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How philanthropy introduced this Boston investor to Philly’s tech scene

GreenLight Fund cofounder John Simon was introduced to Philly's startup scene by way of philanthropy. October 25, 2016 Category: FeatureFeaturedMediumPeople
For a Bostonian, John Simon sure has invested a lot of time, money and energy into Philadelphia.

Take Steppingstone Foundation, the youth education foundation Simon cofounded in 1990. Nine years later, the Steppingstone scaled its programming to Philadelphia — the only other city it services outside of Boston.

Philadelphia was also the first city to land a chapter of GreenLight Fund, the venture philanthropy nonprofit Simon cofounded in 2004 (albeit by a hair — GreenLight expanded to San Francisco very shortly after the Philadelphia announcement was made in 2011).

The buck doesn’t stop with nonprofits.

Far from it, actually. By day, Simon serves as managing director for Boston-based venture capital firm Sigma Prime Ventures. Earlier this year, his firm invested $1.6 million in Horsham-based software company Phenom People.

That investment might not have happened without philanthropy. Simon was introduced to Philly’s tech scene by way of GreenLight.

It’s all in the process: In a nutshell, GreenLight chapters import nonprofits by rallying capital from local philanthropists, foundations and venture capitalists. That’s how Simon met Philly tech scene heavyweights Comcast Executive VP Steve Burke and First Round Capital Managing Director Josh Kopelman, both of whom support GreenLight through their family foundations.

And through their networks. From the sounds of it, Phenom People won’t be Simon’s last investment in Philly’s tech community.

“I think they will become one of a number of major Philly success stories,” said Simon. “I’d love to have other great investments here in the Philly community.”

"There are some incredible community leaders we've been lucky enough to interact and get involved with. Better than most cities."
John Simon

Well, as long as those future success stories stick around. Simon is dedicated to making sure that’s the case, too. After all, the stronger the local economy, the stronger the local philanthropy.

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“There’s the siren song of New York that sometimes calls people,” he said. “But there’s a lot of work in the ecosystem to keep [those startups] here in Philadelphia. It’s my understanding that that’s happening more and more.”

Between philanthropy and business, no Bostonian has cared so much about Philadelphia since Ben Franklin (or, arguably, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie). What’s the deal?

“There are some incredible community leaders we’ve been lucky enough to interact and get involved with. Better than most cities,” Simon said. “And, as the generations turn over, there’s a group of very exciting young next-gen business leaders who are also passionate about Philadelphia.”

GreenLight Fund cofounders John Simon and Margaret Hall. (Courtesy photo)

On the surface, GreenLight might seem controversial. Cities can always use new tech startups. But new nonprofits? The very thought makes some folks in the sector green with nausea.

Or with envy. Existing organizations are especially wary of having to compete with new organizations for the same funds — à la initial hesitance among reentry service providers to embrace Center for Employment Opportunities.

That’s not a new experience for Simon. He’s been challenged by his hometown. He’ll likely be challenged when GreenLight expands again to Charlotte, N.C.

“People have this feeling there are too many nonprofits, not enough resources, that people from outside the city don’t know what the city needs — that you’ll come here and somehow the [funding] pie will be cut smaller,” he said. “But because we’re bringing in the world’s best social entrepreneurs, they’re often bringing national funding. They’re also bringing a new revenue model.”

Rather, Simon said GreenLight is “net additive” to nonprofit ecosystems.

“As people understand that, they start to have some comfort,” he said. “We’re not pushing a particular agenda, we’re very neutral and it’s all local-community driven.”

GreenLight is not homegrown, but its success here is dependent on local leaders and partners who know the city best — not necessarily Simon.

Led by Executive Director Omar Woodard, GreenLight Fund Philadelphia just appointed a number of those young leaders to its advisory selection council. Together, Simon said, they make all the decisions.

GreenLight is not homegrown, but its success here is dependent on local leaders and partners who know the city best — not necessarily Simon.

“I’m still getting to know Boston,” he laughed.

Whether or not Simon harbors a special affinity for Philadelphia is a moot point. It’s more likely that Philadelphia has exactly what his time, money and energy require: a tight-knit community of leaders, a high poverty rate and a strong tech sector.

“I’m fortunate enough to be backing for-profit entrepreneurs in my day job and backing nonprofit entrepreneurs on nights and weekends,” he said. “I’m learning with everything we do, and it’s reverberating to each side.”

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