What is Impact Entrepreneurship?

| February 11, 2012

by Hotfrog CEO Laurie Lane-Zucker

Impact Investing and Beyond… Way Beyond!

Not long ago I polled the Impact Entrepreneur group I manage on LinkedIn, asking the members whether “impact” was a) an industry, b) a movement, c) a psychology, d) a cosmology, or e) something else.

Normally this group of 1200+ entrepreneurs, investors, thought leaders, and students of the impact space are pretty forthcoming with this kind of poll. They are a creative and thoughtful group.  This time, however, the response was sparse and there was no clear consensus.

Now, polls are kind of like Super PACs. Their mere existence suggests a kind of legitimacy and yet the motives (and often the identity) of those behind them can remain shrouded in secrecy. Maybe my savvy colleagues in the group sensed that I, like the Supreme Court deliberating over Citizens United, was up to something sneaky. I did, after all, follow up that poll with another asking whether impact was more progressive or conservative. :-)

“I will just put it out there and see what comes back,” I thought to myself, in the interest of sparking conversation.

Crickets.

Interesting enough for me to write this article.

For all the buzz that impact investing has been getting in financial circles, the pages of magazines like Forbes and The Economist, and newspapers like The New York Times, there has been little or no discussion of what impact is exactly. It is kind of assumed we know what it is. But do we?

“Investing” we get: Where We Put Our Money.

The impact side of the equation, however, remains somewhat ambiguous. Judging from what I have read, and supplemented by my conversations with a wide range of people in the space, there seems to be general agreement that “impact” means doing something that is good for humans in need and/or the environment. For some impact investors, that mission can be broadly construed. For others, quite narrowly.  Some people suggest impact is limited to serving people at the bottom of the pyramid (i.e. microfinance). Others suggest clean tech is impact.  And then there are hundreds of benefit corporations (like mine) that together span an enormous range of activity.

So where’s the…um…veggie burger?

This ambiguity about the definition of impact strikes me as a tad problematic because there is a big jump made from the vague definition of impact to a no-holds-barred effort to measure impact. Measurements are necessary, impact investing experts teach us, because we need to bring as much rigor to measuring the social and environmental contributions of an enterprise as we give to its financial bottom line. Without these measures, this standardization, they say, impact will hold little meaning as a distinct asset class or industry, and the serious money won’t begin to flow into the space.

Sounds sensible. It is sensible. But measuring impact is not the same thing as defining impact. And can you really measure something properly until you know what it is you are trying to measure?

Now, I am not saying that excellent groups like GIIN, B Lab and Aspen Institute aren’t diving deeply into this ocean. They are. And certifications like GIIRS show impressive comprehensiveness and sophistication. But the emphasis, as far as I can make out, has been on how to measure impact (particularly for investors) and less so on what impact actually is in the truest, most universal sense. The evidence suggests that the broader community of investors doesn’t agree on what it is.

Some time ago, soon after my company became the first to complete a transaction on a regulated impact investing exchange (Mission Markets), I branded myself (think red-hot-scalding-iron-branded) an “impact entrepreneur.” I defined my company “an impact media company.” And I started the Impact Entrepreneur discussion group. So, as you might surmise, I care a little bit about what is and is not “impact.”

Having lived this question (“what is impact?”) for a while now, I believe I have grown better at distinguishing who is a fellow impact entrepreneur and who is not. Who is an impact investor and who is an impact-washer (think “green-washing”). What is an impact economy and what is business-as-usual. Whether my instincts are correct or not is hard to measure because, as I have asserted, not much discernable effort has been given to defining and communicating exactly what “impact” is. For many, it is more an intuition founded on lesser or greater amounts of experience in the space.

I emailed the enigmatic and brilliant Professor Marvel, with whom I maintain an irregular and rather strange correspondence, asking him for some scientific and/or mystical enlightenment on this question (he seems equally adept at both), but all I got back was an auto-reply saying “Gone to Egyptian desert. Short notice. Excavations: ancient texts. Impact likely! Back around 12/21/12.”

In lieu of Marvel’s wisdom, yet inspired by his example, I decided to dig into this question myself. Here is what I have come up with:

What is impact?

Impact. n. System change; transformation; adv. Rigorous application of blended value; adj. Certified triple bottom line.

Justification:

In an x = 392+10.5-1 world (i.e. a planet facing epochal ecological and social challenges), we need to move well beyond incremental improvements in the way we do business. We need a whole new paradigm. A system change. Transformation.

For this change to legitimately take root, every aspect of the new paradigm needs to grow from a similar strain of seed. Impact Jedi Master Jed Emerson’s concept of “blended value” resonates powerfully here.

Furthermore, for me, impact means certified triple bottom line. In an x=392+10.5-1 world, single or even double bottom line just doesn’t cut it. This truth may be painful to some very well intentioned entrepreneurs, but we simply can no longer afford to look at only one side, or even two sides of the nature/culture/economy equation. A company operating on Planet Eaarth (to borrow from Bill McKibben) needs to be answerable to an impoverished planet and impoverished people for every footprint it makes in the world.

The rule of three must rule.  And it must be rigorously applied.

Certified.

Certified does not mean seeking statistical nirvana, however. Impact certification efforts should be guided by a principle of “progress not perfection.” Since we will likely never know what impact perfection is — the world is far too complex — we must understand that impact’s authenticity and evolution comes through its rigorous practice.

A practice is usually founded upon some theoretical foundation. Often it has philosophical, even cosmological underpinnings. What might these be for impact?

What is impact cosmology?

Impact Cosmology n. A belief system or worldview founded upon the transformation of consciousness; Change that creates balance.

For me, impact/blended value is a financial concept and much, much more. As a student of world wisdom traditions, I see the path to enlightenment being paved by bricks composed of blended value. Buddha sits beneath the Bodhi Tree on a mat woven of blended value. The simple garb Jesus wears during his three desert trials is made of blended value. A timeless Rumi verse or hoarsely whispered Leonard Cohen song was blooded on blended value parchment.

An impact entrepreneur creates a mind-blowing technology, product or service while under the spell of blended value. An investor locates a place to put her money after building and worshiping within her own blended value temple.

There is nothing easy about impact. It is slow. It is rigorous. It is strenuous. It is often quite painful and stressful. But, so I am told, is childbearing.

Astrophysicists recently increased considerably the estimated number of stars in the known universe. One scientist said that if you were to count the number of cells in every human being now living on the planet, it would be roughly equivalent to the number of stars in the universe (200 billion galaxies each holding 200 billion stars).

Pretty cool.

However, as much as every particle of our being may have some direct scientific or mystical correspondence with the visible universe, impact is not really comfortable in the known universe. Impact is more like a “bubble universe” (another recent astrophysical theory) setting up shop right next door. Eventually, when the right stage of maturity is reached, the new universe opens its doors and lets everyone in. And eventually everyone will want to come in. It is far more beautiful. Because it was created by the Hand of blended value.

What is impact philosophy?

Impact Philosophy n. An experimental/practical inquiry into the triple bottom line/blended value; what I am attempting to offer a smidgeon of in this article.

There is a Yale professor, Joshua Knobe, who is doing some interesting work with what he calls “experimental philosophy.” Without going into detail here about his work (here is an interesting piece Deepak Chopra wrote about Knobe), I will suggest that it offers some useful context for how students of impact can grapple with the space’s complex existential questions.  I also would point to such things as Noetics and the late James Hillman’s work in archetypal psychology as helpful navigation points.

And speaking of psychology…

What is impact psychology?

Impact Psychology n. Healthy brain functioning and chemistry.

The wisest and, arguably, bravest thing George W. Bush ever said was that Americans were addicted to oil. Impact psychologists (I am imagining they exist for the sake of this argument, and hope also to inspire some intrepid entrepreneurs to start this new branch of impact) believe that most humans suffer from an addiction to money, a single bottom line monomania. Using new brain scan technologies, they have found that impact brains are more active across the hemispheres, whereas conventional brains are highly active in only a few regions.

Impact brains are relational, metaphorical, and elastic. On brain scans, they explode into life when met with a problem, kind of like when a diver waves his hand through a colony of transparent bioluminescent jellyfish in an underwater cave. The conventional brain on the other hand is luminous only in places and has calcified barriers that keep the hemispheres from relating properly.

Sadly, the conventional brain is truly exceptional at only one thing: rotating dollar signs in space. It does this really well.

Happily, with effective blended value therapy — a twelve-step program for the 1% — and a little yoga, those calcifications can dissolve and healthy brain functioning can be restored.

What is the impact movement?

I engage with this question quite personally based on past professional experiences. Back in the 1990s, when I was the director of The Orion Society, we established a program called The Forgotten Language Tour, which took leading environmental writers barnstorming through communities in the U.S. Inspired by the medieval troubadour and 1960s poet-activist traditions, and a W.S. Merwin poem called Witness (“I want to tell what the forests/were like/I will have to speak/in a forgotten language”) we eco-evangelized to university and college campuses and community groups.

What we glimpsed from those days on the road was an extraordinary under-the-radar proliferation of local and regional initiatives focused on a wide range of environmental, social, and economic issues. The people involved in these initiatives gravitated passionately to our tour writers like Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, Scott Russell Sanders, Barry Lopez, Rick Bass, Kim Stafford, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Robert Michael Pyle.

In 1996, I worked with then-U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass to organize a conference at the Library of Congress called “Watershed: Writers, Nature and Community.” We invited many of the groups that we had met on the road to join us. Stunningly, 3000 people came. Largest conference in the history of the LOC, I was told. Imagine, Newt Gingrich and his “revolution” had just mountain top removal-ed their way into the Capitol and here we were Occupying the library next door! Afterwards, we started the Orion Grassroots Network to assist these diverse groups to become a singular movement for change.

More recently, Paul Hawken published a fine book called Blessed Unrest, which looks at this phenomenon globally from the vantage point of his several decades as a peripatetic social entrepreneur and “natural capitalist.” His conclusions were to characterize this vast, “nameless” movement of individuals, organizations, and social enterprises as “the largest social movement in history.” He also calls them the “immune system” of the planet.

I have taken to calling this immune system the Global Impact Movement (with many thanks to Antony Bugg-Levine and his impact investing colleagues and collaborators for providing me with the wonderful term “impact”).

Put one way, impact investing is the attempt to effectively and efficiently fund the rapidly growing immune system initiatives in the new bubble universe.

How does an impact entrepreneur differ from a social entrepreneur?

I get this question a lot, especially from students.

All impact entrepreneurs are social entrepreneurs but not all social entrepreneurs are impact entrepreneurs. The reason why I call impact entrepreneurship “social entrepreneurship 2.0” is because impact is as much about the ecosystem of business as it is about the individual enterprise. Social entrepreneurship has tended to emphasize the entrepreneur and his or her company or organization. Impact entrepreneurship maintains that for the individual enterprise to thrive, an entire reinforcing universe (investors, certifiers, exchanges, conscious consumers, other impact companies) needs to exist too. So impact entrepreneurs get certified. We support other impact entrepreneurs. We embrace, and help to advance, the new infrastructure. The new paradigm. The new bubble universe.

This is the future we need to have in an x=392+10.5-1 world. It is not really a choice. It is an ecological, social, and economic imperative.

Is Impact an Asset Class or Industry?

Neither. It is the future of all business on Planet Eaarth.

(But we can pretend if it helps to get the money flowing!)

Next Post: The Soul of Impact: Impact Investing vs. The Housewives of Beverly Hills

Previous Post: Impact Entrepreneur: Let’s End the Social Entrepreneurship Ponzi Scheme

Laurie Lane-Zucker is the Founder and CEO of Hotfrog, an early stage “global impact” digital media 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.

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  1. Thank you so much for the RT! :) What is Impact Entrepreneurship? http://t.co/rglLkSWL
    @heather_e_burns