The following is a conversation between Jenna Nicholas, Co-founder and CEO of Impact Experience, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: Impact investing is an exciting and rapidly growing industry powered by investors who are determined to generate social and environmental impact as well as financial returns. But often, there is a disconnect between the investor and the community that is receiving the investment. My next guest decided to do something to bridge that gap. She is Jenna Nicholas, the Co-founder and CEO of Impact Experience.
Good evening, Jenna, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Jenna: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Impact Experience – Our goal is to build bridges between investors, entrepreneurs, artists, innovators, and marginalized communities — to co-create solutions together
Denver: What is Impact Experience? How did you come up with this idea?
Jenna: Impact Experience – Our goal is to build bridges between investors, entrepreneurs, artists, innovators, and marginalized communities– to co-create solutions together. So, we work in places such as southern West Virginia around retraining former coal miners, and in Puerto Rico and Houston, post the hurricanes there.
I’ve been working in the impact investing space – initially, with the Calvert Funds and then helping to build a coalition of foundations that were divesting from fossil fuels and investing in new economy solutions – and just kept on seeing how disconnected so many of the funders that we were working with were from the communities in which they were looking at investing in. And so, got inspired by: How do we build bridges between investors and entrepreneurs and marginalized communities?
Denver: And then, what you do is you bring these investors and others to the marginalized communities for an impact experience, and this can last for a couple of days. So, walk us through one: Who’s there? What do the participants do for three days? Where do you hope you’ll come out at the end?
Jenna: Thank you for the question. So, we typically structure our engagements as nine months- to one-year engagements, with the three-day impact experience itself being a component of a larger engagement.
Actually, within every community that we’re working with, we always have a local partner. So, in West Virginia, it’s a health clinic in Williamson, West Virginia that’s focused on serving people who are 80% below the poverty line. In Arizona, we partnered with Arizona State University. So, we always have a local partner that really is the eyes and the ears on the ground, and there’s deep local wisdom. We spend a lot of time with them upfront really identifying what are the core opportunities and challenges within the community, and that will help to drive our curation of who’s taking part in the impact experiences. We’ll always curate a group with a lens around diversity, equity, and inclusion, so ensuring that we have a diverse range of perspectives, backgrounds, race, gender, and socio-economic context.
And then we have a curriculum that we’ve designed; so over the course of those three days, there are three core parts to it. The first part is really focused on trust-building. So, given that we’re working in places, often where there’s a history of extraction and all the challenges around trust-building, the need to really establish a strong foundation of trust as being a really important aspect of the work.
And then we’ll transition into a mapping of opportunities and challenges, and we’ll use a lot of inputs from design thinking and break out into small groups and start to really map that out. And then, finally, we are driving toward concrete commitments and next steps. And so, we always lead each of the gatherings with everybody making a very tangible set of commitments, which we then track and follow up with over time. So, it’s really an ongoing engagement and sometimes multiple years where we’ll be bringing together groups to build off previously existing groups and the inputs that have come from that.
Denver: That’s interesting. So, this is not just a one-time visit; there is a relationship and a continuity that continues between the community and the investors, correct?
…if people are just making decisions based on preconceived notions outside of the community and what’s worked in other places, but it’s not necessarily grounded in the realities of what’s taking place on the ground, then the ability to actually design solutions that are effective, both from an impact perspective and from a return perspective, is greatly minimized as a result.
Denver: How does the nature of these investments – these impact investments – change as a result of investors going to visit a community, compared to the way they have traditionally been done?
Jenna: So, we often think that it actually is almost like insurance. There’s actually a number of unintended consequences that we find can emerge if this upfront time isn’t made in really building these strong ties, really understanding the nuances of what’s going on within the community, and having that ability to be able to actually engage from a place of this deep understanding.
And so, the fear that if people are just making decisions based on preconceived notions from outside of the community, and what’s worked in other places, but it’s not necessarily grounded in the realities of what’s taking place on the ground, then the ability to actually design solutions that are effective, both from an impact perspective and from a return perspective, is greatly minimized as a result. So, the ability to actually be able to at least try to increase the likelihood of the success of the projects from a sustainable, long-term perspective, we find is greatly increased through taking part in a process like this.
Denver: So, when these marginalized communities are really co-creating the solution, have you found any difference in the nature of the solution compared to what otherwise might have occurred?
Jenna: Yes. We found that it’s very much, because of that co-creation process you allude to, that the design of those solutions is much more nuanced to the cultural dynamics within a given community. So rather than a very much “ one-size-fits-all approach,” to thinking about engagement with communities like “Well, this works in this community, so of course it’s naturally going to work in this other community,” it’s much more tailored towards those particular dynamics there.
So, in West Virginia, a lot of the work has been around supporting the build-out of tourism opportunities there and retraining former coal miners and supporting around broadband access. So those types of engagements have really been built off your understanding where the community is currently at, and what the specific needs are at this point in time.
Denver: Yes. Your organization has been able to bring in a phenomenal amount of money to West Virginia. How much has that been?
Jenna: It’s about $10 million.
Denver: That’s fantastic.
How often do you conduct an experience? In addition to a couple that you’ve mentioned, what are some of the places where you’ve done this?
Jenna: We have about one every month; some of those are repeat engagements. We have an amazing team. We also run training programs that we host at Stanford. We have a research partnership with Stanford and with the impact fund of funds called Illumen Capital, which is all focused on research around implicit bias and investing, so: How do we unlock more capital into women- and people-of-color-run businesses? And so that’s a big lens through which we apply to all of our work. So, during these training programs that we have at Stanford, we have a component of that that’s focused on implicit bias, a component that’s focused on impact investing, and on community engagement.
We’ve also been bringing groups to Montgomery, Alabama to visit the Equal Justice Initiative Lynching Memorial and Museum – such a harrowing experience to go and visit and the Memorial and Museum, but the power of being able to have an experience like that as people are thinking about some of these themes around structural racism and how that plays out today is incredibly powerful. So, we have a few ongoing programs there like that.
And then, we have, for example, a couple of partnerships right now…one with the Sierra Club. They have an initiative called Ready for 100 – it’s 100 cities that have committed to transitioning to 100% renewable energy. One of them is in Atlanta, so we’re doing some work in Atlanta. And then another project with a group called The Steve Fund that’s really focused on mental health and young people of color. So, it’s a mixture of both the place-based work as well as some thematic work as well.
…It’s just as much about: What is the impact in the direct community that the group is taking part in? But then also: How is this influencing how people are making decisions more broadly, even outside of that particular community?
Denver: A lot going on.
Have you noticed anything from the people who make these trips – the investors themselves? Is there any evidence it’s going to change the way they go about their philanthropy and the way they’re going to go about their investing?
Jenna: It’s a great question, and that’s actually a big part of both our theory of change and, as we think about the success of our work… It’s just as much about: What is the impact on the direct community that the group is taking part in? But then also: How is this influencing how people are making decisions more broadly, even outside of that particular community?
Our first impact experience was four and a half years ago now in New Orleans, and we had an investor take part in our experience there. He was just a traditional investor; did not have any impact lenses. He isn’t related to his investments previously. And he said afterward, it was years later, like “Now, anytime I make an investment decision, I am looking at this through the lens of: What is the impact that’s being created here, or not?”
And so, the ability to actually both equip people with the tools to be able to have more of an impact lens as it relates to their investment, and then furthermore, as it relates to thinking about some of these frames around implicit bias – so when we think about the $69 trillion that is invested, less than 2% of that goes into women and people of color- run businesses – and so, the ability to have people thinking about that part of the lens through which they’re engaging with their investments is something that we really emphasize as part of the program. And we support and track around that over time.
I think particularly with the next generation, with the intergenerational wealth transfer that’s taking place, and an interest from millennials in having more impact-oriented investment, and putting pressure on their families and on their advisors for more of these impact-oriented investments, I think we’re just going to see more and more of that.
Denver: That’s got to be quite rewarding to hear that. Well, let me close with this, Jenna: what do you think is the future of impact investing, as well as impact experience? Where are you going to go with this?
Jenna: I think that we’re just going to keep seeing an increase in different impact investing opportunities, and more and more of the mainstreaming of that. So, seeing a lot of the large institutional investors raising impact investing funds; Apollo being the most recent one this past week, launching a billion-dollar impact fund.
And then, I think, particularly with the next generation, with the intergenerational wealth transfer that’s taking place, and an interest from millennials in having more impact-oriented investments, and putting pressure on their families and on their advisors for more of these impact-oriented investments, I think we’re just going to see more and more of that.
And I think similarly, as it relates to the impact experience work, with having more and more demand for the work… just given the increase that’s happening more broadly within the impact investing space, I think, both going more deeply within the communities that we’re already working in, as well as expanding to other communities, both within the US, but also internationally, will be a key part of our focus moving forward.
Denver: Well, very interesting, and a great approach to all of this. Jenna Nicholas, the CEO of Impact Experience, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. If someone’s listening, whether they’re are an impact investor or an individual who might be part of a community that could use a little bit of investment, how can they proceed?
Jenna: Well, it would be great to check out our website. It’s www.impact-experience.com. Come take part. We have programs, as I mentioned, every month, so it’d be wonderful to have you be part of our programs. And if you’re interested in having impact experiences in your communities, we would love to be in touch around that.
And I think more broadly, I think there’s a powerful opportunity right now… really across asset classes, and no matter what one’s wealth level is, to really think about how to have more of an alignment between our values and our investment. So, digging into those different opportunities and going on that journey, I think it’s an exciting one.
Denver: I certainly agree. Well, thanks, Jen. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Jenna: Thank you so much.
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