From racial inequality to the climate crisis, the past year has further exposed and amplified systemic issues which desperately need to be addressed. Budding social impact start-ups believe they may have the solutions to help. Entrepreneurs are creating new organizations with a social or environmental mission at their heart.
But young businesses need help getting off the ground during this early stage of their impact journey, where they are just developing their business model or showing early traction. That’s where early-stage impact investors come in, providing funding, networks and business expertise to push these new ventures and their missions forward.
Early-stage impact investors are gaining momentum in Canada to bring their own fresh perspectives to these new businesses, offering insights from the worlds of business, social justice, international development and various other fields. So what ideas do they have, and what impact could it have on Canada’s communities and economy going forward?
Future of Good spoke to five emerging impact investors from the Spring Impact Investor Challenge – a 10-week training program that connects emerging investors and early-stage startups looking to create impact in Canada. Here’s what they told us.
Hagen co-founded Study-Build, a rural design studio he runs with his wife Danielle in Campbell River, British Columbia. Hagen works with the Campbell River Area Angel Group of local early-stage investors, and helps to organize NexStream Tech Challenges for start-ups looking to strengthen the local economy.
How they got started: “We just felt like there must be ways that we can engage and become more active in our community. As we looked around, we felt that: OK, we love Quadra Island, all of these talented people here – what are some of the things that we as our generation need to be thinking about to make sure that this remains the awesome place that it already is?… To be in the privileged position to have opportunities that are really worth investing in – it’s all about getting to know your area, genuinely understanding what people’s skills are, what people’s needs are and then finding a way to piece together the right groups of people to meet those needs, and then hopefully deliver the value and outcomes you’re looking for.”
Why this approach matters: “There really is this sense that we all need to become far more invested in the places that we live in a variety of different ways. Hopefully 10 years down the road, impact investing isn’t even a thing – it’s inherently a part of what we do. It’s kind of sad that we have to make the distinction between the two… One (investment) that’s right here in my backyard and that we’ve really continued to be involved with is Wild Isle Ferments. Brandon Pirie was one of the wonders of the first generation of our Nexstream prizes. This is a hyper-local company. I love the way they approach their business in upcycling and adding more value to our seafood.”
An experienced impact investor in early-stage companies in Latin America, Graham is a program director at Spring, responsible for running the Impact Investor Challenge.
How they got started: “I ran one of the first social impact accelerators in Colombia – that was in 2012… I started investing in the type of companies Spring works with now – which is very small, early-stage companies that need to get over that first hurdle to be able to attract more capital…. I would say that the most effective early-stage impact investors have had some sort of exposure as entrepreneurs themselves, and I think this is wildly lacking in the space.”
Why this approach matters: “With a more flourishing ecosystem around entrepreneurship more generally, I think you create opportunities for everybody but in particular for youth, to take a chance on an idea, on a venture, and know that there’s capital out there looking for good ideas… I have, mostly through my last company, become very passionate about farmers, soils, and how that interacts with climate change and environment. I think that is key to me. So anything around what we now call ag-tech, climate-smart solutions.”
As Department Head of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Yukon University in Whitehorse, Manekin Beille supports Yukon’s innovators and entrepreneurs explore and develop risky and uncertain ideas from concept to prototype to commercialization, growth and scaling through funding, networking, expertise, and educational programming. Manekin Beille also works with Spring through a partnership to develop a culture of investment in the north.
How they got started: “I am incessantly looking to help people be the best versions of themselves, and I luckily fell into this world of entrepreneurship… Jaret Slipp, who was the first ED at Yukonstruct, the hub of northern entrepreneurship, was some of my earliest friends when I moved to the Yukon. I think all walks of life can be early-stage impact investors, you just need to have a belief that you’re going to put your hard-earned income into (something) that you believe so strongly. (It’s about) that understanding of what pulls at your heartstrings. You know that if you invest in this thing the world is going to be a better place.”
Why this approach matters: “The future of doing business is going to be doing business for good. People want to feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves, and they want to feel like they’re a part of making the world a better place. And that is so Yukon. So much more can happen up here if you don’t have a social twist to it. We are just a heart-centred territory… Joella Hogan is a First Nation soap maker in one of our rural communities, and this woman is internationally known now – over the course of COVID she went from a small soap company to being on the cover of magazines… She sees what her business is doing, transforming her small, rural Yukon community… The Yukon Soaps Company has gotten so big because of the why that she’s in it, and people want to be a part of that.”
A customer success manager at start-up video marketing platform StoryTap, and with a background in the jewellery business, stock market and real estate investing, Chen is new to the world of impact investing.
How they got started: “As the world’s changing, (people are) looking for a little bit more meaningful ways to contribute to society somehow. I have also given in philanthropic ways, but it didn’t feel quite right yet for me, and so that’s when I discovered Spring which was about investing in early-stage companies that had a social slant to them…it’s the cutting edge of possibility. What are these early-stage companies doing that’s creative enough to try and solve some of these big, hairy goals and big hairy problems in the world? So that’s interesting for me, and to see how they navigate through a lot of the uncertainty.”
Why this approach matters: “I definitely see this being much more mainstream as the world moves forward…especially as the younger generations are coming up. With younger millennials, they want to see a purpose in what their work is. So even if they’re not building their own businesses and they’re working for other people, they don’t want to work for a machine… Even me just dipping my toe in is making me as an individual more conscious of where I’m putting those hard-earned dollars, and how I want those hard-earned dollars to work for me in a way that I would feel good about it. And I feel like, as emerging impact investors are diving deeper into this they start to influence other people around in their circles, thinking about how they’re putting their money to work for them in a way that’s good for society.”
Working in finance at clothing company Lululemon while completing a remote MBA program at the Quantic School of Business and Technology, McCluskey is a non-accredited investor who is just starting to embark on his investment journey.
How they got started: “I’m big into the environment and climate change and that sort of stuff, and would love to invest in companies that are for-profit but are also still solving those kinds of problems. Just the chance to be a part of that is something that draws me to it… At an early stage, you have the most chance of creating true impact. I don’t think the large-scale companies can have the same kind of impact that a start-up company can have, and that’s just due to the rigidity of once you reach a certain size of company you’re kind of restricted in what you can do and what you can’t do, and then you get really tied down by the shareholders.”
Why this approach matters: “My thought is in the next year or two, anyone that’s paying attention will want to be in this space… Everyone’s well aware of the tech boom and the start-up investing coming out of San Francisco. I don’t know where it will be, obviously, but I think this impact area of investing will kick off in kind of the same way… There is the common misconception that you hear all the time that impact investing means you’re not going to get the same return as you would from investing in a public company. I think once people realise that that’s not the case, that you can actually make a very good return and actually outpace the return that you can get in a public company, then that’s what’s going to change.”