When I go to recruit college seniors into our first year analyst program at New Island Capital, part of our pitch is “come learn the business of investing, without checking your values at the door.” So many of these students feel pushed down a narrow path towards grad school, investment banking, or management consulting. They struggle to understand how the volunteer work, global gap years, and social change work they pursued in college can lead to a paycheck. Where do values and moral courage fit in our economy? In the workplace?
I started my career like many of these students: interested in finance and business, logging long hours as an investment banking analyst. It was when I shifted to corporate venture capital at AOL Time Warner that I witnessed how private capital coupled with entrepreneurial vision can fundamentally change the way we live our day-to-day lives. But what if you were motivated to transform lives in ways beyond how consumers consume media? What if you wanted to use these tools to solve some of the world’s biggest problems? So I went to business school and then joined Pacific Community Ventures, and later the Acumen Fund Fellows program to try to answer some of these questions.
A decade later, more and more business school students are now asking, if they are going to pour their blood, sweat, and tears into an entrepreneurial venture, why not choose one that benefits humanity? A recent statistic I heard was that one in every five applicants to the Stanford Graduate School of Business last year mentioned the Acumen Fund by name in their applications. Similarly, many investors—both institutional and retail—are looking for products that provide reasonable returns but are aligned with their values, whether those values relate to helping the bottom of the pyramid, protecting natural resources, or building more resilient local economies. Other investors are simply wary of “phantom wealth” created by asset bubbles or creative accounting and would prefer to invest in things that create real utility and generate lasting benefits.
Tromping around artisanal manufacturing facilities and shop floors while at Pacific Community Ventures, I learned the transformative effect a high quality job can have in a low income household and the role traditional, small businesses can play in the fabric of their local economy. As an Acumen Fund Fellow working for D.light Design in India for a year, I witnessed the grit and resilience it takes to build a social enterprise from the ground up. While D.light has since become a darling of the global social enterprise space, the challenge of trying to launch a new brand, in a new category, using new channels of distribution in a developing market was breathtaking. I emerged from that year really questioning the future of impact investing, whether it would always be an edge case, or side show to the “real work” being done by philanthropists or traditional investors in the world. There seemed to be few options beyond the unsatisfying world of ESG investing, placing tiny bets into early stage startups with little hope of an exit, or pursuing PRIs (program related investments) that don’t come close to appropriately pricing risk into expected rates of return.
Since joining New Island Capital four years ago, I have come across a surprising number of options to deploy capital, at scale and across asset class, in ways that are not just responsible but are deeply aligned with the social and environmental values of our clients. This column will be offered up in service of the job seekers, consumers, investors and entrepreneurs who want more and better options for incorporating their personal values into the work they do and the investment decisions they make. My hope is that this column will shine a light on the spectrum of players that are helping to build a more values-driven economy.
The opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect the opinions of New Island Capital. In addition, New Island Capital is not seeking outside capital and is not accepting additional clients at this time.