Is This Wildlife Conservation PhD The Steve Jobs Of Impact Investing?

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Did the people who met Steve Jobs in 1976 have any inkling that they were talking to the person whose name would for a generation be synonymous with “entrepreneur”? More often, people have believed to have found the next incarnation of Jobs only to be disappointed. Perhaps you can help me determine if the subject of this article could become the Steve Jobs of impact investing.

From my perch in Salt Lake City on the west side of the Rockies, over the last few years I’ve been hearing rumblings from the other side of the mountains. In Denver, Dr. Stephanie Gripne has created one of the most dynamic centers of impact investing and social entrepreneurship in the world. With a goal to catalyze impact investments of over $1 trillion and a plan to get there, it is about time that people outside the Rocky Mountains took note.

Dr. Gripne founded the Impact Finance Center as a partnership between the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business and the Sustainable Endowments Institute, a special project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.In 2014, the Center launched the CO Impact Days and Initiative with a three year goal to catalyze $100 million of impact investment in Colorado-based social ventures. The event has grown into a marketplace for impact investing.

Wendi Burkhardt, co-founder and CEO of the Colorado-based social enterprise Silvernest was an early participant in CO Impact Days. She says, “I am inspired by the opportunities that Stephanie and IFC are creating to employ traditional philanthropic donations as capital investments that offer a substantial return and thereby further the impact and intention of the applied funds.  I’m excited by this untapped opportunity to bring these worlds together.”

Will Morgan, Director of Impact for Sonen Capital, has worked with Dr. Gripne for several years, providing grant funding for the Center. He sees the need for the infrastructure that the Center is working to create. “I think IFC’s work is great. Investors are searching for more meaning with their assets and resources. Social enterprises and private businesses that create positive impacts are starved for resources. It’s a natural thought that more infrastructure needs to be put into place so that both sides of the equation can get what they need,” he says.

Jeramy Lund, Managing Director of the Sorenson Impact Center at University of Utah, agrees. He notes that she drove great collaboration. He says, the CO Impact Days event was a big success. “The way she was able to bring together the major foundations and get them to agree on collective impact was impressive heavy lifting. To pull it off on the first year was amazing.”

Dr. Gripne isn’t working to create a marketplace for impact capital by leveraging her Wall Street experience. She doesn’t have any formal finance training or experience.

Rejecting her father’s business career as path for her life, Dr. Gripne earned a PhD in Wildlife Conservation at the University of Montana. Her early career had working in academia, the Journal of Wildlife Management, the USDA Forest Service and the DOE Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It isn’t clear when she learned to calculate the present value of an investment.

It was working with her father, however, that she learned about the power of doing good with investment dollars. “ Before my dad passed, we completed some of my first direct impact investment deals together. We partnered with families going through medical bankruptcy. We basically created an affordable housing model where my family would buy a house and give the families partial equity of their rent and all equity above a ten percent return. These were essentially people with good credit who were faced with a medical emergency and were struggling to make ends meet.”

“That experience – the joy of philanthropy with a financial return — permanently changed my course,” she adds.

Since then, her focus has been on impact investing, not for her own account so much as for her community, her country and the world.

The Center operates its $700,000 annual budget largely through grants today, but Dr. Gripne plans to make it financially self-sustaining. Already, she says, the Center earns some revenue through research and development, thought leadership, education, marketplace Impact Days and sub-advisory services.

She acknowledges that the Center is really just getting started and that it may be too soon to measure future results, but she is optimistic. “Having only just launched this catalytic concept this year, we are currently operating at a negative gross margin of -18%. A significant portion of our expenses come from the development of the intellectual property we’ll be bringing to market in the coming months and years. Once we can begin to generate revenue from that IP in the form of educational workshops and sub-advisory services, we aim to be self-sustaining within 18-24 months, and profitable by 2019.”

Dr. Gripne’s early success comes from her passion. Burkhardt explains, “Stephanie is truly a force of nature and I am always amazed at her ability to produce the results that she does! In addition to her being an incredibly accomplished academic, [IFC] capitalizes on something much greater. It is a true labor of love for her – it is her deepest passion and that fuels her at the highest level of performance.”

Her sense of the problem drives her. Rhetorically, she asks, “In [these] times of economic uncertainty, climate change, and social division, how do we increase the flow of resources to the ventures that will deliver positive impact on our economy, society, and environment?”

To address the problem, the Center helps high-net-worth individuals and institutions with $10 million to $5 billion to invest to do it with more impact and lower fees. Dr. Gripne says, “We do this though outreach, education, and technical assistance that allows them to understand their objectives in terms of financial return, impact, risk, and liquidity and them help them find ways to make their philanthropy more efficient, their investments more effective, and in many cases start directly investing.”

By way of sample case, she shared this:

For example, we recently assisted, Nicole Bagley, an individual philanthropist and trustee on multiple family foundations to make her first impact investment into Silvernest, a women led technology company working to help the aging population age in place by providing housemates for additional income, companionship, and help around the house. Not only is she looking for her next investment, she is exploring her first impact investment with one of her family foundations and has joined the Impact Finance Center as a Senior Advisor.

Despite progress that some see as remarkable, Dr. Gripne is impatient. She sees building a critical mass of participating investors as her greatest challenge. She needs financial help to create the marketplace she envisions and needs more people to begin investing within that framework. For many, it will be their first impact investment.

Dr. Gripne is all about rapid growth. “We have the research, educational curriculum, and statewide marketplace; we now are in a place of finding the catalytic philanthropic gifts and partners to allow us to scale,” she says.

Morgan notes, “Steph is doing a lot. Frankly, I think she could or should slow down and focus on a few things deeply. She has tremendous potential, and has accomplished an enormous amount with IFC in the last two years. She’s stretched in many directions due to the potential of this burgeoning field of impact investing and she wants to do it all.”

“I’m working on narrowing her focus, but I don’t carry much sway,” he added.

Dr. Gripne sees potential for a multi-national scale to the Center’s work, helping to create a global marketplace for direct investments in social ventures.

How do we move $1 trillion of investment into our communities? $1 billion a time.  How do we move $1 billion into our communities over five years? By investing in the infrastructure to create a national impact investing marketplace,” she says, making the possibility of catalyzing massive amounts of investment capital sound perfectly reasonable.

She concluded our online discussion with this:

Until we build the infrastructure for a national impact investing marketplace that syndicates 10 regional impact investing marketplaces we will not see institutional money flow into our communities at the scale that is needed to solve society’s most pressing problems that include supporting a diverse spectrum of social impact, including improved school readiness, education, accessible jobs, healthy homes and neighborhoods, family economic security, community development and revitalization, climate resilience and more.

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