Sam Goldman, co-founder of Honest Tea, a social enterprise that produces natural fruit and tea beverages says, “We sold to Coca Cola last year.”
A collective gasp escapes from the audience. Thoughts of Ben and Jerry’s selling to Unilever creep in and the nearly instantaneous conclusion that this must be a “sell-out” ripples through the socially minded business audience of 150.
Seth smiles knowingly at the response and goes on to explain that, in fact, Coke’s purchase of Honest Tea was not only the best thing that could have happened to him and his co-founder, but also the exit they had planned for, right from the start. Honest Tea quite simply wanted to reach as many people as possible with its message: “Nature got it right. We put it in a bottle.” And who has the largest beverages distribution system in the world? Why, Coca Cola of course. Since the acquisition, the number of accounts under Honest Tea has increased from 15,000 to 75,000.
But how quick we were, myself included, to jump to negative conclusions about a social enterprise’s choice of scale…
Welcome to the Net Impact Conference 2011 in Portland, Oregon; two and a half days of absolutely exhilarating conversation about business and the progress of the world.
The Net Impact conference engages over 2,500 individuals in listening and challenging all kinds of ideas at the cross-section of business and sustainability. There are over 380 speakers, ranging from enormous multinational corporations (e.g. Nike, Starbucks, DuPont) to the big consultancies (e.g. Accenture, Deloitte) to renowned publications (e.g. Stanford Social Innovation Review, GOOD, Fortune) to renewable energy innovators (e.g. SolarWorld, d.light design), to impact investment intermediaries (e.g. Agora Partnerships, Village Capital). The conference featured over 120 sessions, which were organized into seven themes: career and professional development, corporate impact, energy and clean tech, environment and natural resources, finance and investing, international development, and social innovation.
After an incredible summer working for the Acumen Fund in New York City, I was eager to hear from the brightest and most visionary thinkers in the impact investing space. Here are some of the highlights from the sessions I attended in the finance and investing track.
Where Venture Meets Values: Venture Capital for Social Impact
Nancy Kamei is the Senior Director of one of the world’s largest venture capital funds, Intel Capital. Since 1991, Intel Capital has invested more than USD 10 billion in over 1,100 companies in 51 countries. She was joined by Ross Baird, the Executive Director of the peer-based, early-stage entrepreneur incubation firm, Village Capital, in a conversation that ranged from the values-based investment thesis to the relative importance of metrics to the importance of motivation and passion.
Question: What would investing look like if it were less reactive and more proactive? What if there was less waiting for entrepreneurs to pitch the next big idea and more active cultivation and capacity building of potentially game-changing enterprises?
From Activist Investor to Mainstream Markets: Impact Investing Today
David Chen (CEO of Equilibrium Capital Group) moderated a spirited dialogue between Tony Arnerich (CEO, Arnerich Massena, Inc.), Gloria Nelund (Chairman and CEO, TriLinc Global), and Jill Sherman (VP of Development, Gerding Edlen Development) on the past, present, and future of impact investing. Though the conversation made it quite clear that all participants believe that future macroeconomic trends will continue to lend favourably to impact investing, they were also all quite aware of the lack of availability of retail and institutional impact investing products.
Question: Will there be enough innovation and progress in the availability and distribution of impact investing products to meet the increasing mainstream demand?
Investing to Build Social Enterprises in Emerging Markets
Wouldn’t it be great to have a session that represented the different players in the current global impact investing field? Welcome to room E-146 on Saturday afternoon. Bavidra Mohan, d.light design’s Brand Development Consultant, talked earnestly about the on-the-ground realities of a social enterprise in a developing country. Acumen Fund’s Director of Communications, Yasmina Zaidman, clearly expressed the need for the synthesis and spread of lessons learned from the impact investing space. Daniela Hammeken, the Director of Strategic Partnerships at Agora Partnerships, stressed the importance of the capacity building of impact entrepreneurs. Flory Wilson, the Director of Emerging Market Standards at GIIRS, spoke to the incredible traction of social impact metrics infrastructure.
Question: Impact investing is moving extremely fast in a multitude of directions; how can the field ensure that it is learning and reflecting on those lessons while continuing to grow?
This was my second Net Impact conference. Though I was asking different questions and thinking about different conversations, I left with the same overall feeling of subtle empowerment stemming from the knowledge that, no matter who you are (large company, small nonprofit, entrepreneur, academic, government official), you can choose to commit to tackling the world’s toughest problems.
(This post appeared at SocialFinance.ca through this link.)