This story is in partnership with the TELUS Pollinator Fund for Good.
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, TELUS made a bold decision. They launched one of Canada’s largest corporate impact funds, the TELUS Pollinator Fund for Good, which plans to invest $100 million in social ventures.
One year later, the fund has now invested in 10 companies — for-profit, purpose-driven businesses across four key pillars: health, agriculture, education, and the environment — that are creating big waves, from providing microloans to newcomers and refugees to help them restart promising careers in Canada, to accelerating the Indigenous economy in Canada.
On the anniversary of the Pollinator Fund’s launch, we caught up with the fund’s managing partner, Blair Miller, and investment director, Leah Nguyen and asked them to reflect on their key learnings to date.
Here are their top five takeaways from the Pollinator Fund’s first year.
THERE’S NEVER A PERFECT TIME TO START
In November of 2020, when many companies were focused simply on protecting their businesses, TELUS saw the launch of the Pollinator Fund as an opportunity to help drive innovation across the biggest health, agriculture, education, and environmental challenges facing our communities.
According to Miller, launching the fund in a short time frame was a challenge, but one they were committed to taking on considering the pandemic’s devastating impacts on communities, particularly as the demand for social services increased during lockdowns.
“From an impact perspective, Darren (Entwistle, CEO of TELUS) felt it was critical to launch during COVID-19 and to find a way to accelerate putting dollars into the Canadian economy and in arming socially-minded, purpose-driven entrepreneurs with the capital to build and scale their businesses at a very challenging time,” Miller says.
IMPACT INVESTING CAN CORRELATE TO INCREASED FINANCIAL RETURNS
One of the Pollinator Fund’s goals is to attract more capital to impact investing. Investors want to see financial returns; however, when launching the fund, the TELUS team was faced with questions from other corporates who thought an impact-focused fund meant concessionary returns. In social finance, concessionary returns involve sacrificing financial gains to prioritize a social benefit.
“There was a lot of education [involved],” Nguyen says about demystifying impact investing. “It is not about concessionary returns. It really is about still driving financial returns, and investing in businesses that are doing good. They’re not two mutually exclusive ideas.”
Sharing this investment philosophy with others has broadened people’s perspectives on how investing in social impact can be a viable part of the corporation’s investment plans, Nguyen says.
BEING MISSION-DRIVEN ATTRACTS TOP TALENT — AND PORTFOLIO COMPANIES
When it was time to recruit, Miller says the response to advertised jobs was “overwhelming and inspiring,” with more than 800 applicants for four positions.
In recent months, the Pollinator Fund team has grown from two to seven people. As a record number of workers continue to quit their jobs as a result of the pandemic (a phenomenon known as the ‘Great Resignation’), now more than ever, working for a mission-driven company is key to employee retention.
The fund’s emphasis on social impact as a core component of portfolio companies has been refreshing for founders who’ve struggled to navigate the traditional venture capital system. Chenny Xia, founder of Gotcare, a home-care company that uses technology to cut home-care costs and pay its employees a living wage, says that participating in mainstream accelerators and fundraising has been challenging.
“When you are really focussed on impact, there aren’t that many support systems in the start-up ecosystem for you,” Xia says. “When we were fundraising, we had lots of people questioning us. We decided to employ all the care workers that we work with because we believe that in order to give patients a stable care experience, they need workers who [have] a stable career. The fact that we employ them resulted in many investors telling us it wasn’t quite for them.”
The Pollinator Fund’s focus on more holistic impact in addition to financial returns meant they understood and validated Xia’s focus on meaningful and stable work for caregivers.
LEVERAGE EXPERIENCE AND NETWORKS TO ADD VALUE TO SOCIAL VENTURES
From supporting companies with developing a product suite to helping them build out job descriptions and introducing them to other investors, the Pollinator Fund team believes their involvement should extend beyond simply investing capital.
“While the financing we deploy is critically important to driving innovation, we believe TELUS also brings considerable human capital as an investor,” Miller says. As a global organization, TELUS has networks of experts and potential partners that many of the fund’s investees don’t — and TELUS is happy to open those doors for them.
Ran Goel, founder and CEO of Fresh City Farms, an online marketplace that is working to create an alternative, sustainable food system, says tapping into the TELUS network has brought invaluable support to his company as they experienced exponential growth during the pandemic as online grocery shopping saw high demand.
Goel says TELUS’ institutional knowledge on running a business has been instrumental to the company’s progress, especially to Fresh City Farms’ farming activities given the connections they’ve made to agricultural technology companies within the network.
“Out of all of our investors, they’re the ones that are most interested and insistent, rightfully so, on measuring impact, whether it’s diversity measures or greenhouse gas emissions or pounds of plastic diverted from landfills,” Goel says. “They’ve been really good about helping us figure out how to achieve that and putting us in touch with consultants and resources.”
BUILDING A SOCIAL IMPACT INVESTING ECOSYSTEM
Since the field is relatively new, there’s no playbook for corporate impact investing. But that’s why a willingness to forge ahead anyway — “a bias for action,” Nguyen says — and a focus on building an ecosystem of learning is important for corporate social impact investors.
The team connected with global corporations like Salesforce, which operates an impact ventures fund, and Autodesk, whose foundation does similar work, to share learnings and build a community of like-minded investors to create a standard of practice for others moving into this space. They also tapped into advisors including the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing in Toronto and Vancouver-based Spring Activator.
“Because we’ve [started a corporate impact venture fund] we can share what that looks like and help fuel the growth of this community to drive broader impact,” Nguyen says.