“So how was your vacation?”
With my answer, everyday small talk turned to a lively discussion.
I had just returned from an econ-tourism trip to Ethiopia. We visited private companies ranging from a pasta manufacturer to a private school; from a coffee grower to a chemical company.
But there was more to this trip than factory tours.
In visiting individual businesses, I could see a much broader narrative– small businesses growth, job creation, rising incomes, a growing middle-class. Ethiopia would build out new industries. People would become more educated; extreme poverty would decline. Government aid from the U.S. would subside. And in the future, our grandchildren would ask in bewilderment, “Really? We used to give to Africa?”
This has become my personal vision for social change.
I’m a global traveler with a particular liking for emerging markets, especially Africa. I’m inspired by entrepreneurs seeking to change the narrative of their country by building world-class businesses. I believe these people and companies will better our world. I find myself constantly talking and writing about them, and investing vacation days and volunteer hours to learn and support them.
But then it occurred to me. Why am I not aligning my investment portfolio with my vision for social change?
There’s a name for this: impact investing.
Impact investing is investing in companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate a social or environmental impact and a financial return.
Simply put, impact investing is putting your money where your mouth is.
You can make impact investments across your portfolio—in cash, bonds, and stocks. They can be in publicly listed or privately held companies or funds. The investments can be in the U.S. or in developing markets.
Impact investments are not an asset class. Impact investing is not an investment product that your financial advisor will present to you.
And that’s why the term is a bit misunderstood.
Impact investing is a philosophy. It’s a change in mindset, recognizing that your investment portfolio– however large or small– can be a powerful expression of the impact you’d like to have on the world.
Defining your intent is the hardest part. Ask yourself:
- What do I value?
- What are the problems I want to see addressed?
- What are my beliefs about how the world works, and what drives incentives?
My impact journey started with travel, but morphed into a belief that successful small businesses will be the future of Africa. To date, I’ve made several private investments through two Africa-focused impact investing firms.
Today, my beliefs are the basis for much of my investing. For example, I believe that increased female leadership in corporate America is important; research shows that companies with more women on their boards and in senior leadership outperform their peers. I own a mutual fund that emphasizes these leading companies, and am working with my advisor to reposition my U.S. stock portfolio to a female inclusion strategy.
Every action we take (or don’t) has an impact– from what food we eat to the car we drive. In the same way, every investment choice has an impact. It might as well align with our values.
What advice do I offer those interested in impact investing?
- Define your intent. It’s not about what you should do. What’s truly important to you? What do you hear yourself constantly talk to family and friends about?
- Engage your financial advisor. Speaking about your impact intentions should promote an engaging discussion and collaboration.
- Do your own homework. Your advisor may have limited impact investing knowledge, particularly in your focus. The Global Impact Investing Network (thegiin.org) and the Handbook for Impact Investing (www.impacthandbook.com) are great online resources.
- Just get started. Like life, impact investing is an ever-evolving journey, not a destination. Just take the first step.
So go on, sit in the drivers seat. When investing, make your impact. It all starts with you.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue of the Nob Hill Gazette.