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Wonder Where To Donate In A Humanitarian Crisis? This Entrepreneur Can Tell You

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

How many times have you wanted to give some money to help solve a crisis somewhere in the world but didn’t simply because you didn’t know to whom to give the money? The problem wasn’t likely that you didn’t have some candidates; more likely, you found too many candidates and couldn’t determine which would do the most good with your money.

Enter Iguacu.

Iguacu screens nonprofits working to address crises around the world to identify those that are having the best impact. Iguacu is a social enterprise that is so new it hasn’t yet set up its own 501(c)(3) organization, but that is the plan, according to founder Katherine Davies.

To date, Davies has funded the operations of Iguacu, but she is looking to establish a nonprofit entity so that she can collect donations and corporate sponsorships. Today, the organization has ten employees, including several analysts that Davies describes as “world-class” researchers.

To leverage the small staff and smaller budget, Davies has created a global network of experts that help Iguacu determine which nonprofits to support. She says, “The network gives their time for no fee because they support the Iguacu mission.”

Katherine Davies, courtesy of Iguacu

Davies founded Iguacu when she decided she wanted to find a way to help people suffering from the Syrian civil war in 2014. “I wanted to help, to donate to a good charity helping the Syrian people. But looking online, it was really hard to work out which charity, and to even understand what was going on.”

At that moment, she recognized that should couldn’t be the only one struggling to find the right NGO to support. “Surely, we have the technology and smarts to do better. Surely, we can create a platform where the public can learn how to act effectively where there is great need.”

Deborah DiStefano, an ophthalmologist and owner of the DiStafano Eye Center in Chatanooga, Tennessee, became acquainted with Davies before she launched Iguacu and has watched its progress since. She says, “We are all humans – brothers and sisters globally. So many of us feel we want to help each other within our global family. We lack the correct vehicle to achieve this goal.”

Finding the right organization to support can be frustrating, Davies says. “There is a lot of noise on the internet. Sometimes we look up a crisis and find 300 charities, many making similar claims. Great suffering often occurs in the midst of war, and rapidly changing and complex conditions on the ground, and sometimes in fragile states.”

Davies created the solution. “At weareiguacu.com, the public can find effective charities to support addressing key challenges in the world’s major crises.”

The work isn’t without its challenges, Davies says. “The biggest challenge we face is people hearing about us. We are a small team operating on a lean model of operation. We do not have a marketing department!”

Iguacu can’t address every problem in the world, Davies says. “We focus on the key challenges in severe humanitarian crises in areas of the world where the local capacity or willingness to respond is limited. We currently cover Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Nepal, Haiti, Central African Republic and Myanmar.” That seems like a good start!

DiStefano is optimistic about the organization’s prospects. “It needs to continue growing its base of donors and friends in Europe and the United States to have a continued presence and global impact on human suffering. The organization’s message really resonates; I am confident that Iguacu will galvanize the people they want to reach.”

Davies has a great vision for the impact she hopes to create. “A rapidly growing community loving Iguacu will create a powerful force for good in the world.”

“Iguacu empowers the compassionate response and its success will help to bring large scale effective support to those who are in desperate need and who may think the world has forgotten them,” Davies adds.

Iguacu Fall, at the border of Argentina an Brazil

The name Iguacu hints at Davies’ dream. “The name is a metaphor for this vision. ‘Iguacu’ (pronounced: igwah-soo) means ‘big water’ and is also the name of the great South American river known for its awe-inspiring waterfall. Iguacu evokes the power and beauty of thoughtful mass action, likening one person’s intention to a drop of water, and mass action to the great and beautiful Iguaçu.”

On Thursday, January 19, 2017 at 2:00 Eastern, Davies will join me here for a live discussion about Iguacu and the work it is doing to address some the acutest humanitarian crises in the world. Tune in here (at the top of this article) then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.

Never miss another interview! Join Devin here!

Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!

How One Social Enterprise Is Celebrating Both MLK Day And Inauguration Day

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

The calendar’s juxtaposition of Martin Luther King’s birthday and the Presidential inauguration have never seemed so ironic as in 2017. In a single week, America will celebrate the person who gave his life for civil rights and the inauguration of Donald Trump, whom New York Times columnist Nick Kristof called a racist.

One person developed a plan to unify people this week. Aria Finger, CEO and “Chief Old Person” of DoSomething.org, is yet to turn 40 and so qualifies as young in my book. As CEO, she founded the affiliated agency TMI Strategy and serves as its president. This week, DoSomething.org leads a social campaign to engage its 5.5 million young followers, creating “Resolution Walls” in public to commit to improving their local communities this year.

Introducing DoSomething.org, Finger says, “We are a mission-driven not-for-profit and we are one of the most entrepreneurial brands in the youth space.” The organization has engaged young people in every state and 131 countries. The nonprofit works to address local and global social problems, and boasts of having organized the collection of 3.7 million cigarette butts from the streets and a drive that clothed half of the homeless teens in the United States.

Finger, who was personally responsible for the “Teens for Jeans” campaign that clothed homeless teens, launched TMI strategy in 2013 to capitalize on the rich database DoSomething.org had created over two decades of working with young people to do good. She describes TMI revenue today as one of two “main revenue streams” with the other being corporate sponsorships. According to audited financial statements posted on the site, 2015 revenues topped $19 million and assets topped $16 million.

“TMI works with tops brands and NGOs like PwC, Microsoft, the College Board, the Jed Foundation, American Student Assistance to help them reach and activate young people,” Finger says.

Nancy Lublin, the CEO and Founder of Crisis Text Line, says she’s known Finger since college, “She was whip-smart… and had a tongue piercing.”

Aria Finger, courtesy of DoSomething.org

“At its core, DoSomething.org is about optimism. If you believe young people are creative and effective, then you believe a brighter future is possible. DoSomething.org is an engine for hope,” Lublin adds.

That optimism seems to be just the right tone to strike as America celebrates the beginning of the Trump administration. DoSomething will take the public pledges from across the country to create daily challenges during this “Week of Action.”

Finger notes, “More than 75% of Americans currently see our country as divided. Not only will this campaign provide unity – showing that people from all backgrounds and communities want to make a positive impact – but it will activate young people to take real and concrete steps towards that change.”

She sees this as a beginning. “Adults have been screwing up our world for a long time; I’m excited to show the world that young people are solution-oriented doers that can actually make change. And this is just the beginning. By joining this campaign and by extension the DoSomething movement, these young people are committing to action for years to come.”

Youth publicly committing to do good, courtesy of DoSomething.org

The campaign is now well underway. Finger reports on the progress, “We’re thrilled that more than 60,000 young people are joining this movement and by Thursday, we will be halfway through our Week of Action and will have both more numbers/tangible results and also several amazing stories about what young people have done this week so far to make change.”

On Thursday, January 19, 2017 at 5:00 pm Eastern, Finger will join me here for a live discussion about the progress to date and the prospects for unifying America under the leadership of President-elect Donald Trump. Tune in here (at the top of this article) then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.

Never miss another interview! Join Devin here!

Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!

 

The Healing Tree Project Receives Grant that will Aid Mission to Help Burned Children Across Latin America

This is a guest post from Patti Groh, Director of Marketing Communications for Sappi North America.

Seven million children, mostly under the age of 5, suffer severe burn injuries in Latin America every year. It goes without saying that the physical damage is extensive, but the emotional effects can also be long-lasting. Inspired by the need for a more empathetic healing program, Alvin Oei, Environmental Design student from of the ArtCenter College of Design and the Designmatters department of social innovation has created The Healing Tree project for COANIQUEM BCF, the Burned Children Foundation (BCF).

In collaboration with COANIQUEM, a nonprofit pediatric burn treatment facility in Santiago, Chile, the Designmatters Safe Ninos multidisciplinary studio challenged students to work with stakeholders at the treatment center to reinvigorate the 6-acre campus with innovative, human-centered environments.

Oei’s project, which was recently awarded an Ideas That Matter grant from Sappi North America, is an immersive environmental design project that re-imagines the clinic as a child-friendly world that reduces stress and optimizes conditions for healing. To bring this to life, Alvin created a storybook, patient passport and environmental graphic system to guide children and their families through burn treatment plans. The illustrations will be developed by ArtCenter Illustration student Belle Lee based on Oei’s creative direction.

In the passport, child characters Camilla and Lucas act as guides for the patient as they embark on a journey through a magical world, based on the many ecosystems of Chile, filled with animal friends who support the patient as he or she goes through different treatments and therapies. Each animal represents a different form of therapy and demonstrates the process and skills the patient will need to navigate them.

For example, the bunny depicted throughout physical therapy teaches children to jump and stretch. The hummingbird is used in musical therapy to demonstrate expressing oneself. The Pudú, a native Chilean deer, is the representative of the compression-garment fitting process and emphasizes the importance of being unique and proud.

The storybook is available to patients, families and staff in the waiting rooms, dormitory and school at COANIQUEM’s facility. As children visit each animal character and progress through their treatments, therapists stamp their passport. The passport is also filled with interactive activities, such as drawing projects and scavenger hunts focused on finding animals on the walls of the facilities, as well as information for the families.

“Art is an incredible way to make a difference in the world, and I am proud to be working on this project with COANIQUEM BCF. These children are going through an unimaginable experience, and to help them in their healing journey is an honor. Without the support of Sappi, this and many other important projects like it, wouldn’t be possible,” said Alvin Oei, creator of The Healing Tree project.

The approach is research-based. The movement of healing spaces was sparked in 1984 by Robert Ulrich who found that patients with nice window views healed faster than patients with views of a brick wall. And, according to the Center for Health Design’s Guide to Evidence-Based Art, murals resulted in a significant decrease in reported pain intensity, pain quality and anxiety by burn patients.

With the goal of reducing stress for patients, Oei submitted the inspirational plan to Sappi North America’s 2016 Ideas That Matter competition and was awarded a $49,438 grant to bring The Healing Tree to life.

Since 1999 Sappi’s Ideas that Matter grant program has funded over 500 nonprofit projects and has contributed more than $13 million to a wide range of causes that use design as a positive force in society. Rooted in a passion for helping others, the Ideas that Matter competition shines a bright light on the power of graphic design and printed materials in today’s increasingly web-based world.

The project aims to complete these elements by April 2017. In addition to the 2,000 new patients treated on campus annually, COANIQUEM’s large network of NGOs and clinics allows The Healing Tree project to reach far more children than those within its own facility.

Patti Groh

About Patti Groh:

Patti Groh is Director of Marketing Communications for Sappi North America, a leading producer and global supplier of diversified paper and packaging products. She is responsible for the company’s coated paper and packaging marketing communications programs, including the branding of its products and the development of its award winning printed collateral. Patti manages all of their customer-facing communications, which incorporate a mix of print and digital media along with targeted events. She also oversees the Ideas That Matter charitable giving program, which provides financial support to designers who create and implement print projects for social impact. She has been with Sappi for 24 years and has held various positions in sales and marketing. Patti has a BA in Political Science from San Diego State University and an MBA from the University of San Francisco.

How Hiring Women Other Businesses Won’t Has Made ‘All The Difference’

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

Robert Frost suggested that taking the road less traveled made all the difference. The Women’s Bean Project, a nonprofit in Denver, Colorado, employs only women generally considered unemployable. For nearly 30 years, the social enterprise has worked to help women learn to work by giving them jobs; that is how they make a difference.

The “Bean,” as insiders know it, was recently selected by REDF, a national organization that supports social enterprises like the Bean, that “provide jobs, support, and training to people who would otherwise have a tough time getting into the workforce,” for a growth investment, according to Carla Javits, President and CEO of REDF.

The Bean, according to CEO Tamra Ryan, generates $2.2 million in revenue and employs 75 women. The business generates a modest gross margin on sales of gourmet dried food products of just 8 percent. The organization’s other costs are funded by grants and donations.

Ryan, recently named one of the 25 Most Powerful Women in Colorado, is the author of The Third Law, which examines the challenges that marginalized women must overcome.

Ryan explains that regardless of the circumstances that led women to experience chronic unemployment and poverty, the situation becomes a trap. “Women caught in the cycle of unemployment and poverty need help to break out. Not only do they believe they are unmarketable and unhireable, they don’t believe they are worthy of being hired by an employer who will care about them. In addition, the problems compound, creating numerous and overwhelming barriers to employment, including histories of addiction, incarceration and homelessness. A holistic approach is needed to break the cycle.”

The Bean provides jobs in a supportive work environment and complements the job with training on soft skills that help women get out of the poverty trap.

“We teach women to work by working,” Ryan says. “Through employment in our manufacturing business and the skill-building sessions we offer, they learn the basic job readiness and life skills needed to get and keep a career entry-level job. We hire women for a full-time job for 6-9 months, during which they spend 70 percent of their paid time working in the business in some way and 30 percent in activities that build soft skills, like problem-solving, communication and planning and organizing.

Kimball Crangle, the Colorado Market President of Gorman & Company, Inc., serves as the Bean’s volunteer Chair. She takes pride in the organization’s success. “I think the work the Bean does is incredibly impactful. We not only train women for jobs but also in life skills that extend beyond the working hours. The women that graduate from the Bean are better able to keep a job and improve the stability of her family.”

Javits emphasizes the program’s track record and partnerships. “The Women’s Bean Project is a stand out because of its’ business excellence which has resulted in more sales through partnerships like the one it has with Walmart and Walmart.com that in turn allow it to provide more job opportunities.”

Despite the Bean’s success, Ryan wishes she could do more. “Historically we have turned away four out of five qualified applicants because of our capacity. Today we are focused on growing our sales because sales create jobs. We want to ensure that we can serve every woman who needs us.”

She also has goals to help people she doesn’t employ. The families of the women the Bean serves are also beneficiaries of the program. “We want to ensure that our services are so effective and far-reaching that she is the last in her family to need us, that we help to create transformational change for both the woman and her family.”

The barriers to employment faced by the women we hire are numerous and complex. There are many factors that have led to each woman’s inability to get and keep a job, including backgrounds of abuse, addiction and incarceration.

Ryan notes that the obstacles to employment are complex; whatever they are, they are in the past. “Because we can’t change her past, we must be focused (and help her focus) on her future and finding a path to a successful life that includes employment and self-sufficiency. Sometimes the biggest obstacle can be helping her realize that she is worthy of a better life.”

Tamra Ryan, courtesy of the Women’s Bean Project

The biggest limitation the Bean faces, she says, is the women themselves. “Free will is the limitation to our solution. Ultimately each woman must choose to make the changes required for a new life.”

Crangle is eager to grow the Bean. “If we are able to expand our program and have a further reach, we can impact more women, which will ultimately improve our city in a myriad of ways, from the family systems of the women we serve, to the economic benefits of having a more skilled workforce.”

Ryan emphasizes the impact of the Bean’s work on the family. She says, “I truly believe that when you change a mother’s life, you change her family’s life. It can be challenging to comprehend how hard it is for a family to break out of poverty.”

She adds, “So many women have told me that when they were growing up they had no role models for employment; they never watched someone get up every morning and go to work. By creating role models in families, we finally create the potential for transformational change in the family as well.”

The Women’s Bean Project continues to hire women that others won’t–specifically so they will–and that has made all the difference.

On Thursday, January 5, 2017 at 1:00 Eastern, Ryan will join me here for a live discussion about the Women’s Bean Project and the women they serve. Tune in here then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe. The video player for the interview is at the top of this article.

Never miss another interview! Join Devin here!

Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!

6 Lessons For Social Entrepreneurs From 2016

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

In recent weeks, I have seen a common theme proffered on social media: good riddance to 2016. For some it is about politics; for others, it is the deaths of favorite artists or actors. The fact is, however, 2016 wasn’t so different from other years, full of a roster of events both positive and negative. There is much to celebrate and learn from 2016.

Looking back at six of the most popular posts I wrote for Forbes this year, I found some lessons from the social entrepreneurs I covered that are worth reviewing.

  1. Use Your Supply Chain For Impact: Utah-based dōTERRA showed us in 2016 how to use your supply chain to have a social impact. The 1.2 billion entrepreneurial company has chosen to use its international purchases of essential oils to support smallholder farmers in developing countries. They have complemented their supply chain purchases with grants from the direct marketer’s Helping Hands Foundation.

    dōTERRA volunteers in Nepal, courtesy of dōTERRA

  2. Power Of Partnerships: Physician and social entrepreneur Dean Ornish demonstrated the power of partnering with a bigger organization when he licensed his healthy lifestyle program to Healthways to help people overcome cardiac problems. This single deal allowed Ornish to help people across the country gain access to professional help with implementing his program.

    Dean Ornish, courtesy of Healthways

  3. Never Underestimate A Young Woman With Blue Hair: Maria De La Croix, applied for a job with Starbucks and was rejected because she sported blue hair, a violation of company policy at the time. Anxious to find a way to earn a living, she launched her own coffee shop on a bicycle. She made so much money, she started selling more bicycle-based shops and within two years had sold over 600 cafes in 60 countries. Her shops sell only organic food and coffee and use solar panels to generate electricity.

    Maria De La Croix, courtesy of Wheelys

  4. Impact Is Sometimes In Between: Colleen Copple learned from working against gang violence in her hometown how to bridge the gap between the police and the communities they protect. Twenty-five years after beginning her work as a community activist she now leads a consulting practice with clients around the globe, including the U.S. Justice Department. Her firm, Strategic Applications International led the development of the official report from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. She leveraged her skills in bringing together people who sit on opposite sides of an issue to develop a shared understanding.

    Maria De La Croix, courtesy of Wheelys

  5. Regulation A+ Provides A New IPO Path For Social Entrepreneurs: Paul Elio, founder and CEO of Elio Motors, led a $16 million raise from the public in what amounted to a “mini IPO” under new SEC rules promulgated in 2015 in accordance with Title IV of the 2012 JOBS Act. Elio Motors is planning to launch the sale of a three-wheeled car that costs just $7,300 and gets 84 miles per gallon. Elio hopes the car will empower people who traditionally haven’t been able to afford a car and that it will also help the environment.

    Paul Elio, courtesy of Elio Motors

  6. Students Using STEM Skills Make Can A Difference: Six young women at MIT combined their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills to create a device that converts text to braille. The prize-winning inventors are hoping to bring the device they call Tactile to market a price point approaching $100, representing more than an order of magnitude pricing improvement over the market for similar devices today.

Team Tactile, six undergrads from MIT, are redefining what inventors look like. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

Social entrepreneurs will likely change the world again in 2017. Those that make the most progress may be the ones that learn the lessons taught us by 2016.

Never miss another interview! Join Devin here!

Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!

 

2017’s Top Sustainable Investing Trends From Green Alpha Advisors

This is a guest post from Garvin Jabusch, Co-founder & Chief Investment Officer of Green Alpha Advisors LLC.

What are prospects for sustainable and impact investing in the New Year?

With the election of Donald Trump and his selection of a Cabinet packed with fossil fuel executives and climate change skeptics, sustainable and impact investors are facing stiff headwinds.

Despite political challenges, Green Alpha Advisors sees resilience in an emerging economy that is powered by low-carbon, fueled by innovation, locally focused and addressing the looming systemic risks presented by climate change and resource scarcity.

Here are six trends that Green Alpha’s co-portfolio managers Garvin Jabusch and Jeremy Deems say will drive sustainable investing in 2017:

Energy Tipping Point: Though a Trump Administration pledges allegiance to coal and other fossil fuels, Jabusch and Deems say simple economics portends a structural decline in fossil fuels. Put simply, renewables are becoming too cheap for fossil fuels to compete. Solar module costs have fallen 80% since 2008, and solar power can be generated for as little as 2.42 cents per kilowatt-hour—less than half the price of fossil-based electricity.

With solar panels continuing their dramatic fall in price, panel producers face some market headwinds. But Yieldcos, such as 8.3 Energy Partners (CAFD), should benefit in 2017. 8.3 owns, operate and acquire solar energy generation projects and its primary objective is to generate predictable cash distributions that grow at a sustainable rate.

Bridging the divide with wind: What issue can unite Republicans and Democrats? The answer, say Deems and Jabusch, is blowing in the wind. Across the country, wind power has become the new corn for Red State farmers, providing a steady source of income in low-income, Red State rural areas. In fact, the 10 Congressional districts that produce the most wind energy are represented by Republicans. California and other states, meanwhile vow to push ahead in the fight against climate change—with or without President Trump’s blessing.

Vestas Wind Systems (VWDRY) and other original equipment manufacturers are well positioned for continued growth in 2017. Vestas has already sold out its 2017 capacity and with 78 GW of wind turbines in 75 countries, it has installed more wind power than any other company.

Storage Surge: Last year’s massive methane leak from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility outside Los Angeles has put battery storage of electricity on the fast track. Utilities such as Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric have moved to battery storage for back-up and GTM Research estimates that as much as 1,800 megawatts of new energy storage could come online by 2021, (see: http://bit.ly/2iAbNUy). Companies that stand to benefit from this trend include, ABB Ltd (ABB), Solaredge Technologies Inc (SEDG) and Tesla (TSLA).

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!: Though coal jobs were a focus of the 2016 Presidential election, renewables are where the most paychecks are. Wind power supports 88,000 jobs, while close to 209,000 U.S. workers are currently employed in solar—and that number is predicted to rise to 420,000 workers by 2020. As of October, coal employed fewer than 54,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Organics poised for record growth: As the fastest growing category in the food and beverage consumer sector, organics continue to set records. Jabusch and Deems believe 2017 will see expanded M&A activity in the category as food companies look to capture market share and growth. Deals like Danone’s $10.4 billion takeover bid for White Wave will become more commonplace with rising consumer demand for organics. Investors can catch this wave with companies like Hain Celestial Group Inc (HAIN), which produces organic food and personal care products; SunOpta (STKL ) which specializes in the sourcing, processing and packaging of natural and organic products from ‘field-to-table;’ and United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI), a leading distributor of natural and organic foods in the U.S. and Canada.

Global drive for Electric Vehicles: Deems and Jabusch expect Trump Administration policies may dampen electric vehicle prospects in the short term in the U.S. But globally, the EV market has taken off faster than a Model S. Mercedes plans to spend $11 billion to launch ten new electric models in the next decade, and “BMW will likely phase out internal combustion engines over the next ten years,” according to Baron Capital. Germany, Holland, Norway, India and other countries have passed or are considering bans on all internal combustion engines in the next decade, and the European Union says all new homes must have EV chargers in 2019.

As cities around the globe move to restrict the use of gasoline and diesel cars, Jabusch says investors should keep an eye on companies like FedEx, which is converting diesel vans to electric in urban areas because of greater efficiency and cost benefits.

UK Impact Investment Bank Launches Impact Measurement Tool

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

London-based ClearlySo is an investment banking firm that helps social enterprises raise capital from impact investors, those who seek a social impact along with a financial return. Last week, ClearlySo announced a new impact measurement service for private equity and venture capital funds.

Founder and CEO, Rodney Schwartz, is excited about the new product, which he says will make impact reporting easier. He says, “We launched our impact assessment tool, which, for the first time, specifically addresses the needs of PE/VC firms to measure and report on the impact of their privately held portfolio companies. It does so in a way that is portal-based, efficient, robust, easy-to-use, inexpensive and requires no lengthy questionnaires to be filled out by fund managers or investees.”

Rodney Schwartz, courtesy of ClearlySo

Rodney Schwartz, courtesy of ClearlySo

Mathew Holloway, the CEO of Q-Bot, a social enterprise client of ClearlySo, says, “Obviously ClearlySo has only recently launched ATLAS, but throughout our work with them over the last year, and more recently with ATLAS, they have created a structure by which we can more effectively and efficiency measure and communicate our impact. These tools have allowed us to set goals and targets for the future and track and report on their progress.”

Q-Bot’s ability to tell their impact story has made a big difference for them, including helping to drive top line growth, Holloway says. “This has added a huge amount of value by aligning the interests of different stakeholders, including employees, investors and customers, and creating a framework by which it can be clearly communicated. This has meant that Q-Bot has been able to have an even greater impact than expected and most importantly demonstrate it. Q-Bot works within the social housing sector where wider societal benefits form part of the procurement process and so has also greatly contributed to the growth of the company and winning of new orders.”

Luke Hakes, Investment Director at Octopus Ventures, has worked as an advisor to ClearlySo during the development of Atlas. He says, “Impact and its measurement is becoming increasingly important to both the VC and PE community and is increasingly high up on the agenda of LPs and indeed retail investors.”

The use for Atlas reaches beyond private equity and venture funds that focus on impact, Hakes notes. “Though we are not an impact investor per se, we are very aware that every investment we make has impact both socially and economically and it makes little sense for us to ignore this. Capturing and measuring the impact our portfolio companies have enables us to work with them to improve areas in which they may be weak and to raise awareness in areas where they are strong.”

Hakes also sees that market as the key to the success of Atlas. “To be successful, ClearlySo needs to help educate an industry which historically has been somewhat skeptical of the term ‘impact.’” He notes that mainstream investors view impact investors as sacrificing returns to do good. “They need to help VC and PE firms understand that by measuring the impact of their investments completed under their existing investment strategies and acting on the findings of that measurement, they have the opportunity to actually improve the performance of those assets and drive returns,” he adds.

Building the new platform has been no small task. Schwartz says, “This was the culmination of nearly 5 years of work, from concept development to implementation. ClearlySo built this tool with and for the PE/VC industry and with their needs and constraints foremost in our minds. The impressive and expert audience responded favorably and our first customer came forward, Octopus Ventures, a leading UK-based VC. Others seem set to follow.”

“When you launch something as a pioneer, something that has never before been attempted, and has been developed in a completely new way, you never know what the outcome will be–or even if the product will work,” he added.

That caveat notwithstanding, he says, “It seems to work extremely well and the market has responded in a very favorable way–exceeding our hopes and aspirations.”

Clearly so plans to market the product across Europe, where there is already growing interest, Schwartz says.

ClearlySo is, Schwartz says, Europe’s largest impact investment bank. He adds, “All of ClearlySo’s clients are great businesses, charities and funds doing something which changes the world for the better at the same time as building successful, valuable and profitable organizations.”

Holloway says, “ClearlySo helped Q-Bot raise a seed investment round in early 2016. During this process we found the team to be highly effective at connecting the company with relevant investors, managing this interest and balancing it with the needs of the business, and supporting the closing of the round.”

ClearlySo didn’t walk away at that point, he says. “Since then they continue to support us by shaping our strategy and offering towards future growth and fundraising needs.”

Schwartz, who got is start on Wall Street back in 1980 working as an analyst at PaineWebber, later started a venture fund focused on fintech before launching ClearlySo in 2008. Schwartz seems to be focusing on impact ahead of profitability, acknowledging that the company, which has 25 employees and targets £1.5 million in 2017 revenue, is not yet profitable. His goal is to drive a 30 percent gross margin.

Rodney Schwartz, courtesy of ClearlySo

Rodney Schwartz, courtesy of ClearlySo

He describes his focus and strategy on impact, “Every company we help is a high-impact enterprise. We enable them to change the world for the better by getting investors to back them and support their growth. We also help investors to understand the impact of all that they do.”

On Thursday, December 22, 2016 at noon Eastern, Schwartz will join me here for a live discussion about Atlas and the state of the impact investing industry at the end of 2016. Tune in here then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.

Never miss another interview! Join Devin here!

Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!

These 6 Women Undergrads At MIT Invented A Game Changer For The Blind

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

Six women, all undergraduate students at MIT, have invented a text to braille scanner that significantly advances the state of the art for text scanners, most of which convert text to speech. The patent-pending device is not yet available in the marketplace, but the inventors are committed to the project, called Tactile, full time upon graduation in the spring. (Disclosure: My wife owns fewer than 100 shares of Microsoft.)

The team comprises three students in Mechanical Engineering, Jialin Shi, Charlene Xia and Grace Li; two students in Electrical Engineering, Tania Yu and Chandani Doshi; and Bonnie Wang, who studies Materials Sciences.

A spokesperson for Microsoft points out that women hold just 5.5 percent of commercial patents in the United States. The company is trying to change that by providing pro bono legal support to female inventors. Team Tactile has been accepted into this program.

Keely Swan, IDEAS Global Challenge Administrator at MIT, boasts, “The Tactile team won a $10,000 grant in last year’s MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, an annual innovation, service, and social entrepreneurship program run by MIT’s Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center. The program helps students take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to real-world challenges. As one of our winning teams, Tactile received a 15-month grant, and we’ll work with them through summer 2017 as they refine their project.”

Team Tactile, six undergrads from MIT, are redefining what inventors look like. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

Team Tactile, six undergrads from MIT, are redefining what inventors look like. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

Keely describes the team’s work ethic and effort on their winning project. “When I first read the Tactile project plan, it was clear that they had spent time working with people who are visually impaired to understand the challenges they face, and how a real-time text-to-Braille converter could help them read almost anything, from product labels to sensitive personal information like bank statements and medical paperwork. After developing a prototype at a hackathon, Tactile continued working closely with partners and prospective users to refine the concept and create a device they believe can significantly improve the quality of life for people with visual impairments.”

Paul Parravano, Co-director of Government and Community Relations at MIT, is visually impaired and has advised the Tactile team during their product development efforts. He says the market is full of devices, many of which are expensive. Braille display devices cost about $1,500 and they don’t scan documents at that price.

The team hasn’t set a price point, but they believe they can produce their device for just $100, giving them the opportunity to price theirs well below the price of competing devices that don’t provide scanning.

Parravano points out that pricing is key. Many visually impaired people are unemployed or underemployed and therefore don’t have resources for expensive technology. He says, if the team can price the product below $1,500 it could represent a real breakthrough.

With a target price approaching $100, this could represent a quantum leap forward for the blind community.

Team member Jialin Shi adds, “According to the National Federation of the Blind, only 40.4% of adults with significant vision loss were employed in 2014 and more than 30% live below the poverty line.”

Shi describes the team’s bold plan, “We want to make Tactile affordable and accurate. If we can do that, then we believe we will be able to increase the braille literacy rate, and in turn, increase the employment rate of adults with significant vision loss. We think it’s incredibly important to invest in technology that will enable, empower and allow people with disabilities to go and do amazing things. Getting Tactile to a point where we can sell it for $100 or less would be ideal, and would allow us to help many more people than the technologies that exist today.”

Team Tactile, working on their prototype. Courtesy of Microsoft.

Team Tactile, working on their prototype. Courtesy of Microsoft.

The device isn’t market ready, yet. Team member Bonnie Wang explains, “There is a lot of work we still have to do to refine our product. The largest roadblock is shrinking the size of our braille linear actuation mechanism to meet the size requirements of standard braille characters. We are continuing to make steps in decreasing the size of our device to make it portable for users.”

The biggest limitation the team faces is the state of optical character recognition (OCR) technology. “One limitation is the complexity of processing images of irregular surfaces. Especially with the limited processing power of our device, it is difficult to adjust for folds in the surface and distortions in text,” Wang says.

Despite the challenges and limitations, Keely notes that what they have accomplished is remarkable. “I have been deeply impressed by the team’s knowledge, passion, and ability to work together quickly and effectively. The IDEAS Global Challenge judges were also impressed by how much the team accomplished in such a short period of time.”

Shi explains the team’s vision for the product’s impact. “Ultimately, this will provide people with visual impairment access to information that they wouldn’t otherwise have. No more than 5 percent of books have braille translations. Tactile would allow them to read anything they wanted from text books and novels to food labels and mathematical equations. It truly would open up a world of opportunity for an entire community of people.”

The team’s efforts have impact beyond the community of people with visual impairments, Keely points out. “As an all-female undergraduate team, they are setting a great example for other young women and girls, demonstrating what they can accomplish in science, technology, and engineering.”

On Thursday, December 22, 2016 at 5:00 Eastern, all six members of the team will join me here for a live discussion about their project, their progress and their passion. Tune in here then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.

Never miss another interview! Join Devin here!

Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!

New Partnership Seeks To Fund Artists’ Businesses With Impact Investments

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

Upstart Co-Lab is a nonprofit that has partnered with the Calvert Foundation and Artspace Projects to facilitate impact investments that support artists.

Upstart Co-Lab is a startup itself, launching earlier this year. The Calvert Foundation is a leader in impact investing, making such investments accessible to ordinary investors–not just the wealthy. Artspace, also a nonprofit, develops live/work projects for artists around the country.

While not seeking to invest directly in works of art, the new partnership is intended to fund businesses that artists often own, being social entrepreneurs by nature.

Laura Callanan, Founding Partner of Upstart Co-Lab, says, art is a big part of the economy but not enough investment is being made there. “The creative economy is more than 4 percent of the US GDP. But JP Morgan and the GIIN report that art and culture are 0% of impact investing. There are currently no tools, funds or manager strategies enabling impact investors to align their capital with the creative sector.”

Laura Callanan, courtesy of Upstart Co-Lab

Laura Callanan, courtesy of Upstart Co-Lab

Callanan makes the case that artists are entrepreneurs who need access to the right kind of capital. “Artists are social entrepreneurs and innovators. They are starting B Corporations and other social purpose businesses. But they are not always recognized as the innovators they are. That means they don’t have easy access to patient and flexible impact capital to bring their ideas to scale. And it is challenging to build a sustainable creative life.”

Kelley Lindquist, President of Artspace, focuses on place. “The problem is that artists across America, and really across the world, consistently lack safe, affordable space in which to live and work. Artists are often low income and as the cost of housing increases, particularly in cities where artists live, they are increasingly priced out, leaving them with with two main unacceptable choices: to leave their homes and/or work space, often forcing the abandonment of their livelihood; or resort to living or working in spaces that are affordable but unsafe.”

These inadequate options can lead to tragedy, he adds. “We have recently–in Oakland–seen the dangers of this second path.”

Callanan explains what Upstart Co-Lab is now doing. “Upstart Co-Lab is looking to unleash more capital for creativity. We are exploring with strategic partners like Calvert Foundation, B Lab and Veris Wealth Partners how to adapt existing impact investment products, tools and approaches.” She see creativity as a drive of sustainability.

Lindquist says Artspace sometimes repurposes existing structures and other times builds from the ground up. “Artspace works with artists and communities to develop and operate buildings that are safe and appropriate for artists and their families. Our projects include both adaptive reuse and historic preservation of spaces such as former warehouses and schools, as well as new construction designed specifically for artists.”

Artspace, he says, is working to create multi-generational affordability. “Our solution is a long-term fix. Rather than moving artists from space to space, following the whims of gentrification, to provide permanent anchors that remain artist-centric and affordable over generations.”

Callanan says one of the biggest challenges she’s faced is bringing the naturally entrepreneurial artists together with the less entrepreneurial funders. “Cultural institutions, foundations making grants in the arts, and others who work in proximity to artists–but are not artists themselves–are often less entrepreneurial, less comfortable with harnessing the power of the markets, and lack basic investment literacy. There is effort required to build understanding and engagement among these likely allies. This requires time and patience. Their participation will help build the enabling infrastructure for artist-innovators.”

Lindquist notes that access to capital for funding their projects is one of their biggest challenges. Of course, that is the purpose for the partnership with Upstart Co-Lab.

Kelley Lindquist, courtesy of Artspace

Kelley Lindquist, courtesy of Artspace

He also notes that attitudes toward art have been a traditional challenge, but believes that is changing. “When we first started doing this work, it was a struggle to convince city leaders and others that artists are an asset to communities. That has shifted somewhat. One way of measuring that is that in the last year alone we received 170 calls from mayors, city department leaders, foundation staff and others asking for our help in stabilizing or growing their arts communities.”

Callanan says it is still early days for Upstart Co-Lab to see the potential limits of the work. “As our colleague Patricia Farrar-Rivas at Veris Wealth Partner has said, the conversation we have started about a creativity lens today is where the conversation about impact investing and climate change was 15 years ago.”

She adds, “We have set a three year schedule to implement five projects we think will prepare the system for a big shift. We are testing the potential and discovering the limits of our solution. The limitations of our approach will reveal themselves over the next few years.”

Artspace’s Lindquist notes with the benefit of more hindsight, that their work is primarily limited by their scale. “By some standards, we’ve created a lot of affordable space for artists and arts organizations, but the need is vast. In cities with high housing costs, such as New York, Seattle, Santa Cruz, and the D.C. metro area, we receive thousands more applications for live/work units than we can possibly provide.”

He notes that they are scaling up, but still can’t meet the need. “The process of developing a project can take anywhere from 3 to 5 years, and while we have grown from developing one project a year to now having a dozen in development at any one time, it still doesn’t meet the need nationally.”

Jack Meyercord, Head of Impact Investments at Bienville Capital, says the new partnership will have a positive impact. “Impact investing, at it’s core, is about generating a social return in addition to a financial return. Artists are innovators, social commentators and, in many cases, social entrepreneurs. Impact investing can unlock capital that allows artists to accelerate their creative endeavors, enhance the impact of their work and, in certain cases, create sustainable social ventures in the creative economy.”

Callanan remains optimistic about the impact of Upstart Co-Lab. “Upstart Co-Lab will chart its success through the new opportunities it opens for artist-innovators; the products, structures, and systems it puts in place to connect impact investors with the creative sector; and the engagement it fosters between social change makers and artists who share their goals.”

Lindquist, too, is upbeat about the future despite the challenges and limitations. “We know that the work we do has tremendous benefits to the individual artists and arts organizations for whom we provide affordable space. Artists are more productive and because some of the financial burdens are eased by the affordability, they are often able to devote more time and energy to their art and earn more of their income from that.”

On Thursday, December 15, 2016 at noon Eastern, Callanan and Lindquist will join me here for a live discussion about the partnership and impact investing within the artist community. Tune in here then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.

Never miss another interview! Join Devin here!

Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!

Prudential Working To Double Impact Investing Portfolio Focuses On Newark

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.


In the Spring of 2014, Prudential Financial, Inc., announced a commitment in double its impact investment portfolio from about $500 million to $1 billion by 2020. Half way through that period, the financial giant reports it is making progress, with much of the investment going to redevelopment efforts in Newark.

Prudential was founded 140 years ago in Newark, New Jersey and remains there today. Lata Reddy, Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility, says that the decision to stay in Newark was not simply “inertia.” She says, the company has repeatedly decided to stay in the community and to invest in it as part of its social mission.

Prudential reports investing more than $400 million in Newark’s civic infrastructure, to help create new jobs and attract more consumers. Projects include:

  • The redevelopment of the historic Hahne & Co. building into a mixed-use development featuring street-level retail, which will include a Whole Foods Market, mixed-income apartments, and space for Rutgers University.
  • The revitalization of Military Park into an epicenter of Newark city life, complete with a café and a spacious lawn where community activities such as fitness classes, concerts and movie screenings now take place.
  • The development of free ultra-high speed Wi-Fi in Newark’s downtown district accessible to anyone. The WiFi is 200 times faster than public WiFi networks available in other cities including New York.
  • The renovation of the former National State Bank building into Hotel Indigo, one of the first new hotels built in Newark in 40 years.
  • The conversion of a former warehouse into AeroFarms, a next-generation urban farming hub. AeroFarms will help bring a new, sustainable industry to the city, create jobs, revive deteriorating neighborhoods, and produce healthy food for residents.

Jonathan Cortell, Vice President of Development for L+M Development Partners, says, “Lata and her team have been invaluable partners in our joint effort to restore the long vacant Hahne & Co. flagship building in downtown Newark. Our initial collaboration was to finance the property’s acquisition and it has steadily grown from there.  Vacant for nearly three decades, the acquisition was not the easiest transaction and I can’t imagine any other lender successfully pulling it off as Prudential did.”

Lata Reddy, courtesy of Prudential

Lata Reddy, courtesy of Prudential

Reddy, who rejoined Prudential in 2012 in her current position after a three-year stint as an independent consultant, sees Prudential playing a key role in addressing fundamental problems in Newark, which exist to a greater or lesser degree around the world. She worries that “too many people are excluded from the real economy.” She notes that some communities like Newark are “experiencing concentrated poverty.” This impacts women, veterans and people of color disproportionately.

Communities lose out when the upwardly mobile move out of the community, leaving the less fortunate to fend for the themselves. This impacts the city government, she notes, reducing the tax base and impairing the talent pool that government can draw from for leadership. Ultimately, however, Reddy says that Prudential sees these problems as opportunities for the firm to make a difference and a profit.

Reddy says, “Our goal is to create a thriving, walkable, 24/7 community.” She points out that Prudential is the largest company based in Newark, “the only Fortune 50 company headquartered here.”

Cortell agrees, complimenting Prudential’s work in the community. “Lata’s group consistently demonstrates flexibility and creativity well beyond what you typically see from lenders. Lata and her group encouraged us to raise the bar and actively engaged local institutions, like Rutgers University, that are helping to make Hahne’s a real resource for the City of Newark.”

Daryl Carter, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Avanath Capital Management, which has raised three funds to invest in affordable housing, says that Prudential invested in all three funds and provided debt financing on some of the projects as well.

Carter says, “Because of Prudential’s initial and ongoing investment in our funds, we have successfully acquired, renovated, and preserved over 41 affordable housing communities totaling more than 7,000 units throughout the United States.”

He explains the vital role affordable housing plays in building healthy communities. “For example,” he says, “providing resident services such as after-school programs for kids keeps them engaged and makes communities safer, and creating quality living environments that are also affordable contributes to the overall stability of a neighborhood. Prudential supports our vision and holistic approach in providing quality housing to a segment of the market that is often ignored by other investors.”

Reddy acknowledges that there are challenges. “Even with our resources, you can’t do it alone.” She says, attracting additional capital to support redevelopment has been a challenge. For some projects, the “capital stacks” are complicated.

There hasn’t, however, been a problem with finding good projects to fund. The scale of the problem–opportunity as she sees it–is massive, providing plenty of shovel ready project just waiting for capital.

She acknowledges that not all of the community’s problems can be solved by investments. Prudential also deploys some philanthropic capital to support job training and other programs in Newark.

Furthermore, the money presently allocated to philanthropy and impact investment is too small to solve the problems they hope to address. In order to actually solve the world’s biggest problems, “we need more capital,” she says. Traditional capital markets will have to be deployed with an eye toward impact to solve these problems.

In this regard, Prudential itself is a symbol of this problem. While building a $1 billion portfolio of impact investments by 2020 is a huge step forward, the firm has $1 trillion in total assets. The firm’s allocation of capital to impact is just 1/1000th of its total.

Reddy says that the bespoke nature of impact investing is part of the problem for achieving scale. She expressed hope that standardizing impact investment structures will make the market more efficient and attract more main stream capital.

The impact of the projects, however, is already being felt in Newark, she says. More people and companies are coming to live, work and do business in Newark. More amenities are being created. Prudential has catalyzed more capital by leading the way.

Reddy sees this work as being central to the firm’s commitment to the community and social impact. The firm was founded, she says, on the principle of helping people “achieve financial prosperity and the peace of mind at comes with it.” Impact investing is a contemporary way of continuing that legacy, she says.

On Thursday, December 15, 2016 at 11:00 Eastern, Reddy will join me here for a live discussion about Prudential’s investments in Newark and elsewhere on it way to building a $1 billion impact investment portfolio, Tune in here then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.

Never miss another interview! Join Devin here!

Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!

Never miss another interview! Join Devin here!
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