The Soul of Impact: Impact Investing vs. The Housewives of Beverly Hills
by Hotfrog CEO Laurie Lane-Zucker
A few months ago I walked in on a friend while she was watching a television show called “The Housewives of Beverly Hills.” When she saw me she turned lobster red and sheepishly declared that the show was her “guilty pleasure.” Now, most people will have to admit to being guilty of some kind of pleasure. But after watching a few minutes of “The Housewives of Beverly Hills” I was not exactly sure what this particular pleasure was. For me, the experience was excruciating. Botox-d and otherwise surgically “improved” characters cavorting cartoonishly amid glittering displays of conspicuous consumption.
“You have to be a woman to understand,” she sympathized, as I ran from the room.
I guess so!
I didn’t make my distaste at her guilty pleasure too obvious, however, in case she became defensive and responded in kind about my own well-known guilty pleasure — English Premier League Soccer. Instead, like a typical non-reality-show male, I tucked my feelings inside, saving them for a future article.
This experience came back to me recently when I was reading a piece in The New York Times about the anticipated real estate crunch in the Bay Area due to the Facebook IPO producing over 1000 new millionaires:
When Ken DeLeon, a Silicon Valley real estate agent, recently sold an 8,000-square-foot house to a Facebook employee, he said, the movers showed up at the client’s old 1,000-square-foot home and asked, “Did you win the lottery?”
Silicon Valley has been good to Mr. DeLeon, a former lawyer, who said he sold $275 million worth of homes last year, and who is finishing up a memoir about overcoming illness, injury and loss that he calls “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Sexy People?”
The article seemed to have a mixed message. We were supposed to sympathize with poor Mr. DeLeon and his fellow realtors who look to run out of 8000+ sq. ft. houses quicker than they can sing “I am too sexy for my life!” but at the same time rejoice at this undeniable sign the economy was on the rebound.
As a digital media entrepreneur you might think that this story would really get my blood pumping. Hey, I should say to myself, why can’t I “win the lottery” too? After all, Mr. Zuckerberg and I share almost the same (very sexy) last name! It is meant to be!!
As an impact entrepreneur, however, I look at what Mark Zuckerberg is about to reap and I see something else entirely.
I see The Housewives of Beverly Hills.
The realization of vast riches followed by extravagant displays of consumption is, unfortunately, as American as Wonder Bread. It is just as nutritious as well — for the planet and its peoples.
In fact, in an x=392+10.5-1 world (i.e. a planet of rapidly depleting resources, skyrocketing population, and rising inequity), this “wonder” of business is toxic.
This past week, Smithsonian magazine published an article reporting on Australian physicist Graham Turner’s re-visitation of the “most groundbreaking academic study of the 1970s,” The Limits to Growth. Turner’s findings affirmed that the study’s 40-year-old projections were eerily on course and that “the business-as-usual scenario estimated that if human beings continued to consume more than nature was capable of providing, global economic collapse and precipitous population decline could occur by 2030.”
And yet, “business as usual” is exactly what we have. Everywhere around the world, businesses aspire to live the “HuBaH” version of the American Dream. Particularly in “Silicone” Valley. Despite all the rhetoric about new “disruptive” technologies and the so-called reform of the financial sector, the foundation of the global economy — its governing worldview — has changed little. It’s all about consumption and growth. Unfortunately, these two beauties of the HuBaH Economy are as artificially “enhanced” as the main characters on HuBaH’s namesake, “The Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
And it goes much, much deeper than the economy. HuBaH thinking dominates education, politics, law — almost everything we see. HuBaH has affected our brain chemistry. Whether it be our finest MBA programs airbrushing away the inconvenient truth (they call it an “externality”) that finite resources cannot grow exponentially, or that growth as we currently define it simply cannot solve our long-term problems, or a judiciary stretching itself into greater and greater contortions to support this system (yes, here read Citizen’s United), HuBaH has seduced many of our “best and brightest” into acting like a boatload of Forrest Gumps.
Problem is Forrest Gump is a whole lot wiser.
What does this mean for impact investing and impact companies like mine? A lot.
“Tell us what your five year exit strategy is,” a typical institutional investor says to me. “Sale, merger, IPO?”
“How about dividend distribution over a 15 or 20 year time horizon, with heavy reinvestment of profits into building not only the company but the impact (certified triple bottom line) economy as a whole?” I respond.
Blank stares. Which I interpret to mean, “But momma always said, ‘Life is a box of chocolates.’”
The HuBaH mindset isn’t limited to institutional tech investors. Unfortunately, nearly all investors suffer from its siren call. Even some self-proclaimed “impact investors” are still only HuBaH investors toting ESG (“eee so good!”) signs.
What we in the impact space (entrepreneurs, companies, investors) are trying to do is very difficult. We are attempting to establish a brand new system without that new system being thoroughly compromised by the dominant mindset, rules and powers-that-be of the old system.
At every step of the way, impact entrepreneurs bump their heads against HuBaH. Those “friends and family” investments that are supposed to help get you jump-started? It just so happens that a sizable number of this demographic happen to be HuBaH friends and family, some of whom, because they love you, may prefer to “starve you out of your delusion” (an actual quote from an actual family member).
What about those foundations that should be there with mission and program related investments to help get your innovative-company-in-a-paradigm-shifting-space over the early stage hump? Well, it turns out that all but 4% of foundations are HuBaH foundations (meaning that, according to the Foundation Center, 96 out of every 100 foundations are not doing mission investing and instead are investing their endowments in HuBaH). And those investment funds that call themselves “socially responsible?” Well, many of them are still playing by HuBaH’s two Golden Rules: Growth and Consumption.
What the HuBaH world doesn’t see — doesn’t want to see — is that nothing is more harmful than HuBaH’s “business-as-usual.” HuBaH only sees the Instagram Moment. Not what comes afterward.
Not what lies behind.
HuBaH doesn’t understand that in an x=392+10.5-1 world nothing is more truly “disruptive,” transformative, and beautiful than a certified B Corporation.
And so the voyage from Zuckerberg to Lane-Zucker (hey, I like the ring of that!) is an arduous one. Just look at the difference in our bank accounts….
The 1000 Facebook millionaires with their 8000+ sq. ft. houses are the latest glossy cover stories of “The Housewives of Beverly Hills” Economy. They represent the soul of the HuBaH. Or should I say soullessness.
We need to be vigilant to make sure that their story doesn’t infiltrate into the soul of impact too.
**And just so my friend with her HuBaH guilty pleasure doesn’t read this article and ask me why I didn’t insert gender balance into my use of metaphor and acronym, I will add that the HuBaH Economy is just as juiced as Major League Baseball during the McGwire and Bonds steroid era (BBBBGTM “Baseball’s Been Barry Barry Good to Me”), and as blatantly unsustainable and gaudy as Manchester City’s Men’s Football Club’s BigBS (“Billionaire Buys Success”) business model.
By the way: Arsenal 1-0 Man City.
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Laurie Lane-Zucker is the Founder and CEO of Hotfrog, an early stage “global impact” digital media and education company, and Executive Editor of the Hotfrog Global Impact Media Syndicate. He is the Founder and Manager of the Impact Entrepreneur Group on LinkedIn, the Founder and President of the Triad Institute, and the former Executive Director of The Orion Society and contributing writer and editor for Orion Magazine.