The 2019 Chicago Impact Investing Showcase: A Recap

By Elise O’Malley

We are still reveling in the enthusiasm and turnout for our annual Chicago Impact Investing Showcase, which took place on February 19 at Venue SIX10. Over 350 attendees from diverse backgrounds — students, investors, fund managers, entrepreneurs — came to learn about leading impact investors in Chicago and their work. Our goals for the annual Showcase — this year was our 7th — are always to celebrate, educate, and inspire.

Attendees mingle before Showcase begins at Venue SIX10 in downtown Chicago

Our CEO, Jessica Droste Yagan, kicked off the Showcase with a few opening remarks. Jessica spoke about the impressive history of impact investing in Chicago and in the State of Illinois. To provide context for the evening, Jessica defined impact investing and referenced the use of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a way to align the impact discussion. Jessica also spoke to the Omidyar Returns Continuum Framework, which is a helpful guide to think about the full range of returns possible in impact investing, and tied it to the agenda for the evening, which brought that range to life.

Julia Stasch, President of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, provided the opening keynote address. Julia focused on a concept important to MacArthur and the foundation impact investing community at large: catalytic capital. She said, “We make investments that are more patient and flexible than typical commercial investments, and are willing to accept greater risk or a lower return to support impact — often all at the same time. We refer to it as catalytic capital.” She also outlined four ways to fill capital gaps and be catalytic: take early risk to foster innovation, invest in intermediaries to multiply impact, collaborate and partner to reach scale, and complement investments with grants to unlock systems change.

Julia Stasch, President of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

In closing, Julia addressed the group with a call-to-action: “You might have ideas and initiatives that offer great promise in sectors that I care about. We can leverage that creativity to maximize the potential of impact investing, each of us adding our capital and our experience to help drive them…It’s time to take collaboration to a new level.”

Following Julia, four Chicago impact fund managers each spent a couple minutes introducing both their fund’s focus and their featured Chicago portfolio company. Impact Engine’s very own Tasha Seitz took to the stage to introduce Feyi Olopade Ayodele, founder and CEO of CancerIQ, who spoke about her work to provide “the tools to predict, pre-empt and prevent cancer.” Another women-led healthcare startup CEO, Rachel Kohler, was introduced by Will Towns of Benefit Chicago. Rachel leads NowPow, which provides a network of health and social resources, and her presentation centered around the need to shift to “whole person care.”

Feyi Olopade Ayodele, founder and CEO of CancerIQ

The environmental sustainability sector was represented by Erik Birkerts of Clean Energy Trust and Sara Chamberlain of Energy Foundry, who introduced Will Tynan of Lotic Labs and Sri Deivasigamani of Intellihot respectively. Will spoke about Lotic Labs’ data platform that helps “the world’s biggest water users make sensible investments in sustainable water sources.” Intellihot is a clean energy company that provides innovative water heating systems; Sri inspired the audience with Intellihot’s vision for “a future of extraordinary efficiency, where not a watt or drop is wasted.”

Sri Deivasigamani, CEO of Intellihot

After hearing from each fund manager and portfolio company, Priya Parrish of Impact Engine delivered the closing keynote address. As Managing Partner of Private Equity at Impact Engine, Priya explained her work on applying impact investing to the middle market, which represents a large and growing share of asset allocations, 20% of private sector jobs, and cuts across every sector and geography across the globe.

Priya mentioned the beliefs she has to challenge regularly in her new role: many assume that investing is purely profit-driven and charity is the only avenue for positive impact, or that capitalism is inherently flawed. She offered counterarguments to the idea that impact investing is concessionary, citing examples of successful impact investment firms, such as LeapFrog Investments and Generation Investment Management. Priya added that mission-driven corporations maintain certain financial advantages by “attracting and retaining the best talent, identifying risks early, and establishing brand loyalty.”

Priya Parrish, Managing Partner of Private Equity at Impact Engine

In response to a growing disdain for capitalism, Priya suggested that we improve upon the current system instead of eliminating it: “Imagine if that capital could be proactively directed toward solutions to society’s biggest challenges and withheld from projects that harm society? Investors could apply the same rigor around assessing risk and reward, but adapt their framework to include society and our planet.” A renewed version of capitalism demands more of investments; Priya asked of the audience, “What would happen if all investors were impact investors?”

The event concluded with Priya’s call-to-action: “If you can’t find an impact investment option or your financial advisor says there are no good ones, push back and bring up the examples you heard today. If you don’t have money to invest, think about where you bank. If you work in a for-profit business start asking questions about its impact; see if you could be a voice internally to make it more positive.”

We hope all attendees have taken to heart this encouragement as well as walked away with new information about the impact investing landscape in Chicago. Many thanks to all those who attended; we are grateful that you are part of our community and we hope to see you again next year!