Veteran schoolteacher Julie Baker and her husband Jonathan, a business and organizational management consultant, have spent the better part of their 31-year marriage considering how to best respond to the phrase “to whom much is given, much is expected.” That question became especially poignant while they were working on a short-term mission project in Ethiopia in 2011. Julie was teaching English and Jonathan was working on a renewable energy project. On a return trip, Julie came across the work of RENEW and the concept of impact investing. Shortly thereafter, they joined the Impact Angel Network and today, they are highly engaged members of the 180+ group. Now in its tenth year operating in Ethiopia, RENEW asked Julie to discuss how and why she and her husband pivoted from traditional philanthropy and volunteerism to impact investing.
Q. What kinds of philanthropy and volunteerism were you previously doing and what did you find challenging about it?
A. Over the years, we’ve been involved with many NGOs within our community and abroad. Some we founded, and some we support with our time and resources. Generally, the efforts were to restore hope to vulnerable groups with programs that enhanced education or life skills or provided connections otherwise unavailable to them. We had always assumed the phrase “to whom much is given, much is expected” meant we were expected to give generously.
During our mission trip to Ethiopia in 2011, someone sent us the book When Helping Hurts, which led us to think that the very things we were doing to help likely weren’t helping at all. Though we loved Ethiopia and still feel that the groups we supported there are excellent, principled organizations, we realized we hadn't put enough thought into how abundant subsidies diminished the sense of urgency around the problems these groups sought to solve.
Q. What were some of the pivotal moments that caused you to move from giving to investing?
A. One day we got to talking to the director of a program that rehabilitates youth on the streets of Addis Ababa who have become addicted to glue and gas sniffing, an activity commonly used to ease hunger pangs and feelings of depression or helplessness. He said their physical recovery is just the beginning.
“Frankly, what they now need most is a decent job, but there aren’t any,” he told me.
That got me thinking: “What’s to keep these youths from returning to their old lives?” As such, I started to find ways of helping the youth to transition from selling goods on the street to business roles in the formal economy. I met Laura just as I was researching how to do this work well, and that’s how Jonathan and I were introduced to the concept of impact investing and the longer-term stability a more developed economy could provide.
Q. What are your preferred types of impact investment deals or industries? What problems are they trying to solve?
A. Because I am a teacher, I am interested in companies that serve educational purposes or provide opportunities which empower young people so that they can grow and contribute to economic growth and civic participation.Their creativity and innovation help to grow those companies and stimulate competition in the market.
Q. And what characteristics does an impact investing firm need to pull that off?
A. The whole point of this work is to make a positive impact in historically tough environments, so a firm and its employees must be absolutely determined to persevere through literal wars, famines, economic challenges and political instability. For that, you’ve really got to think about how to put together the right talent. That comes from recruiting and hiring a diverse group of thoughtful individuals who are eager to show the role business can play in alleviating poverty.
Q. Why have you taken a particular interest in investing in women?
A. In my experience working with women in Ethiopia, I have found that women-run companies bring a more nuanced perspective to business. Women-led businesses are likely more aware of the cultural or societal demands women face. For example, women typically go to markets on Saturdays to prepare family meals on Sundays. They spend that next day cooking, and then they may be working outside the home the rest of the week, making them some of the busiest members of society. Women managers generally share this experience, so they’re more likely to respect the needs of their employees, offering the kind of workplace flexibility that leads to a happier, more consistent workforce. Greater consistency leads to greater productivity, which is good for all of us.
Renew Capital is an Africa-focused impact investment firm that backs innovative companies with high-growth potential. Renew Capital manages investments made on behalf of the Renew Capital Angels, a global network of angel investors, foundations and family offices who seek financial returns and sustainable social impact. For the latest on investing in Africa, subscribe and follow us at our social links below.