Dec. 23, 2015 10:30 am

Impact investors: We validate business models before the rest of you join us

For too long, investing in mission-related ventures has been seen as a play thing, say three local boosters. Instead, it's impact investing that trials new sectors before traditional capital gets involved.

Solar panels. Pretty cool, eh?

(Photo courtesy of the Oregon Department of Transportation via Flick Creative Commons)

Full Disclosure: Garret Melby, who is mentioned in this story, is on the board of directors of the Generocity Community Alliance, the nonprofit which in October 2015 made a program-related investment to transfer the publishing of to Technically Media.
With a little faith in a cause, you might take a risk you wouldn’t otherwise. That’s how the impact investment community can bring a fledging sector into mainstream view.

Look at clean tech. It started as the province only of deep-pocketed environmentalists. Today, after early successes, a spinout of JP Morgan Chase focuses on the sector. It’s the same for other regulated industries that were once worrisome for investors aiming to maximize return, like education, energy and healthcare.

Individual companies, too, that are founded with a social enterprise mission are passed as simply business successes after more traditional capital comes to the place. Use Honest Tea as a more specific example, said John Moore, the president of the local chapter of Investors’ Circle, the group’s largest. The Maryland-founded, socially minded beverage manufacturer was acquired by Coca-Cola in 2011.

“Was that a big deal in the impact space? Yeah, it was,” said Moore, with eyes blue enough to mention in a news article. Those eyes are active when talking about social entrepreneurship. But “was that a big trumpet around impact investing? I’m not sure.

There’s a sense among some that impact investing is something lesser, added Wharton Social Impact Initiative Managing Director Sherryl Kuhlman. It’s almost like the minor leagues compared to the big leagues of venture capital and other private equity.

“If you get successful and pin yourself as an impact investment, that kind of reduces you somehow,” said the nonprofit veteran. She was brought into the Wharton lion’s den of finance five years ago to lead this effort for more effective mission delivery. She knows well how impact gets set aside by some.

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It’s in part why some in the impact investor community get nervous when there’s talk about asking for a lower expectation on a rate of return when a triple-bottom-line business is being discussed. Some foundation chiefs are approaching the conversation differently, but impact investing boosters shout that social enterprise companies can outperform their less community-minded competitors.

Garret Melby of GoodCompany Ventures, for one, cringes at the thought of lowered financial expectations, or at least he did one afternoon last week during a conversation inside Cooperage, the darkly lit whiskey bar on the first floor of the Curtis Center. Melby looks and sounds like a cookie cutter venture capitalist — all dress shirts tucked into jeans and mentions of “cataclystic process.” He always has a seriousness to him, slow to laugh like he’s thinking about something else. But he fell into the soft and fuzzy social enterprise world a decade ago after leaving a stint at Safeguard Scientifics, the regional old guard of venture investing.

In his long, slow slog to normalize what we now call impact investing, he’s fought for bringing the hard edges of traditional private equity markets into mission. He uses with considerable frequency the word “rigor.” So Melby is pained when someone considers impact investing as something approaching charity, with a lower expectation of return.

Rather than the oafs blinded by ideology, impact investors should be defined by their particular “appetite for a certain type of risk,” Melby said. For an entrepreneur aiming to make meaningful impact in a place not warmed by the validation of competition, impact investors will be there, as they were with clean tech — and they’ll be angling for competitive low valuations to compensate for the risk.

“If traditional venture doesn’t see it as an opportunity,” Melby said, “then it’s an impact business.”


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