Early in her career Capria’s Susana Garcia-Robles was on the forefront of developing the private equity and venture capital markets in Latin America and the Caribbean while working with the Inter-American Development Bank. She recalls skeptical governments asking—so often she lost count—“[Is] innovation, entrepreneurship, and venture capital relevant to a region mired in poverty? Aren’t they just entertainment for rich young people?”
It wasn’t just governments that were confused by the role of impact capital in development. When the term “impact investing” was coined in 2007 to describe the goal of turning a profit while creating positive and measurable social and environmental impact, early investors lacked consensus on both methods and expectations. Some clarity came in 2009 when Jessica Freireich and Katherine Fulton of the Monitor Institute described the difference between “financial-first investors” and “impact-first investors.” (Long story short: it appeared that achieving both at the same time was not quite possible).
Today, investors of all stripes participate in an ecosystem that has grown significantly even at this early stage of its development. The 2020 Annual Investor Impact Survey put out by the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) estimated the size of the market to be $715 billion in assets worldwide, invested by more than 1,700 organizations. Impact investors now challenge the perceived incompatibility between social and financial gain, though consensus is by no means universal.
“If you don’t get returns, economies don’t grow.”
Founded in 2015, Capria has always rejected the assertion that investors must choose between social or environmental goals and financial returns. Capria’s successes in this area are a strong argument that it is possible to meet the dual goals of impact investing without compromising on either side.
With a global network of funds representing $400 million in assets under management, Capria invests in early-stage venture capital, private equity, and other debt and equity funds in 37 countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia through local fund managers and in some cases through direct investments. Their methods are built on lessons learned by investing in both developed and emerging economies. Capria’s leadership has deep experience in US-based technology companies, as well as through an early stage venture capital fund, Unitus Ventures.
“In a nutshell, we’re not an impact-first investor,” says Garcia-Robles, Capria’s Venture Partner. “Financial and social/environmental returns are at the same level of importance. How do we do that? Our ‘secret sauce’ is our collaboration.”
Capria leads the largest network of fund managers in what they term a pragmatic and collaborative approach that draws deeply on best practices in venture capital, impact measurement, and environmental and social governance (ESG) management. Capria’s cohort of fund managers span 22 countries and have a range of industry experience.
When fund managers join the Capria Network they access professional peers as well as proprietary tools available through Capria Quantum, a system that includes templates, agreements, assessment tools, and resources of all kinds to increase fund managers’ knowledge and effectiveness.
Capria uses this model of a capacity-building network because it believes that the most successful early-growth investing must be led by local fund managers and teams that know their own markets and opportunities. As Garcia-Robles says, “[This model] is very effective because you’re empowering local teams who in turn empower local entrepreneurs.” Fund managers often take board seats on the companies they invest in, and any knowledge Capria shares with their fund managers can then be used to strengthen their portfolio of companies.
Using this model, Capria envisions “thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems” in dozens of new markets in order to realize its long-term goal of deploying $1 billion in capital to impact 100 million lives.
Crisis management and COVID-19
Capria’s approach has served the firm well during the current pandemic. Susana Garcia-Robles, who serves as Capria’s crisis manager, said, “When Covid hit, we had to move fast…. [Capria’s] vision comes through having been through many crises. We know that behind any crisis there also are new opportunities if you are realistic and pragmatic about going after them.”
After an intensive two-week period of information gathering and assessment at the very start of the pandemic, Capria began to create more tools to add to Quantum. These included a crisis preparedness tool, which was vetted and shared widely outside the Capria network, as well as a financial matrix that fund managers could use to analyze a business’s position and runway for exiting the crisis.
Capria has doubled down on the principles key to its model since the beginning. Twice a month Capria holds COVID-19 workshop meetings with its fund managers. Topics have ranged from lessons learned from past crises, to how to pitch investors during a pandemic, to legal aspects of the pandemic. All build on the shared knowledge and experience of the partners across the network.
Unexpected losers and not-so-obvious winners
In the beginning, the knee-jerk reaction to the crisis was the belief that every digital business would pull out of the crisis and every traditional business would not. When Capria’s network looked more closely at their portfolios and deal pipelines they saw that this was inaccurate. To highlight crisis management best practices, Capria held a workshop to showcase “unexpected losers and not-so-obvious winners,” including an app-based ride service in India that lost 70% of its revenue in the early weeks of lockdown only to recover by looking for drivers to deliver to people in their homes, and to serve new B2B logistics needs. Lesson learned? The app-based ride service was resilient because its founder was decisive and creative, not solely because of technology.
Capria also found in analyzing its portfolio that an orientation toward investments in essential products and services to bottom-of-the-pyramid consumers, such as minorities, women, and refugees, has proven resilient because they serve critical needs even during times of uncertainty. Capria’s goals to “go beyond job creation and give low-income families access to goods and services that would otherwise not exist” has proven to be smart business in both good times and bad.
Other practices are pandemic-proof as well, such as their commitment to female fund managers and companies. Capria looks for women fund managers because as Garcia-Robles says, “[women] want to make just as much money as men, but…they also want to see if they can better the community and take care of the environment through their results and companies.” In fact, fund management teams with female managers invest in as much as 70% more female-led businesses compared to all-male teams. Capria also maps a company’s impact onto the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), creating “migrants to impact,” or companies that have begun to recognize their social impact when they consider their business’s contributions to the SDGs.
The long game
As the impact investing industry matures and Capria’s role in it continues, the tension—real or not—between social and financial gain will play out on an increasingly larger stage. We may be seeing, as Capria co-founder Will Poole said recently, “a cultural shift away from traditional notions of capitalism where profits trump all.” Time will certainly tell.
In the meantime, Susana and the Capria team are focused on ensuring that their funds, companies, and fund managers are around for the long haul. “Everyone has COVID fatigue but we really have to make sure our teams…are being creative and innovative and if you will, even energized by this. This has to be looked at as a new challenge, totally unexpected that the whole humanity is facing. And we’re going to come out better, knowing many new things.”