This local academic went from studying pop music to eyeing African investment opportunities - Generocity Philly

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Feb. 10, 2016 11:51 am

This local academic went from studying pop music to eyeing African investment opportunities

Born and raised in rural Kansas, Nick Ashburn went to school to be a pop star. Now, he’s heading up Wharton Social Impact Initiative’s international initiatives.

Nick Ashburn.

(Courtesy photo)

Like many of kids and young adults, Nick Ashburn wanted to be a pop star when he grew up.

Ashburn said he was raised on classic rock acts like Queen and Kansas. (Coincidentally, he grew up in Emporia, Kan.) When middle school came along, Ashburn was idolizing the pop stars dominating the radio waves in the late ’90s and early 2000s: Britney Spears, NSYNC — you remember.

A familiar story. Except Ashburn, now the director of emerging market strategies at the University of Pennsylvania‘s Wharton Social Impact Initiative, actually went to college to be a pop star.

The academic landed a scholarship to enter Belmont University‘s commercial voice program.

“I thought I was going to go to Nashville and then go to L.A. or something,” Ashburn said. “It wasn’t for me. I really enjoyed studying. I liked academia. That was more what I wanted to do.”

So, Ashburn started studying political science, which led to an opportunity to teach abroad in Austria in 2008. There, he educated Austrian students about English-speaking culture — everything from Jack the Ripper to the U.S. electoral process.

Wait — what does any of that have to do with impact investing? How did an aspiring-pop-star-turned-culture-educator become an academic who does finance research for a living? Ashburn said for him, it was a very distinct moment in time when he was working for IDEO.org, an international design and consulting firm in San Francisco, that shifted his thinking.

While working at the firm, Ashburn started truly delving into the social innovation and social enterprise spaces, working specifically on figuring out market-based solutions to poverty alleviation in developing countries. Ashburn recalls the testimony delivered by an African social entrepreneur that convinced him these solutions are very real and can be very effective.

Ashburn said a testimony delivered by an African social entrepreneur convinced him market-based solutions can be very effective.

“He said, ‘You know what, my company got a lot of grants. We were going along just fine but we didn’t maybe have our act together as well as we should have. It wasn’t until we were financed for the first time, when we got a loan, that really made us get our butts in gear,'” Ashburn recalled.

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“That stuck with me. I come from the more traditional international development sphere working on big government grants, and I didn’t think [the work I was doing] was sustainable or necessarily the right path to development. Hearing this story kind of validated that.”

With a newfound fondness for social enterprise, Ashburn moved to Austin, where he began independently consulting for a number of social enterprises and venture philanthropy organizations. His last client, he said, was a financial intermediary that had received a grant from the Ford Foundation to jumpstart the impact investing ecosystem in Texas.

“Texas is known for being so pro-business. The economic pie is booming,” Ashburn said. “Great place for business, but on the social impact spectrum, [it’s] at the bottom for education, health care and social service areas. Is impact investing an opportunity to improve those outcomes in the state?”

That’s what he wanted to find out. So he, along with a handful of other movers and shakers working in the state’s social impact space, launched a conference called Impact Texas, the first of its kind in the state.

“I’d say it was a catalyst,” Ashburn said. “Impact investing activities have continued to bubble up in the state.”

Ashburn said there was “100 percent a learning curve” picking up and understanding the minutia of impact investing, though it seemed like a natural progression at the time — there was a consistent through-line in most of his work by that point. He wanted a more holistic view of the complex social issues he’d become passionate about.

"It was a natural progression for me in my own professional life to get to impact investing, but I didn’t know much about it at all when I started."
Nick Ashburn

“When it came to impact investing, I’d seen again what makes organizations that have social impact sustainable in the long run,” he said. “We have a long history in this country of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. People are doing really great work, but fundraisers are always hitting the pavement looking for donations. It was a natural progression for me in my own professional life to get to impact investing, but I didn’t know much about it at all when I started.”

Now, Ashburn heads up WSII’s Africa Growth Partners, an initiative to support early stage investment in sub-Saharan Africa. There’s a deep need there for early stage financing — not even just for social enterprises, but across the board. Wharton wants to help develop an evidence base to show that yes, it’s worthwhile to take on some of those early stage investments in African enterprise.

“We’ve established the program and we’re working on some advisory services type projects this year before we try to source actual investments,” Ashburn said. “When people visit sub-Saharan Africa and talk to government officials, they say, ‘How can I help?’ These governments are trying to change the conversation to say, ‘We would really like you to invest in our country instead. Invest in small and medium enterprises, invest in affordable housing, invest in infrastructure.'”

And as for the music? Ashburn said it’s not dead — it’s still very much a passion.

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