By Ellesse Balli, communications director, and Lisa Cox, communications manager, Sorenson Impact Center
To University of Utah students Conner Ludlow and Max Metcalf, venture capital has always held an allure. It’s fast-paced. It’s market-driven. And in their minds, well, it’s “the sexy side of finance.”
But it wasn’t until Ludlow and Metcalf joined the U’s Sorenson Impact Center Impact Fellows program that they realized venture capital’s greatest potential: to solve urgent social problems.
For the past two semesters, Ludlow and Metcalf — along with a cohort of 30 impact fellows and investing mentors — have scoured the earth to find investments that offer not just a financial return but also a social return. This innovative model has been dubbed impact investing and it’s already a $60 billion global industry.
Fast forward to May 2017, and the two students are driving along a dusty, red road through Kenya’s immense Kibera slum. Although the students had performed in-depth market research before arriving in Kenya, desktop analysis could not prepare them for the operating environment of the “Green City in the Sun,” as Nairobi is known.
“We saw people living with so little. Little shelter. Little food. Little opportunity. It was extremely humbling,” said Ludlow, a junior majoring in information systems.
The car eventually lurches to a stop in front of a vast farmland 50 kilometers outside the capital city. There, the students are warmly greeted by Yvette Ondachi, the dynamic female CEO of Ojay Greene — an innovative farming collective that U students singled out for investment. The enterprise’s bold mission is to increase smallholder farmer incomes by five-fold in five years. To achieve these benchmarks, Ojay Greene provides farmers with free-trade market access and innovative agricultural techniques.
The dynamic Ondachi leads the group through lush rows of vegetation and introduces them to a female farmer benefiting from Ojay Greene’s intervention. The farmer proudly shows them her hearty kale crop and then gestures to the surrounding fields. “She manages all of this land now,” translates Ondachi.
“Her name was Flaisher Wanjiku,” said Metcalf, a senior majoring in economics. “Before working with Ojay Greene, she was completely dependent on middlemen who bought her produce for as little as $3 and would then sell it for three times as much.”
Adds Ludlow: “Now, Flaisher can afford to send her daughter to a good boarding school and even employs five workers on her farm.”
Over the ensuing two weeks, Ludlow and Metcalf visited a dozen such social enterprises with missions ranging from supplying sustainable fuel sources to bringing Wi-Fi to rural schoolhouses.
Through it all, both students were able to witness the significant power of impact investing to positively change people’s lives.
“Impact investing is critical because it empowers developing countries to build infrastructure and technology within their own country, ultimately generating more jobs and strengthening the economy,” Metcalf said.
Both students agreed that the trip was a formative part of their undergraduate education and that the Sorenson Impact Center had equipped them for their dream careers.
The Sorenson Impact Center team looks forward to watching the social impact these U students will continue to have on the lives of enterprising women and men across the globe.