From the back of a crowded conference room in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, you could feel an excited buzz as Miller Center’s Brigit Helms began sharing the story of Grassland Cameroon to a standing-room-only audience of over 300 people.
The story is familiar. A social entrepreneur builds a sustainable and impactful business that is lifting people out of poverty. The entrepreneur goes out in search of capital with the goal of scaling this impact, only to find that investors are not interested. Some say she is too small, too early, too risky, or lacks the potential for a big home-run exit.
It is the story of an impact “zebra,” a term originally coined by Zebras Unite for an enterprise that creates sustainable impact as it scales steadily, rather than the mythical unicorn most impact investors are chasing. Unfortunately, it is also the story of the valley of death in the impact investing ecosystem that systemically neglects these zebras.
But if the story is so familiar, why are 300 people crowded into a room to hear about it? We think it’s because more people are growing frustrated with the results of current approaches, and are increasingly motivated to collaborate to find answers.
The energy continued to build as the participants rotated through lively discussions at the various world cafe stations. At these stations, facilitated conversations explored the challenges and opportunities for impact zebras and fund managers and the use of blended capital to crowd more resources into the space. As the discussions continued, common and well-trodden themes emerged. The facilitators highlighted themes and open questions as the session wrapped up.
Finding New Language and Sharing Lessons Learned
Jay Nwachu, president of Ignite Capital, facilitated the “Gaps for Zebras” station – taking the entrepreneurs’ perspective – and summed up the discussions:
- There’s a big disconnect between what investors think zebras are doing and what zebras are actually doing. Code-switching language to suit investors may be contradictory to what will truly drive impact, creating misaligned expectations around issues such as returns or scalability. We may need new language to bridge the gap.
- Instruments: So many! Too many? But still not the right instruments. Where are we learning about what works and doesn’t work? And where are we sharing the stories of what works and doesn’t?
Reconciling Time Horizons and Acknowledging Idiosyncrasies
Ted Levinson, founder and CEO of Beneficial Returns, facilitated the “Fund Formation and Raising Capital” station, sharing:
- Time horizons are vital in filling the gap. Investors expect to see capital back within ten years, but zebras take longer to show impact because they are building and educating markets. So how do we square these concepts of how long is long enough around fund formation? A potential solution: Have a fund that begins with investors with a longer horizon and higher risk appetite. Newer investors with a lower risk/return profile can join at different time intervals, potentially providing liquidity to early investors.
- We need to acknowledge that we have idiosyncratic funders and social entrepreneurs, which is one cause of turmoil, fragmentations, and inefficiencies. Acknowledging this won’t solve the problem, but it’s an important starting point.
Mainstreaming and Correcting Misconceptions about Blended Capital
Anastasiya Litvinova, director of Capital Advisory Services at Palladium Impact Capital, facilitated the “Mobilizing More Capital and the Role of Blended Finance” station and summarized:
- The most important role of blended finance is risk reduction, such as first loss coverage. But mitigating risk often means needing a first mover to take on that risk. The barrier to being a first mover is the complexity of blended finance. It is also really expensive, which limits experimentation at smaller scales. We need to simplify these structures to create viable and more repeatable solutions.
- Much of the narrative around blended finance focuses on concessionary returns, but this creates a gap because many investors expect mainstream financial returns. We need to refocus the narrative on de-risking while maintaining mainstream returns. This requires more patience but can still be healthy in the long run.
Although this session didn’t identify ways to close all the resource gaps or expose any radically new solutions, we heard from countless people that they came away more optimistic and energized about ultimately finding a way forward. Why? The fact that we had an overflowing room of people excited to engage in dialogue on these topics is a massive shift from the twenty-five finance nerds who would have shown up for the session five years ago. As momentum builds, and more and more smart and passionate people with a broader array of lived experiences collaborate to solve these problems, we will find the answers. We’re glad we could catalyze some of the connections and conversations that will transform the valley of death into a verdant valley with all the nourishment that impact zebras need to gallop ahead at full speed.
Watch the session video here:
- Brigit Helms shares story of impact zebras
- Facilitators Ted Levinson, Jay Nwachu, and Anastasiya Litvinova recap world cafe discussions