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An Investor’s Lesson to Entrepreneurs

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Investing & Diversity: The Changing Faces of Venture Capitalists

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Here are three very different companies: a company that makes rice burgers from Fukushima rice, a company that produces soap from seaweed, and a company that uses a disabled workforce to distribute meals to the sick and elderly.

Different as they are, one thing unites the three of them: they are all startups established by social entrepreneurs in Japan’s Tohoku region following the devastation of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

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Hands reach up against a sunset with a globe of human icons linked to external points across the sky

10 Tips for Becoming a Great Venture Capitalist

The legendary venture capitalist Alan Patricof shares ten tips on how to become a successful VC.
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3 Lessons from mymizu for Launching Your Social Enterprise

Crises can lead to opportunities, and opportunities can lead to change—and new models for a different kind of legacy. Here are three key lessons from mymizu founder Robin Lewis.
The mymizu team, posing with reusable water bottles that help reduce plastic waste

What is a social business?

The primary goal of social businesses is not profit. Their goal is positive social impact: to create jobs, to empower the disadvantaged, and to reinvigorate depleted communities.

Many small and medium-sized towns in Japan’s northeast are still struggling to regain their viability almost five years on from the disaster. The destruction of physical infrastructure (houses, factories, fisheries, and farmland) and delays to the rebuilding effort have only accelerated a trend of younger people moving to big cities. Communities are badly hollowed out.

If any region in Japan needs the benefits that social businesses can bring, it is the northeast.

Unfortunately, social businesses come with their own set of challenges. As a rule, they are far from robust. They tend to be small in size, dependent on a volunteer workforce, and reliant on donations for their working capital. That is hardly a recipe for long-term sustainability. Nonetheless, a small proportion of social businesses have business models that are both viable and scalable.

What they need is capital to achieve scale and maintain momentum.

How can social businesses find capital?

Social businesses face the same conundrum many startups do just to get off the ground: where to get capital. But unlike other startups, social ventures are more limited in options. The venture capital industry, in particular, is hardly an option. In my experience, VC money flows to fields like biotech, AI, robotics, and the internet. In other words, areas where high risk is balanced out by high return. Social investment is the opposite: middle-to-low risk, and low-to-no return.

But return on capital is not what social investment is about. Social ventures are about social return. They’re about contributing to the public good—something that ultimately benefits us all.

The concept of social return started gaining traction after the recent financial crisis triggered catastrophic real-world outcomes. What if financiers, whose selfish behavior caused the crisis, directed some of their wealth and intelligence to doing good? What if capital markets broadened their two-dimensional approach by adding impact as a third dimension alongside risk and return?

Who leads the push for social impact investing?

British Prime Minister David Cameron addressed this change in values when he set up the Social Impact Investment Taskforce at the 2013 G8 Summit. The mission of the Taskforce is to explore how to “catalyze the growth of a global market for impact investment.” Sir Ronald Cohen, a pioneering UK venture capitalist, took the lead.

As part of his global evangelizing, Sir Ronald came to Tokyo to deliver a speech on social impact investing (SII) in May 2015, which I was fortunate enough to attend. Our companies had established a joint fund in 1999, so we were already friends. After the speech, he said to me, “Why don’t you set up Japan’s first SII fund yourself?”

In 2011, I had already set up KIBOW Foundation to channel funds to the rebuilding of the northeast. KIBOW has since raised over $1 million and awarded grants of $1,000 to $150,000 to more than 100 social entrepreneurs.

In his speech, Sir Ronald stressed that effective social investment comes from combining the idealism of social entrepreneurship with the practical know-how of venture capitalism. In other words, layering venture capital funding on top of KIBOW’s grants would boost the chances of our being able to create viable, large-scale businesses with a positive impact on Tohoku’s recovery.

I set up a fund of $5 million in September 2015. The fund makes investments of $100,000 to $500,000. The target for this social impact investing project is simple enough: anything that traditional VC isn’t interested in. The social ventures listed above—the rice burger maker, the seaweed soap maker, and the meals-on-wheels distributor—are all companies that the fund has either invested in or is taking a look at.

As the name suggests, social impact investing can have a real impact on changing the world, creating a new meaning for business. Investors who look into these startups may not make much money from them, but capital invested in social businesses pays unbeatable emotional dividends. Doing good for society is rewarding for everybody—and that, as the Mastercard advertisements say, is “priceless.”

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