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With Jenna Nicholas

Building Climate Solutions for Marginalized Communities

For those building climate solutions for marginalized communities, your social mission may push away some investors. However, there’s a sea of underused capital out there– capital that will not only support your growth, but your deep social mission as well.

We sat down with Jenna Nicholas to examine some key tactics for founders building climate startups focused on vulnerable and marginalized communities. Jenna is currently Head of Investments at One Planet VC and the CEO of Impact Experience, which is focused on addressing issues of structural racism.

To VC or not to VC…

When you’re beginning the process of finding capital, you must consider the needs and perspectives of your stakeholders. First, decide up-front whether or not you’ll have VC involvement in your business at all. Not all companies are VC-backable, and even those that are can often grow effectively without VC investment. If you decide to go the VC route, note that investors may push back on your focus on marginalized communities as they may consider the mission to be in conflict with growth (which isn’t necessarily the case).

The key to this process is setting clear intentions up front. This can be done formally (by creating a Public Benefit Corporation with a clear social mission) or informally (by communicating your focus on marginalized communities in your fundraising materials). When you engage investors, don’t be shy about your mission and clearly communicate how you see that mission driving financial returns. Those who find it compelling will stick with you, and those who don’t will quickly move on.

Finding the right capital

Outside of venture, there are many other pools of capital you can access while staying true to your mission.

  • Private foundations: These have mandates to pay out a certain percentage of their assets every year in the form of grants or Program Related Investments (PRI). They are usually operated by a smaller group of individuals, so you’ll find them easier to engage than larger institutional investors and foundations. You can learn about raising from private foundations in our piece with Gwen Straley here.
  • Place-based capital: If your work is place-based, look for funding that encompasses that specific locale. Keep up to date with state, county, and city/town initiatives– there are often grants to help local stakeholders support climate efforts etc. There are also many community development finance institutions that may have relevant mission-alignment and a particular focus in given geographies.
  • Green banks: These are institutions that are mission-driven, with a goal of accelerating the clean energy transition and fighting climate change. They are essentially mandated to offer concessionary capital to projects serving marginalized communities, so take advantage of this source of capital.
  • Corporates with community presence: Some corporations have funds allocated or community development as part of their corporate social responsibility programs. These are often overlooked by entrepreneurs, so there is not a lot of competition for this funding from other startups or local businesses.
  • Family offices and high net worth individuals: High net worth individuals and their family offices often have funding allocated for impact, with lower return requirements, etc. They’re often hard to find, but can be reached through impact collectives like Toniic and CREO. To learn more about raising from impact collectives, check out this piece we did with Olympia De Castro.

Before beginning your outreach, ask yourself which capital provider is most relevant for your product or service. Model out your need for funding and your expected returns. Keep in mind that you don’t have to raise from one place to cover all of your expenses. For example, marketing spend (which results in near-term revenue) should  be funded with debt or other non-dilutive capital as much as possible; developing new IP on the other hand, is a better fit for equity or early R&D grants. In either case, if philanthropic capital is available to you without significant overhead, it should be your top priority.

Engaging your target communities

This might seem obvious, but building a business that focuses on serving marginalized communities requires strong relationships with stakeholders in those communities. Be open to learning from the people you are affecting– the worst thing you can do is show up with a savior mindset, imparting expertise without deeply understanding the community. Bringing your stakeholders to the table is incredibly important, allowing you insight to better your product and strategy. Some ways to build relationships include:

  • Involve the community in your fundraising. This creates necessary transparency between you and your client base. Share regular updates on the fundraise, be open about where you’re getting money from, and be transparent about how you're using the funds.  
  • Let them tell their story. You can record videos of community members talking about the issues they face, and the potential impact of your solution. This can be a powerful tool in helping you raise all sorts of capital, especially from public sources. You can also ask people to write letters of support, giving funders assurance that you aren’t entering a community unwantedly/unnecessarily.
  • Maintain consistent contact. Building relationships isn’t one-and-done– show communities that you’re committed to maintaining your social mission by checking back in periodically (before, during, and after deploying your solution). This type of regular engagement is important to making sure your product is actually doing something useful, especially as the needs of the community and the impact of your solution naturally shift over time.

Common pitfalls

You’d be surprised by how many well-meaning entrepreneurs build businesses around social issues without being thoughtful about the role they play and the context in which they operate. Here are some mistakes entrepreneurs often make:

  • Showing up as a “savior.Mindset is crucial when setting out to make change, so avoid the idea that you’re there to “fix” a community.
  • Engaging too late. If you build up your structure in its entirety and then go about community engagement, you’ve defeated your mission. The nuances of building your business require that input– don’t leave it as an afterthought. You’ll also find that the stakeholders you involve early in your process will be much stronger champions for you when you go out to raise funds.
  • Ignoring historical context. Ask about why the problem you’re setting out to solve exists, but also why it hasn’t been solved before. What barriers does this community face that sets them back? In your identification of the problem, keep in mind that structural racism and oppression have long impacted the community you hope to serve, and you’re not the first entrepreneur to come offering solutions. Likely, you’re engaging in an environment where there is a deficit of trust; humility and deference are key to building a successful and sustainable relationship.

Jenna Nicholas is the Head of Investments at One Planet VC and leads Corporate Development for One Planet Group, where she helps to lead the mergers and acquisitions work. She is also the CEO of Impact Experience, which is focused on addressing issues of structural racism. Jenna formerly founded Phoenix Global Impact, a firm that specializes in impact investing, social entrepreneurship and strategic philanthropy. Through her firm, she managed Divest-Invest Philanthropy, a coalition of foundations, divesting from investments in fossil fuels and reinvesting in new economy solutions. She has also worked with the World Bank Treasury on green bonds and other sustainability projects and with Toniic helping to support an impact investing community. She has worked closely with the Calvert Special Equities team and is an advisor to the Nexus Global Youth Summit and Ethic, an online impact investing platform, as well as Apollo Global Management’s impact investing fund. Jenna holds an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business, is a PD Soros Fellow for New Americans, recipient of the Stanford Social Innovation Fellowship, an Echoing Green Fellow, Forbes 30 under 30 for Social Entrepreneurship, a Summit fellow, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations

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