Last week, impact investors and social entrepreneurs gathered from around the country in San Francisco, Calif., for Investors’ Circle—an early-stage impact-investing network. Hundreds of angels, venture capitalists, and foundations comprise the group, which has invested in a large number of social enterprises dedicated to improving the environment, education, health, and community.
From hundreds of social enterprises that applied to present at the conference, only fifteen were selected to make a formal pitch. Between these pitches and an array of informational booths, investors could learn more about individual projects and companies, then debrief and compare notes.
A few enterprises that stood out were Grampower, which sets up smart microgrids in remote areas to provide on-demand, reliable electricity to telecom towers and rural households with an affordable prepaid purchase model; Runa Tea which creates livelihoods for indigenous farmers in the Amazon by selling healthy tea products; PhilanTech, an online grants management system designed to address inefficiency and help social sector organizations get maximum social impact from their projects; and SunFunder, which provides affordable capital to solar companies around the world.
Along with these inspiring organizations came some inspiring talks. In his keynote, Randy Komisar, a partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byer suggested that there needs to be a quantum shift in the way that investors and entrepreneurs approach investment opportunities and that social impact should not be sacrificed for the sake of high returns. Komisar is a great proponent of leading change from within established organizations and framing change by way of asking probing questions rather than always feeling as though you need to have all of the answers.
Ben Thornley, director of Insight, Pacific Community Ventures, argued that great change could also be led from outside of already established organizations. He used the example of the role of the private sector in shaping the work of the public sector. Thornley is a big proponent of public private partnerships for impact investing. He has been involved in setting up the Impact Investing Policy Collaborative, which strives to grow impact-investing markets by building a global network for policy research and innovation.
In fact, this collaborative is just one of a number of initiatives currently underway that are promoting greater interaction between the public and private sectors. Next week, Harvard University is hosting a summit called “Growing the Impact Economy,” which will look at ways to advance a national economic development strategy to accelerate the growth of impact investing. Another initiative, the Enterprise Impact Facility (EIF) has evolved from leaders seeking to merge public and private initiatives. EIF would involve a one-time appropriation of $4 billion in equity funding; the government would provide the funding to private sector fund managers in one-to-one matching allocations of $10 million to $50 million. One of the thoughts around this idea is that part of the capital could come from EB5 Visa investments, which provide a method of obtaining a green card for foreign nationals who invest money in the United States. To obtain the visa, individuals must invest $1,000,000 creating or preserving at least 10 jobs for U.S citizens. This capital could be used to invest in low-income communities in the United States.
Another speaker at Investors’ Circle was Cathy Clark, founding director of CASE i3 Initiative on Impact Investing at Duke University, which creates resources and activities for MBA students, entrepreneurs, investors, funders, academics, and policymakers to explore and support the field of impact investing. Clark’s introduced her recent research report, “Accelerating Impact Entrepreneurs: Lock, Stock and Anchor,” at the conference. The research examines how to increase the impact of Impact Enterprises (IEs)—defined as “financially self-sustainable and scalable ventures that actively bring about significant net positive changes in well-being among underserved individuals, their communities, and the broader environment.” The research found that when the mission of an impact enterprise could be locked through certification, this had a positive impact, Furthermore, it is important to take stock of the enterprise’s impact targets, because it can influence its growth trajectory and help anchor impact enterprises within strong communities of practice.
There were also some broader discussions around establishing an industry association for impact investing, with the aim of coordinating the activities of various groups in the sector and lowering the barrier to entry for others who want to get involved in impact investing. Investors’ Circle and other similar gatherings such as SOCAP and the Skoll World Forum are great places to stay up to date with recent trends and developments in the impact investing community. However, there is also a need to reach a broader audience. One project, which I have personally been working on with Wayne Silby, co-founder of the Calvert Fund, is the idea of organizing brainstorming sessions through local salons and providing educational toolkits and other resources to help investors gain an insight into the impact-investing world.
Finally, Paula Goldman, director of Knowledge and Advocacy at the philanthropic investment firm Omidyar Network, suggested that while there have been many developments in the impact investing industry over the years, there is still much more that can be done. Investors’ Circle plays a valuable role in the broader ecosystem of activities, and I look forward to seeing more similar activities in local communities all around the world.