• Responsibilities of an (Impact) Investor

    3:02 pm on December 6, 2012 | 0 comments Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , investing, , venture capital

    For the past few months, I have been reflect­ing a lot on my role as an investor. Busi­ness plans and pro­pos­als come across my desk and as I shift through them, it really struck me on how large a respon­si­bil­ity investors play in accel­er­at­ing trends, shap­ing a com­mu­nity or even country’s econ­omy, but yet how lit­tle this respon­si­bil­ity is spo­ken about in the invest­ing cir­cles. We place so much empha­sis on find­ing the right busi­ness, the right man­age­ment team, the right social impact, that some­times we get lost in our own capac­ity to rec­og­nize what really is inno­v­a­tive and what truly deserves to be funded. So, from my expe­ri­ences, here’s what I think an investor’s respon­si­bil­i­ties are on top of the typ­i­cal invest­ment work:

    1) Investors need to live in the future. 

    This is a point I feel very strongly about. If you’re an investor: VC/PE and par­tic­u­larly if you play in the startup and impact invest­ing work, (as Fred Wil­son pointed today in his blog post and what Paul Gra­ham said):  you should live in the future and see what is miss­ing. So well said. I’m cur­rently in an envi­ron­ment (yes, I rec­og­nize that I am in Africa — so feel free to shower stereo­types), where I know investors who are still using yahoo mail, inter­net explorer and Win­dows 2003 (true story!). Not to say that there are any­thing wrong with the prod­ucts, but more so — I think it’s so impor­tant to be keep­ing up with the trends in the world, tech­nol­ogy being one of them. How can you expect to iden­tify an invest­ment that is ‘ground-breaking’ if you’re not even fol­low­ing the newest trends in your sec­tor? Tak­ing this a step fur­ther, if you are fol­low­ing these global trends vs. local trends, it is then our respon­si­bil­ity to seek out entre­pre­neurs who can close this gap and fur­ther ele­vate the devel­op­ing world, or the devel­op­ing world would for­ever be play­ing ‘catch up’.

    2) Don’t be a sheep. 

    This respon­si­bil­ity is par­tic­u­larly impor­tant in the impact invest­ing space. Given that we’re play­ing in a field that is largely uncharted, risk is high and typ­i­cally, most investors are unable to size up a new mar­ket and end up rely­ing on the opin­ions of other investors. aka. I’ll invest if some­one else will too aka. a sheep. Impact investors say that they are risk tol­er­ant, but few trans­late this tol­er­ance into sign­ing along the dot­ted line. A very chicken and egg sit­u­a­tion. Hence, I have to con­stantly push myself to under­stand what is the right bal­ance of being a mar­ket leader but also not be a reck­less investor. Bal­ance is key.

    3) The need to close and dis­burse faster

    There are a lot of delays that occur in [impact] invest­ing. The court­ing of investors and [social] entre­pre­neurs, the dance between find­ing the right termsheet, the issue of mak­ing sure that the social impact actu­ally has an impact, and [insert your tra­di­tional delays in invest­ing here]. This is the norm. This is my chal­lenge to investors: rec­og­nize that the longer the delay, the big­ger the strain on the business/organization. From an entre­pre­neur per­spec­tive, you’re con­stantly watch­ing your ‘run­way’ aka. how much money do I have before I run out, and a delayed clos­ing round and dis­burse­ment is to the [social] entrepreneur’s dis­ad­van­tage as well as to their cus­tomers. If we’re really stand­ing with the poor, then deals need to close quicker with clear and sim­ple terms, as the longer the delay, the more peo­ple are miss­ing out on poten­tially expe­ri­enc­ing the product/service.

    This is by no means sup­posed to be an exhaus­tive list of respon­si­bil­i­ties, but instead ones that I feel are most impor­tant given my expe­ri­ence. As investors, we are in a priv­i­leged posi­tion to start/continue or end trends. I think it’s time that we started think­ing a lit­tle harder about where our respon­si­bil­i­ties lie.

  • My Week's Discoveries: Healthcare & Design

    10:47 am on November 20, 2012 | 0 comments Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,

    I’ve been spend­ing a lot of time in the health­care world for obvi­ous rea­sons, and have been immers­ing myself with knowl­edge from all angles. One of the more fas­ci­nat­ing angles is the cross sec­tion of health­care and design. Here’s a cou­ple of my favourite findings:

    1) Cut­ting for Stone by Abra­ham Verghese

    It’s been a while since I’ve read a work of fic­tion and I was highly rec­om­mended this book by my Acu­men Fund col­leagues. I fin­ished this book over the week­end and was so cap­tured by the story, out­raged on behalf of the pro­tag­o­nist, delighted by the inten­sity, and over­all over­whelmed at how beau­ti­fully writ­ten this book was. It’s a story that takes place from Ethiopia to New York, about love, med­i­cine and the inter­twin­ing of fate.

    We are all fix­ing what is bro­ken. It is the task of a life­time. We’ll leave much unfin­ished for the next generation

    - Cut­ting for Stone, A. Verghese

    2) Butaro Hos­pi­tal in Rwanda 

    When you look at East Africa’s health­care land­scape, Rwanda stands out as a med­ical suc­cess. Health indi­ca­tors have improved on all counts since the geno­cide, all pri­mar­ily due to the suc­cess of a uni­ver­sal health insur­ance, where the poor­est 25% of Rwan­dans get free med­ical care. One of my favourite things about the Rwan­dan health­care land­scape is a hos­pi­tal, Butaro hos­pi­tal that was designed by MASS Design Group The hos­pi­tal has no hall­ways, so patients can’t gather in close spaces, and the air in the wards are changed more than 12 times per hour to pre­vent patients from being infected by other patients — par­tic­u­larly, with multi-drug-resistant TB.

    Image taken from: Arch­Daily by Iwan Baan

    3) Future of health­care is Social - Fast Company 

    I recently was in Tan­za­nia attend­ing and speak­ing at a mobile health con­fer­ence orga­nized by USAID and the MIn­istry of Health of Tan­za­nia. The theme at hand was the increas­ing tech­nol­ogy and mobile pen­e­tra­tion that is chang­ing the health land­scape in Africa. There are over 500 mhealth projects deployed around the world with the major­ity of projects (over 30%) being in Africa. I really enjoyed this arti­cle by Fast Com­pany on the increas­ing social nature that comes along with the increased tech­nol­ogy pres­ence in health­care. Also worth read­ing is another arti­cle by Fast Com­pany, on 5 steps to design­ing a bet­ter health­care sys­tem.

    4)  Design for trust - UX Magazine 

    Good design isn’t beau­ti­ful. Good design builds trust. As an investor, when I eval­u­ate health­care inter­ven­tions, I look to see how the ser­vice accounts for fac­tors that mat­ter to a person’s dig­nity: they way they are being treated, train­ing of health­care staff and acces­si­bil­ity of infor­ma­tion. This is espe­cially impor­tant when deal­ing with the poor, who are used to being mar­gin­al­ized, and not receiv­ing proper ser­vice. The arti­cle is more web-based trust, but rel­e­vant nev­er­the­less, when think­ing about how you inter­act with a patient. At the end of the day, when receiv­ing med­ical news, every­one wants infor­ma­tion that is “cor­rect, com­plete and unbiased.”

    7) Design­ing Hand­wash­ing — Core77

    An older arti­cle, but a goodie in address­ing one the most fun­da­men­tal issues in health­care: Hand­wash­ing. A great read in explor­ing: Move­ment Design, Mus­cle mem­ory, move­ment scripts and fluidity.

  • Leaning Into Risk

    6:50 am on November 19, 2012 | 0 comments Permalink | Reply

    I’ve been in Nairobi for almost three months now and life seems to have taken to me think­ing in frag­ments and bul­let points. My mind had been flooded with learn­ings, lessons, busi­ness plans, frag­ments of news, dis­cus­sions of devel­op­ment, con­flict, life of expats, impact assess­ments and where to make invest­ments count. It’s hard to seg­ment out the which bul­let points are worth shar­ing but to give some con­text on the dom­i­nant thoughts float­ing around, here’s a blog post that was pub­lished a while back on the Acu­men Fund blog on Oct 22nd. A lit­tle dated, but still rel­e­vant questions.


    Orig­i­nally pub­lished on Oct 22, 2012 on the Acu­men Fund blog. Repub­lished with permission. 

    In the world of impact invest­ing, there is next to no time to rest. There is a sense of urgency to explore the bound­aries of this sec­tor and uncover the dynam­ics of suc­cess of a poten­tial invest­ment. In the best cases, you get an invest­ment approved and every­thing goes as planned accord­ing to your ini­tial memo. In the worst cases, you get stuck in the trenches, pre– and post-investment, fight­ing to make each dol­lar count.

    In this con­tin­u­ous process of explor­ing bound­aries, here’s a cou­ple of lessons I’ve learned and ques­tions that I’m con­stantly ask­ing myself, which per­haps, you might be too.

    Human­iz­ing Mar­ket Creation

    As I dive in deeper into the health­care and nutri­tion sec­tor in East Africa, I was reminded by a col­league of a great video by Seth Godin at last year’s Investor Gathering.

    Seth Godin dis­cussing mar­ket cre­ation at the 2011 Investor Gathering

    The dri­ving ques­tions at hand: how do we human­ize mar­ket cre­ation? How do we teach peo­ple to use prod­ucts they have never used before? How do we con­vey the value of our ser­vices and prod­ucts of our port­fo­lio companies?

    This is when we aim to have two-way stories—to become part of the fab­ric of the com­mu­nity and co-create along­side the investor com­pany. Mar­ket cre­ation is more than just get­ting con­sumers to use our ser­vices and prod­ucts. Good mar­ket cre­ation is about teach­ing and fun­da­men­tally chang­ing con­sumers’ behaviors.

    The Unre­li­able Narrator

    I’ve become increas­ingly dis­trust­ful of my inter­nal nar­ra­tor lately. I’m slowly dis­cov­er­ing that impact invest­ment eval­u­a­tion is skewed heav­ily towards my inher­ited prej­u­dices of tra­di­tional invest­ments, at the expense of tak­ing into account the social impact. When I stop to con­tem­plate my actions, I find myself won­der­ing whether I am really lis­ten­ing and being objec­tive, or just nar­rat­ing back to myself what I think I heard.

    It’s hard some­times to fully com­pre­hend the impact of what we eval­u­ate, espe­cially if you have not expe­ri­enced what it is like on the ground. This dis­trust means that when we are surg­ing for­ward in a sec­tor that is fraught with uncer­tainty and trade-offs, we need to be mind­ful of the con­text of the investment.

    An Ode to Value

    As an impact investor, our role is so much more than just being a trans­ac­tor of debt or equity to poten­tial investees. We have an oppor­tu­nity to become an ecosys­tem builder, and to lead the charge to solve mar­ket inef­fi­cien­cies. My daily chal­lenges are thus: are we cre­at­ing value pre and post our invest­ments and where do we draw the line of sup­port? How do we value a busi­ness that has neg­a­tive cash flows? How do we encour­age orga­ni­za­tions to move away from grant reliance? How far do we lean into risk for the sake of value?

  • Storytelling & Four Shifting Forces

    2:27 pm on October 22, 2012 | 0 comments Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , technology,

    Back in New York, I attended one of the best Cre­ative Morn­ings ses­sions, a cap­ti­vat­ing talk deliv­ered by Jonathan Har­ris on the sto­ry­telling. I’ve blogged before on decon­struct­ing the power of sto­ry­telling, and if you’re look­ing to under­stand more about this, Jonathan Har­ris’ projects are absolutely remark­able. They have ranged from doc­u­ment­ing an Eskimo whale hunt to cap­tur­ing human emo­tion on the inter­webs to inter­view­ing Tibetans on hap­pi­ness. Here’s his Cre­ative Morn­ing talk and my visual notes from that day:


















    So my notes couldn’t quite cap­ture the tail bit of his talk (I basi­cally ran out of space!), but essen­tially, he high­lights key trends that he is observ­ing in our evolv­ing world of tech and storytelling:

    1) Rise of Social Engi­neers: Never before has there been such a small sub­sec­tion of soci­ety ( aka. soft­ware devel­op­ers in tech star­tups who are hav­ing a big effect of mil­lions of human through design of software.

    2) Urges & Out­comes: All tech extends some pre­ex­ist­ing urge. What is the urge within humans that needs to be enhanced?

    3) The Ethics of Code: How can we reg­u­late soft­ware? Could there be a self-directed eth­nics from the cre­ators of soft­ware? This ties in back to point 1 on the respon­si­bil­i­ties of a social engi­neer, given their wide-spread influence.

    4) Heal­ers & Deal­ers: Star­tups are basi­cally falling into two buck­ets: heal­ers and deal­ers. Heal­ers: mar­ket­place com­pa­nies that con­nect peo­ple. e.g. kick­starter. Deal­ers: Atten­tion economies that take up your finite resource aka. time by con­vinc­ing peo­ple to spend time on their product/sites. e.g. facebook.


    All in all, I was very struck after the end of his talk with this question(s): what kind of pres­ence do you want to have in this world? Am I a healer or a dealer? As our world’s lan­guage con­tin­ues to trend towards a technology-based one, how do we posi­tion our­selves to become cre­ators once more, instead of just cura­tors of information?

    For now, I sup­pose I am sat­is­fied with being a Healer in the invest­ment world. The big­ger pic­ture of all of this, is won­der­ing, as an investor, what trends in soci­ety do I want to help accelerate…

  • Goodbye Vancouver, See you later New York, Hello Nairobi!

    3:58 pm on September 23, 2012 | 2 comments Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,

    2012 has been my year of being in between sto­ries.  A process that involves embrac­ing uncer­tainty to explore pos­si­bil­ity, con­stant iter­a­tion in future plans, pack­ing and repack­ing my belong­ings into two lug­gages, mov­ing between con­ti­nents and try­ing to make some sense out the dis­ori­en­tat­ing dance of the famil­iar and unfamiliar.

    In the begin­ning of the year, I left my job with the inten­tion of begin­ning a new adven­ture. It wasn’t an easy deci­sion. It was espe­cially hard as I had grown to deeply respect my com­pany and had men­tors at the firm that I still trea­sure to this day. But there was this nag­ging lit­tle voice inside of me that pushed to me to leap. To be bold and pur­sue my inter­ests: one that thrives in the inter­sec­tion of impact invest­ing, design think­ing and change.

    Once in a while it really hits peo­ple that they don’t have to expe­ri­ence the world in the way they have been told to.” –Alan Keightley

    There is a myth of con­sis­tency in life sto­ries. Peo­ple tend to expect a famil­iar story, a jour­ney that they have heard before and unsur­pris­ingly, we impose this ‘famil­iar story’ on our­selves. We fail to leap because we believe that our capac­ity to dream is in accor­dance to our inher­ited prej­u­dice of what we have been told/come to expect. When faced with uncer­tainty, peo­ple tend to intu­itively, move to find a solu­tion quickly. They tend to rush down a path, usu­ally towards famil­iar­ity, at the expense of the insight and engage­ment that uncer­tainty can bring. It is in these sit­u­a­tions that I am slowly real­iz­ing that our courage and faith must be addressed to the dreams we have been afraid to dream, either because they are too dif­fi­cult, or because it has been too breath­tak­ing to even com­pre­hend how they could pos­si­bly exist within our cur­rent constraints.

    My jour­ney for 2012, has brought me out of Van­cou­ver, to New York, to Malaysia and now to Nairobi, Kenya where I am work­ing every­day to not only “will­ing to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo, but under­stand the world as it is and have the audac­ity and moral courage to build the world that could be” — Jacque­line Novogratz.

    The work of embrac­ing uncer­tainty requires the dis­ci­pline and wis­dom to make trade-offs, the best way we can. It is about know­ing when to pick up your belong­ings and leave. When to fight and when to con­cede. When to lis­ten and when to lead. When to be gen­er­ous and when to be hum­ble. When to hold your breath and when to breathe through it. When to be adven­tur­ous and when to be grounded.

    It is these trade-offs, that forces a shift from uncer­tainty to pos­si­bil­ity, from real­ity to abstract and back again: one of the most fun­da­men­tal processes by which we unlock our imag­i­na­tions and open our hearts to new insights. To under­stand our sto­ries is to embrace uncertainty.

    With that, I bid you farewell Van­cou­ver, see you later New York and jambo Nairobi!

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