Joel Solomon, Chairman & Co-Founder of Renewal Funds chats with Heron's Toni Johnson about his organization that was founded thanks to the vision of a wealthy inheritor with a mission to do good. He talks about why he likes to attend conferences such as SOCAP (where the interview was recorded) as well as what the fund's future focus is going to be.
Renewal Funds is a social venture fund that invests in businesses with a triple bottom line focus in Canada and the USA. It currently has $98 million under management that is deployed across companies in the organic and natural food, green products and social and environmental innovation sectors. Renewal funds also became certified as a BCorp in 2010.
Joel, you are doing work in the impact investing field, can you tell me a little about what Renewal Funds is and where it operates?
Renewal Funds is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. We call it a mission-venture capital fund. We have $98 million under management that focuses on investments in organic food and green technologies.
Why pick organic food and green technologies? Why not some other focus?
That's because that's where our passions has taken us through our lifetime and therefore where our skills have developed. So those are the fields we know best.
And how long have you been working on this?
Well, Renewal Funds is the outgrowth of work that started as what we call an "activist family office." It's actually a one-person family office but it's the best model that can be used to describe it. A woman named Carol Newell inherited a large amount of money and had a vision that the majority of that should be dedicated to social goods. Carol and I met and I was brought on as her co-strategist and the implementer of a 14-year plan where we integrated use of capital for social goods — for-profits, not-for-profits, inner-skills and leadership and ultimately to influence power and politics. We deployed capital in that way, in a fairly aggressive fashion, to work on the ecosystem of cultural and social change, focused on the region that we live in — British Columbia.
Now we are here in California at SOCAP. It's a week-long conference dedicated to social entrepreneurs and impact investors. Why are you here?
So I'm 30 years into this. SOCAP is the outgrowth of some early conferences that just started with the question of how can business be a force for good in the world. And then there was another strain of an organization called the Threshold Foundation, which was how can I be a social change philanthropist while dealing with the psychological, emotional, spiritual and relational issues of the ownership of money and the responsibility of wealth. Those were the two threads that I came out of and was influenced by. Many other organizations — some spun out directly of those — grew up in the same milieu. The time of change where the awareness of what's going on our planet, how we got ourselves into this situation, of the great wonders and awesomeness of life today along with the challenge-sides that we have through human ingenuity gotten ourselves into some very serious pickles that we need to solve. That requires looking at the core of the root of what money is, what's our responsibility in whatever ways we influence it, especially those of us that are privileged to have access to more of it. These conferences and networks are part of an ecosystem as the ethic and the morals and the smarts are coming into place to redirect capital towards the solutions we need for long-term, fair and resilient societies on the planet.
Looking at the future, we've been talking all week about the growth of impact investing. There is a lot of discussion about risk and return, a lot of discussion about how you measure social impact. Can you talk a little about the things that you've learned in your fund and what you see for the future?
As a mission venture capital fund, that is a signal that we first want to know what the entrepreneurs are about, what truly motivates them, what they are going to do with their success and what about the DNA of the companies is truly devoted to improving things for humans and that means improving things for the biosphere that supports humans. So as a field develops that has a new philosophy and a new point of view to it, a lot of basics still need to be done. There is an explosion of entrepreneurship on the planet going on, for some good reasons — human creativity and ingenuity. And for some not so good reasons because we've moved into an era of attacking government and not believing in regulation of the commons and moving more and more towards a kind of what's called a free market, which means the market decides.
So in that kind of environment, we still have to understand how to successfully go to market with better products, how to find capital, how to treat that capital properly. If you field capital then how do you find entrepreneurs, how do you be in the right relationship with them and how do you achieve what is agreed upon success. So the basic tools and functions still are very much alike. What's different are the values and the perspective and the purpose. This conference has got a lot about metrics and the how-to and very practical sides — governmental regulation, all kinds of bigger picture things — and I'm part of presenting two sessions. One is called community quarterbacks and that's because of this integrated use of capital focused on place-based type of investing where there's a need for people who are bridge-crossers and connectors. That's a little different take on what's going on here. And then my friend Marian Moore and I are going to present and create a discussion on karmic influence of where did our money come from and what's it doing right now while we're sitting here talking. The point of that is to push people into a look deeper at the sources of the impacts and the influence of where we shop, where we bank, how we invest, how we treat each other with money and broader picture of this mysterious substance that is called money that represents the embodied exploitation of something. Hopefully that exploitation adherent is to take resources out of the ground, from nature or to employ people and be used with fairness, generosity, kindness and for higher purpose for all people, not just today but for future generations.
Check out more from thought leaders in impact investing and philanthropy in our Influencer Series