Editor’s Note: The below post is part of our new Alumni for Impact series, which features alumni who are making a difference in the social sector, specifically in K-12 education, impact investing, nonprofit supportive services and social entrepreneurship. In this post, Yael Gilboa (MBA 2017), associate at DBL Partners, reflects on her experience at the SOCAP17 conference and on the impact investing industry writ large.
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend breakfasts and happy hours with nearly everyone I ever rushed to talk to after a class, panel, fireside chat or keynote about impact investing while at HBS. That is the magic of SOCAP, or the Social Capital Markets conference, which drew over 3,000 people to San Francisco to celebrate its tenth anniversary this year.
And as I sat around a table with captains of industry, from Sasha Dichter (MBA 2002) of Acumen and Maya Chorengel (MBA 1997) of TPG Rise to Michael Etzel (MBA 2013) of Bridgespan and Fran Seegull (MBA 1998) of the U.S. Impact Investing Alliance, it occurred to me just how far the industry has come, and how much HBS alumni have contributed to it. After all, the HBS motto is “we educate leaders who make a difference in the world.”
I came to HBS knowing that I wanted to do impact investing. I left HBS realizing that no one knows what that means.
I won’t spend time defining SRI (Socially Responsible Investing), ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance), SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) or other TLAs (three letter acronyms!) because there are plenty of people doing that with facts and stats to back it up. I will only take a few words to pay homage to the fact that there has been an explosion of interest in the space, however you define it, the scope of which may be debatable, the direction of which is not. To me, it’s a no-brainer, and others are waking up to that epiphany as well.
SOCAP does a masterful job of positioning itself “at the intersection of money and meaning” with a statement of purpose (and perhaps just enough scale) that is broad enough to bring people together and not alienate anyone. They are consistently able to attract some of the world’s leading investors and entrepreneurs, some of whom may vehemently disagree on certain issues, but find voices that resonate in the myriad sessions across tracks. Flipping through the SOCAP17 booklet, I even found the Maya Angelou quote: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
Investing is hard, and creating impact is hard, so impact investing is arguably hard squared, and you don’t catch any breaks from the finance or philanthropy folks. Both sides challenge whether you can generate top-tier financial and impact returns; some people think that you can and try, and some people think that you can’t and don’t. No matter how many alliterations you use (“mission and margin” or “profit and purpose”), people seem to forget that we are all well-intentioned, that there are different appropriate sources and uses for capital, and that innovation is not something to shy away from.
In the world of philanthropy, we have seen a shift towards venture philanthropy, applying the principles of venture capital to philanthropic causes by leveraging dollars multiple times with refundable grants, or by ensuring that $1 invested in a program has a multiplying effect, putting more dollars into the hands of those who need it most – a different type of 10x-er. That does not mean that traditional models of philanthropy are antiquated or no longer needed – there are simply some causes better suited to venture philanthropy.
In the world of investing, why limit yourself to financial innovations from the leveraged buy-outs decades ago to the new hottest derivatives and pushing the limit while the fundamentals fall apart? There is an increasingly irrefutable mountain of evidence demonstrating that ESG issues are tied to performance, and public and private investors are starting to pay attention. Does that mean that all companies have the same risk / return profile or impact / return profile, or that all funds should apply the same financial or impact filters? No. I think it depends on the source of capital. But investors who ignore the red flags – including the revolutionary realization that we should treat women who are entrepreneurs or investors the same as if they were men (P.S. it’s that simple, I promise) – will be swept aside by the momentum.
Just as there are operators and investors across stages and industries, there are sources and uses for capital across return profiles. Private equity spans the gamut from lower middle market to mega fund but no one questions that different size funds write different size checks or industry-specific funds look at industry-specific deals. And there are some incredibly sophisticated family offices and foundations with access to long-term, patient capital that look for a “market-rate” return, and some that look for a “below-market-rate” return. It depends.
Many investors shy away from the term “impact” because so much of the dialogue gets mired in the word “concession.” It’s time to move past that. It’s time to start treating impact investing like any other deployment of capital – on the merits and risks of the opportunity, keeping in mind the sources and uses of capital. And remember that we’re all on the same team.