do think there are policy implications needed, in addition to the input of the business world. We need everybody to come together to overcome some of the economic inequality challenges, as well as the climate change challenges we have. I’m not saying that everything is getting better, but I do think that the mindset of what is business’s role is changing and that includes the impact we can create through it.
Stephanie Nieman is a Principal at SJF Ventures. For more about their portfolio and approach to impact investing, visit their website.