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Come on In, the Water’s Fine: The Next Wave of Innovation – Corporate Impact Investing (Part 2 of 3)

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This is the 2nd post in a 3-part blog series to highlight the business case (Part 1), actual examples (Part 2), and future opportunities and challenges (Part 3) for corporate leaders to invest in seed stage social entrepreneurs

At last month’s inaugural SEED conference at the Impact Hub San Francisco, I had the opportunity, along with Tim Freundlich from Impact Assets, to co-host a plenary discussion on the challenges and opportunities for corporations to deeply partner with and invest in seed stage social entrepreneurs. Our dialog featured 5 corporate leaders who are actively aligning their business and impact investment strategies: Erika Balbuena (Twilio.org), Charlotte Coker Gibson (PwC Charitable Foundation), Doug Galen (Rippleworks Foundation), Dr. Oliver Keown (GE Ventures), and Jean Shia (Autodesk Foundation).

 

Each of these corporations approach to impact investing with a strategy that leverages their core competencies and assets, including their people and brands while achieving shared impact and business goals.  Below we’ll share the “who, what, and how” of each approach. By sharing the 5 different examples below, we hope to bring to life the many ways a corporation can deploy its assets — beyond for-profit and philanthropic capital – to great mutual benefit in the social impact sector.

 

  1. Autodesk Foundation
    1. What: You know Autodesk as the company that brought architecture and engineering into the digital age with software like Autocad.  Today, Autodesk is a multinational software corporation that makes software for the architecture, engineering, construction, manufacturing, media, and entertainment industries.  The Autodesk Foundation provides grant funding, software, training and related support to design-focused social and environmental impact organizations.
    2. Why: During our panel discussion, Jean Shia shared that while grant-making is an important corporate activity, the unique asset that the Autodesk Foundation brings to the seed stage sector is their expertise in design.  Moreover, in a time of explosive population growth, increasing resource demands, and a burgeoning middle class around the world, human centered design is imperative to ensuring equity and sustainability for all users.  For this reason, the Foundation focuses as much of their impact efforts on software donation, training, and design education for entrepreneurs and organizations whose products and services have the potential to serve and impact billions of people.
    3. How: The Autodesk Foundation deploys this strategy through 3 pillars: grant-making, community building (design education, software donations, and industry partnerships), and a pro bono employee volunteer program. In 2017, the Autodesk Foundation deployed $7.4 million in cash donations, $13.5 million in product donations, and 24,900 employee volunteer hours across their portfolio of design-driven social impact organizations.
  2. GE Ventures
    1. What: GE Ventures is the investment and incubation arm of General Electric, a multinational conglomerate whose innovative products and technologies power the global healthcare, energy, and transportation sectors. GE Ventures invests in startups that develop transformational technologies and applications within these sectors that have the potential to solve big problems around the world.
    2. Why: As a global technology and manufacturing company, GE must maintain a close relationship with aligned early-stage companies to stay relevant and competitive in an ever-changing, growing global marketplace. Dr. Oliver Keon shared that GE believes in order to combat today’s global health, energy and transportation challenges, it requires the combined on-the-ground knowledge from social entrepreneurs with their commercialization and manufacturing expertise. This is particularly critical in emerging markets around the world. In addition to investment capital and commercialization support, GE Ventures can also leverage its supplier and vendor networks to support the growth, scale, and impact of its seed stage portfolio companies.
    3. How: In 2016, in partnership with Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, GE launched the Healthymagination Mother & Child program, a 7-month program for maternal and children’s health innovators in sub-Saharan Africa.  In addition to an online accelerator and mentoring from GE Ventures through the GE Africa Innovation Centre in Johannesburg, selected startups also have the opportunity to attend and pitch to investors at the annual Sankalp Africa Forum.
  3. The PwC Charitable Foundation, Inc.
    1. What: PricewaterhouseCoopers is a multinational professional services network, and with over 236,000 employees across 158 countries, it is the 2nd largest professional services firm in the world.  The PwC Charitable Foundation, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) public charity that supports the people of PwC in times of need and invests in emerging solutions to society’s greatest challenges in education and humanitarianism.  As part of its commitment to education, the PwC Charitable Foundation also invests in social entrepreneurship programs that scale and improve the work of the courageous leaders and organizations who are creating innovative technologies, building systems and designing promising solutions to attack some of society’s most challenging problems
    2. Why: During our panel discussion, Charlotte Coker-Gibson drew the connection between PwC’s greatest asset, human capital, and the role employee engagement plays in the firm’s success.  Investments in programs like the Points of Light Civic Accelerator not only provide a pipeline to cutting edge social innovations that support the Foundation’s mission, but also a national platform for interested employees to connect with and mentor startups across an array of impact areas.
    3. How: As a small foundation team with big impact goals, The PwC Charitable Foundation chose to achieve its objectives in social entrepreneurship and employee engagement by investing in intermediaries including the Points of Light Civic Accelerator, as a seed and ongoing supporter, and Venture for America. Over the past 6 years, The PwC Charitable Foundation has committed $4 million to the Civic Accelerator, in addition to hundreds of employee volunteer hours through advisory, faculty, venture selection and coaching opportunities.
  4. Rippleworks
    1. What: If you’ve been following the trends in blockchain and cryptocurrency, you’ve likely come across Ripple, an enterprise solution that leverages blockchain technology to streamline global payments co-founded by Chris Larsen. The Rippleworks Foundation, Co-founded by Chris Larsen and Doug Galen, connects top blockchain experts, technical talent, and startup professionals with social impact ventures around the globe.
    2. Why: In an effort to extend Ripple’s mission to support financial inclusion around the world, Rippleworks CEO Doug Galen found that one of the most limiting factors for financial inclusion startups was not access to capital, but rather access to talent. This dilemma is just as critical to venture-backed social ventures as it is to their investors.  Rippleworks offers a solution to this industry-wide dilemma by leveraging their deep expertise in network management and talent development.
    3. How: Venture-backed social impact startups may apply to be a part of the Rippleworks portfolio. The Foundation then vets the applicants; those who are selected are paired with a Rippleworks expert based on the venture’s most pressing needs and the expert’s knowledge and experience. Engagements are managed in such a way that the employee can manage their daily work responsibilities while delivering top value to the social enterprise. Together, the venture, expert, and the Foundation work to define key milestones and impact goals for the duration of the engagement.
  5. Twilio.org
    1. What: Perhaps less known by name, but ubiquitous behind the scenes, Twilio is a cloud communications platform that allows software developers to create communication channels using its web service APIs (which, in turn, allows you to call your Lyft driver from your location). Twilio.org, the social impact arm, provides technical, financial, and strategic support to help early stage social enterprises and nonprofit organizations reach their communities and networks using the same technology that private sector disruptors like Netflix and Airbnb use to serve their customers.
    2. Why: During our discussion, Erika Balbuena shared that a core belief at Twilio is that right communication, at the right time through the right channel, has the power to drive significant change.  This message resonates with seed stage social ventures who are seeking technologies that can scale communications solutions in sectors such as healthcare, open government, and public safety.  By deploying their product, talent, and investment assets in unison, Twilio.org can make a unique impact on the seed stage social impact sector.
    3. How: Twilio.org offers product discounts and an employee volunteer program that pairs communication software architects with social enterprises and nonprofits. In addition, in 2017 they launched an impact fund to invest in organizations with communication strategies that make it easier for people to access services, engage with communities, or use technology to address urgent needs.  Recognizing the difficulty of sourcing and investing in early-stage ventures, Twilio.org is partnering with Omidyar Network, Kapor Capital, Village Capital and Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, as well as Fast Forward Accelerator and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to deploy investment capital.

It was an engaging back-and-forth dialogue highlighting how these leaders are testing ways to best tap into their corporate resources — integrating business strategies with community impact goals – and how they are thinking beyond the dollars and beyond the basics of good corporate citizenship, to take calculated risks, measure and learn, and working to change their cultures and approaches to drive social innovation and impact. Next up – what is ahead and what this means for the sector.

Ayesha Khanna

Ayesha Khanna is the president of the Points of Light Civic Incubator, which puts people at the center of change by supporting social entrepreneurs and early stage civic ventures around the world. As part of this role, she founded the Civic Accelerator and oversees the organization’s global efforts.

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