The rough stone and peeling paint of Carriageworks (Sydney) was bustling with people, the place was packed. It was day one of Purpose Conference and I was lining up for my afternoon coffee.
The morning sessions had been electric, with introductions from organiser Sally Hill, a finance refresher from Sasha Courville of Bank Australia, and an inspiring set of stories from Dan Adams, founder of Amber Electric.
It was now the afternoon and I was preparing myself for the Impact Capital session that was the centerpiece for my day.
The unifying theme of the conference is of course ‘Purpose’, and more specifically, the evolution of purpose-led businesses. Impact investing was just one of many topics on the program.
As an impact investing tragic I was eager to see how much interest there would be for a ‘finance’ session at an event filled with so much colour and energy for startups, activism and art.
As I walked up the stairs and emerged into the room the soft light from opaque-glass windows was quiet and inviting. I was early and there was a calm mix of people mingling and chatting.
I took my seat and said hello to the young lady sitting further along the row. It turns out she was the founder of a relaxation and revitalisation retreat on the Central Coast. She wanted to understand more about impact investing, and how she might go about accessing funding as she grows her business.
The room soon filled up. The conference had sold out, and every session I’d been to was at capacity.
Impact Capital Session
The session was moderated by Bec Milgrom, director of Tripple, a family office, and an all-round energetic change maker.
The panelists included:
- Rachel Yang – Giant Leap
- Kate Glazebrook – Blackbird Ventures
- Tim O’Brien – Purpose Made
- Katrina Kimmorley – Boundless
This group had immediate rapport. As Bec introduced them, one by one, she mentioned deals they’d partnered on, and other investments that had brought them together.
The relationships were professional, but they were friends as well. This dynamic is rare in the wider world of venture capital (VC). But here, the deals were not only striving for strong returns, but also driven by impact, and it seems this shared passion had evolved into a deeper relationship
10x Growth = 10x Impact
Rachel Yang is a partner at VC firm Giant Leap. In some ways her firm had the deepest impact credentials on the panel. Giant Leap pursues impact in 100% of its deals, but they also target strong, market-rate, returns.
“The problems aren’t going to solve themselves. Private capital can drive that change.” she said.
“We’re looking for a clear mission, and a theory of change. And we target the same returns as a traditional fund, so there needs to be a market opportunity to achieve that.”
When asked whether she’s moved from ‘hunting unicorns’ to looking for ‘green zebras’, her response was simple.
“We’re looking for companies that have the potential to grow 10x. If they reach that size, their impact scales at the same rate.” Rachel said.
A Wider View of ‘Impact’
Kate Glazebrook is Head of Impact at a non-impact VC firm, Blackbird Ventures. While that statement is more about semantics than it is about the outputs and outcomes of the firm’s investments, it spurs a useful exploration of what it means to be an impact investor?
Kate was a founder herself, and she got to know members of the panel because she was pitching to them for funding. She knows the space well, and she knows the importance of heading in the direction of where the power is.
She took a role at Blackbird because she was interested in what was happening in ‘mainstream VC’.
“Our view of impact is wider than just the underlying business model, but also how they scale and grow.” Kate said.
“We want to back companies that will be here in 10, 20, 50 years. These companies are reshaping the world, and so we need to ask, what are the needs of the world going to be in that time.”
Blackbird views impact as being a driver of positive returns, but they also recognise that not all businesses have that intention at the core of the business.
“About 50 of the 100 companies in our portfolio have impact at their core, and we also co-invest with impact managers.” Kate Says.
From Impact to ‘Systems-Based Investing’
Tim O’Brien is a builder himself. He’s founder of three decidedly purpose-led businesses which have recently been rolled up under the banner of his new brand, Purpose Made.
His businesses include; Rooy, Hatched, and Carbon Bank.
Tim is a leading thinker on the emerging concept of System-Based Investing’. It’s all about moving beyond the linear approach of one-to-one investing, and exploring how those connections can include more stakeholders, to expand their impact potential.
“It’s still emerging, you can operate at different levels. Some communities are collaborating with different groups, and coming together to share ideas and resources. But also at a larger scale, we’re seeing large corporates expand their view of what it means to be a partner.” Tim said.
“An example would be combining an impact investor with a philanthropist and then adding some government funding. It’s all about testing and experimenting.”
“You need to measure outcomes, it’s not enough to measure outputs. It needs to be a dynamic feedback loop to help in making decisions.”
What Change Would You Make with $1 billion?
Katerina Kimmorley is Head of Commercial and Investments at Boundless, an investment firm focussed on climate-action through allocating both philanthropic and commercial capital.
She raised her own provocation: If you had a billion dollars to solve climate change, what would you do?
She explained that the question expanded her ambition and helped her to think bigger about the problems we face. She recognises the power of concentrated capital to drive really positive change for Australia.
“At Boundless we have three pillars for driving change; Investment/commercial, philanthropic and advocacy. They all have their place.” she said.
“The first issue we faced was electric vehicles, that was our first ‘sprint’. We looked at the issue from all angles, and we found a company that brings together solutions to some of the key problems facing the sector.
The company was The Good Car Company, a start-up focused on bulk-buying cheap EVs from overseas to resell locally.
“We are impact first and returns second.” Katerina says. “We have our own system of ROI.”
When asked what’s currently getting her excited, she answered without hesitation.
“Democratising impact. I want to see more impact-focussed investments available to retail investors, like mums’n’dads. The landscape has changed over the past decade, where it’s mainly just been family offices, and it’s a really exciting shift.”