"There have been many points where I’ve seen the value of that we’re doing," says Jenna Nicholas CEO of Impact Experience, an impact investing organisation working to transform vulnerable communities, "but one that really stands out was in West Virginia."
In the town of Williamson, more than 2,000 jobs were lost in a four year period owing to the coal crisis. The community was battling some of the highest rates of obesity and opioid addiction in the US.
Impact Experience was working in collaboration with local partners in West Virginia on a project to retrain former coal miners. This began, as all Impact Experience projects do, by building trust with local partners including a one-to-three-day meeting of different partners from inside and outside the community.
“We start each Experience with everyone in the group sharing a symbol or an object that has significance to them,” says Jenna, who was born in New York and grew up in London before returning to the US to attend Stanford University.
In West Virginia, one of the attendees was a former coal miner, "He shared a piece of coal and talked about how it didn’t just signify his work but was also a part of his personal identity and his identity as an American citizen".
Jenna continues, "We also had a Silicon Valley investor in the group. She’d spent her life fighting for environmental causes but had never actually met a coal miner before. It was such a powerful starting point for engagement.”
A lot of the work Impact Experince do is around implicit bias, Jenna explains, "it’s important to get everyone to connect at a deeper level and see our common humanity. Bringing together people who may have preconceived notions and biases and allowing them to engage and co-collaborate is key."
The launch of Impact Experience
It was identifying this need for collaboration between different groups, overcoming biases and including marginalised voices that was one of the catalysts behind the launch of Impact Experience in 2015. After graduating from Stanford University with an International Relations honours degree, Jenna was working as an Associate on the Calvert Fund Special Equities programme, part of Calvert Investments, which invests in higher-risk, socially and environmentally responsible enterprises.
"I helped to build a coalition of about 170 foundations that were divesting from fossil fuels and investing in new economy solutions," says Jenna.
It’s important to get everyone to connect at a deeper level and see our common humanity. Bringing together people who may have preconceived notions and biases and allowing them to engage and co-collaborate is key.
"I kept seeing just how disconnected many of the funders and companies were from the communities they were investing in. I started thinking about different ways to build bridges between foundations and companies, artists, innovators and marginalised communities to co-create solutions."
Jenna returned to Stanford, to the Graduate School of Business, to build on these ideas and while there received the Stanford Social Innovation Fellowship, which provided initial seed-funding to help get Impact Experience off the ground.
Working with the community
Since its launch, Impact Experience has worked on a number of projects including: supporting the mental and emotional well-being of youth and adolescents of colour; engaging with a number of local partners in Houston to drive a diverse, inclusive and equitable rebuilding process following Hurricane Harvey; and using art as a tool to rebuild the hearts and minds of families affected by the Northern California Firestorm in Sonoma County.
"In the communities we work in, many of the conversations that take place within the impact investing space happen without the voices or perspectives of those who are ultimately most impacted by the decisions made," says Jenna. "Being able to shift how we have those conversations, and who has the leadership role in these conversations, is a big priority for us."
Jenna also believes Impact Experience’s acceptance within the communities it works in, is helped by the business model. They have a partner within each community and are asked to engage in the work, so it’s an ‘inside out rather than ‘outside in’ approach.
The enterprise then curates different funders and companies working on core issues aligned with the needs of the community. After the initial one-to-three-day meeting, where the group follows a curriculum building trust, mapping out opportunities and challenges, there is a period of nine months to a year of fulfillment and follow up.
The growth of impact investing
Jenna’s interest in social projects is longstanding. As a child, growing up as part of the Bahá'í Faith, she took part in projects focused on environmental conservation and youth empowerment in India and the Congo. This interest was cemented at Stanford where she became particularly interested in the social impact and investment space in China, working as a consultant intern in Beijing, for San Francisco based Business for Social Responsibility after graduation.
Alongside Impact Experience, Jenna is President of Phoenix Global Impact, a firm that specialises in impact investing, social entrepreneurship and strategic philanthropy. She’s an investor in Localized, a talent tech platform connecting employers to graduates and students in emerging markets, and an advisor for Ethic, an automated investment advisor that helps responsible investors build and optimise their portfolios.
Impact Investment is an area she has seen grow during her career and predicts this expansion will continue in the future.
"I think we’re seeing more and more interest in impact investment. Many of the large institutional investors are developing impact-investing divisions because there’s so much interest from their clients and they’re actually competing with one another for talent."
Then there’s the intergenerational wealth transfer that’s taking place. There’s a lot of interest from next-generation family members who are trying to get their families to be more engaged around strategic philanthropy and impact investing. I think we’re going to see more and more funds starting in this space and more allocation of capital.
While that may be how Jenna sees the future of impact investment, what about Impact Experience? "We’re deepening the work in the communities we’re already engaging in as well as expanding and looking to other areas of the world," she says.
You can find out more about Jenna and Impact Experience on their website.