THE BLOG

The Impact Generation

07/07/2015 11:25 am ET | Updated Jul 07, 2016

UC Davis Graduate School of Management Commencement Speech
June 2015

Good Morning, and congratulations! Congratulations to the members of the Class of 2015 for your very significant achievement and to your parents, families, and friends who share your joy today and who have supported you along this journey. I see many happy and proud faces in the audience, and I know the hours of hard work and the all-nighters that it took you to get here, so enjoy every minute of this graduation weekend!

I would also like to extend my thanks to Dean Ann Huff Stevens, and the faculty and staff of UC Davis Graduate School of Management for inviting me to speak today. I've had the chance to work with many folks at UC Davis over the years and have learned so much from so many of you. I'd like to give a special shoutout to my friends at the UC Davis Energy Efficiency Center, Professor Emerita Nicole Woolsey Biggart and Executive Director Ben Finkelor.

Today, I'd like to tell you why I think now is one of the most exciting times to enter the workforce, especially with a business degree as you are all about to receive. The reason for my excitement is that I believe that, unlike the world I grew up in, where business was business and civil society was civil society, where working in the corporate sector meant making a chunk of change but making SOCIAL change was left to activists, today these distinctions are fading away and you don't need to accept what I call an "either/or" life. This fundamental shift in the private sector's ability to fuel and scale innovation and create great companies, as well as address the core social and environmental challenges of our age, is nothing short of a revolution. You are in on the ground floor of a movement that holds enormous promise for both personal fulfillment and societal engagement. In a phrase, this shift allows you to pursue not just a career, but a calling. Along the way, you all stand to benefit from the deep satisfaction that comes from working to make the world a better place for you and for future generations.

But before I talk about this new era of social enterprise ahead of us, I want to share with you a little bit about the zigzag path I took to get to a place where I could start my own impact investing firm. It begins at the moment you all are in right now, with what happened right after I graduated from business school, way back in 1982. This is not so much a cautionary tale -- because everything worked out ok in the end -- but more of a heads up to you, that nothing is ever really linear in life. While this can cause heartache and heartburn, sleepless nights and extreme moments of self-doubt, it's actually a good thing. For it is in those moments where you are knocked off balance, where your Plan B may be nothing more than an anguished text to your parents... it is in these moments that you open yourself up to the prospect of a different, better future.

So, back to that graduation day in 1982 when I received my degree from the Yale School of Management. At the time, the Yale program was a very new one whose mission was to give students the tools they needed to navigate careers across the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors. This program had appealed to me because I didn't see myself as a businessperson at that point in my life, I had only worked after college at the Sierra Club, in academia, at the Stanford School of Medicine, and in state government, right here in California. I cared deeply about the social and environmental impacts of science, medical advances, and technology, and I went to business school to learn more about how the private sector worked. Fascinated by innovation and the impact it had on society, I wanted to understand how innovation happened at the level of a company. Believe it or not, when I entered business school, I had never heard of the word venture capital, and if I had, I would never have believed it would eventually become my lifelong career!

No, when I graduated from business school, I was headed back to the public sector. Jerry Brown was in the last year of his first stint as Governor of our Golden State, and I had gotten a job in Sacramento that arose out of a consulting project I had with an agency Governor Brown had created called The Office of Appropriate Technology, or, OAT, for short. This agency was only about 30 years ahead of its time. It examined the role of new technology through the lens of what was socially beneficial, uncovering gems way back in the '70s and '80s like solar energy, energy efficiency and the like, while examining the pros and cons of nuclear power, for example, then as now a controversial subject. While I was getting my MBA, I worked on a paper for OAT outlining the impact of the then-embryonic biotechnology industry on California's culture and economy. It was a really fun project, as I got to interview all kinds of thought leaders, like Linus Pauling, the famed molecular biologist, who along with Madame Curie, is the only individual to have received a Nobel Prize in two different fields. I also interviewed Wendell Berry, the great American novelist, environmental activist, and farmer.

One of the conclusions we made in our report was that the risk of genetically modified organisms in biotechnology was low as it pertained to the medical field, since proper controls had been built and mandated to protect public health and safety from any rogue bugs that might be created in the lab. However, we predicted that there would be potential popular concern about the agricultural applications of biotechnology. Based on our research and interviews, we highlighted the risk that widespread use of genetically engineered crops would not necessarily sit well with some consumers and certain farmers. While back in 1982 we didn't describe this risk as the GMO risk, because the term GMO had not yet been coined, that's exactly what we were predicting and what has now come to pass.

Looking back, my passion for this research and looking into the future to understand where society would be headed was a good indication that venture capital would eventually be a good fit for me. So you can imagine how excited I was to get a job offer from the Office of Appropriate Technology to continue this very future-oriented research and policy development.
The only problem was that in November of that year, a new governor was elected, Governor George Deukmejian. Guess what was the very first thing Governor Deukmejian did? He abolished the Office of Appropriate Technology! So all of the sudden, I went from having my dream job to having no job. To make matters worse, the country was in the middle of a recession, so finding a job was no easy task.

I tell you this story just to prepare you for the ups and downs that lay ahead for you. At the time this happened to me, I was convinced I would need to get a job as a waitress or secretary to start paying off my student loans. Fortunately, that didn't happen. I eventually got a job at Intel and then two years later moved to Hambrecht & Quist, one of the original west coast venture and investment banking firms, where I ended up working for some 25 years. Truth be told, as I will describe in a minute, I would probably have stayed at H&Q for my entire career if outside events hadn't pushed me to try something different. This is something that happens to you in a career... and the trick is to pick yourself up and keep going.

Working with entrepreneurs pursuing innovations that change our lives turned out to fit me like a glove, and I was very happy in my VC job for decades. One of my first deals, in 1991, was a company where our investment was used to create a plant right here in the Central Valley, in the town of Dinuba near Fresno. That company was Odwalla, the pioneer in fresh juice. I remember visiting the plant and meeting the 200 workers whom we had hired to make the juice, and how important the plant was to the economy of that rural community. Even back then, I had a feeling that what we were doing in Dinuba was bigger than just building a cool new company. We were not just disrupting the orange juice category, we were changing lives and a community for the better. While it would take me over a decade to crystallize these learnings into our first impact investing fund model, I look back now and realize that Odwalla was the first step in my path to becoming an impact investor. So, again, I encourage you, don't be too quick to judge the worth, of lack thereof, of the jobs you have in the earlier phases of your career. You may not realize until much later how valuable they are in shaping who you are and what you decide to do next.

My transition toward impact investing began in 1996 when over a space of four years, H&Q went public, got acquired by Chase, and then Chase acquired JP Morgan, so that by 2000 I had become an employee of a New York-headquartered international bank. This was a far cry from working at the old H&Q, which we had affectionately called the San Francisco artists colony of the financial services industry! Then in 2001, The Bay Area Council, a regional business group, came to us asking if we would raise and manage a fund that would invest in companies located in low income neighborhoods in the Bay Area, places like Richmond, Oakland, East Palo Alto and such. These were communities that the dot.com boom had never really touched. Faced with a rare moment of uncertainty in my future after almost 20 years at the same firm, I dusted off that Odwalla memory and decided that trying this new fund idea out was worth a shot. While the idea had basically no precedent, taking the risk to start a double bottom line fund was not out of the question for me then as it might have been earlier, because I had little to lose. I was not happy that the JPMorgan merger resulted in much of my time being spent in airplanes going to meetings in NY with my new JP Morgan colleagues. This opportunity to start an impact fund would allow me to stay firmly planted in the Bay area and combine my two passions -- working with entrepreneurs and catalyzing social change. So, what the heck, I said, and jumped in.

We created our first double bottom line venture capital fund in 2004. By the way, when I say double bottom line, I mean that at DBL, we want our investments to have both a top tier financial return, the first bottom line, and an important social, environmental, or regional return, the second bottom line. In 2008, after getting our start for four years at JPMorgan, we took the entrepreneurial plunge and spun out of JPMorgan to start DBL.

What has happened, and what I have been part of, over the past 13 years has been completely transformational, not just for my own career, but as I said at the onset, for business, for the future of our society,and for our planet. We decided to add sustainability to our place-based investment approach, and invested in companies like Powerlight, later sold to SunPower, Tesla and SolarCity. We worked with these teams on policy issues, collaborated on finding them sites in the Bay Area, and helped them to create thousands of quality, local jobs. In the case of Tesla, we helped Elon Musk and the Tesla management team get incentives so that they could build the Model S in an economically challenged area of Northern California, even though there was considerable pressure to build this plant in Mexico, or Asia, or, basically, anywhere but California. We went from sometimes living paycheck to paycheck at Tesla, and at SolarCity, seeing tax equity funding evaporate for our solar leases after the 2008 crash, to seeing these companies and their counterparts represent the pioneers in a new, clean energy industry that unhinges us from dependence on fossil fuels.

From these modest beginnings, I can already see that sometime in the 21st century we will close the door on the fossil-dominant energy paradigms of the 20th century. Although Elon Musk may be among the first of the new class of entrepreneurs and American business leaders to combine corporate success and social change, I see all of you picking up this baton in some way and carrying us forward into the next century of innovation where commitment to values as well as profit is crucial. This is what makes me jump out of bed in the morning and relish tackling another day at the office, and what makes my job not a job, not even a career, but a calling. The good news is that this combination of value and values, of profit and purpose, will in your lifetime move from the early adopter stage to the mainstream. I can already see this beginning to happen. Unlike the old days, when we had to be slightly tentative in our impact-approach so as not to rock the boat too much with entrepreneurs and other VCs, today amazing entrepreneurs repeatedly now seek out DBL for funding because they want to build a wildly successful company that also has a strong, positive impact. And we're only a little more than ten years into this!

In closing, I want to encourage you to think about your job choices in this broader sense regardless of what field you wish to pursue. While it is easy to figure out the social and environmental benefits of companies like Tesla, I want to leave you with the concept that we have discovered at DBL. What this concept means is this: you can build impact in any company, in any organization. Sure it's easier, or at least more obvious, when you're building wind farms or installing solar panels to see the impact, but you can also do this building a food company, or a fashion company or a digital music company. Take women-led Revolution Foods in Oakland, that serves over one million healthy meals a week to low income school children and has hired over 1,000 largely entry level workers in Oakland and other urban areas in the United States. Take The RealReal in Hunter's Point, a fast-growing start-up that recycles high end clothing, keeping them out of landfills, and where the CEO -- also a woman -- is working to provide scholarships to the young people that work there to go on to higher education, and is creating art and design programs for the children in this very transitional neighborhood of San Francisco. Or take Pandora in Oakland, where employees teach music to schoolchildren near the Oakland Coliseum and where the company's success acts as an entrepreneurial flycatcher to attract more young companies to this important city in our region. All of these companies in our portfolio -- and many more -- are infusing impact into their business models every day not just because they want to give back and help their communities -- that's a terrific thing to do, of course -- but because in doing this they increase the success of their own businesses. That is the magic of social enterprise and impact investing, it's growing a new way of innovating and building a company that defines stakeholders extremely broadly and benefits from an inclusive and proactive approach to community engagement and corporate responsibility.

As you build your own lives and callings, I urge you to think big while you pay attention to the small and local, like the companies I just mentioned are doing. There is nothing more satisfying than playing a role in transforming a fledgling effort into a force to be reckoned with, whether that looks like an electric car or a personalized hiphop radio station, or whatever. And of course, impact can come in companies of any size -- small, medium, or large. The important thing is that you make it yours. As you infuse impact into business, you'll find it will be like driving a Tesla, you'll never want to go back to the old way of doing things! And so, members of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management Class of 2015, I welcome you with open arms to the Impact Generation! Go find your way, and then some. Find your calling, and a piece of the world to improve. Find your life of impact, and enjoy living it!

Thank you very much, and, again, congratulations!

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