Profit, Purpose, And Planet: Yasemin Lamy, CDC Group, On Impact Investment And More With Slurrp Farm

by shauravi malik

BY SAMIRA SOOD

When Slurrp Farm was still a dream, co-founders Shauravi and Meghana were clear that they wanted to build a profitable business that solves the problem of childhood nutrition in India. The brand was created on the idea that doing good will lead to doing well. The idea, broadly, of conscious capitalism, as defined in the book of the same name, by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and corporate thought leader Raj Sisodia. 

But that path is not smooth or short. Becoming a conscious business, a profit-making venture that has, at its soul, a higher purpose, and that takes into account the well-being of all stakeholders, from employees and customers to suppliers and the environment, is a complicated process. It’s not the same as having a CSR wing to cover your conscious bases while running a thoroughly not-conscious enterprise otherwise. A truly conscious business means that that higher purpose is the company’s north star, embedded in every part of it.

It takes a long time to unlearn ingrained ideas about profit-making and success. It often involves dealing with the clashing interests of different stakeholders. And it also means recognising that every company cannot solve every problem, or do everything perfectly. For us at Slurrp Farm, adopting a conscious approach to business is a process we are excited to take forward and to learn about along the way. Part of our journey is to talk to people across the spectrum, from investors to entrepreneurs, who have made this, in some way, their mission.

Millets

Slurrp Farm champions millets because they’re nutritious and good for the environment

We are thrilled to launch our Profit, Purpose, And Planet interview series, conceived by our brand editor, Samira Sood, in which we will talk to people across the business landscape. We begin with Yasemin Saltuk Lamy, an impact investor with over a decade of experience in the area. Currently the Deputy CIO of the CDC Group, Yasemin entered the impact investment world back when it wasn’t even called that. When JP Morgan was launching its Social Finance department, Yasemin, an analyst with the firm, jumped at the chance. From there to Omidyar Network to CDC, with marriage and three kids along the way, it’s been an interesting road for her. She talks to Slurrp Farm about her journey, what impact means and how movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have driven it, why climate action is so complicated, and more. 

Could you take me through your journey towards impact investment?

After university, I went to live for a year in Istanbul, which is where I was born and where my family is from, though I grew up in the US.

I watched currency volatility and inflation dramatically change things like how I could get around, where I could buy my milk and tomatoes. I didn’t think I knew a term for it but I started to think about this concept of…development economics, I guess, and about how a country going through a volatile economic situation could become more stable. I told myself that one day, this is what I want to work on. But it was while I worked at JP Morgan that I started to understand the impacts of the financial system on people’s daily lives.

My aim initially was to learn as much as I could about financial markets, about all aspects from all vantage points. I figured I’d probably leave JP Morgan at some point and study development economics, but I shelved the thought for the moment. And then in 2010, JP Morgan Social Finance opened up for recruitment. There was one investment professional, one person to build the research, and one person to help with client advisory. I applied and got the research position.

So in the past decade, how has your view evolved in terms of what actually leads to impact? Also, how has the measurement of impact evolved in general, in the last 10 years?  Could you explain the tools and parameters that are standard today and their challenges?

To the first question, I’m increasing of the view that the most important thing is intent and alignment of ambition and outcomes between entrepreneur and investor. And that intent can also lead to building the design of the business so that the impact and the commercial success happen together instead of in conflict. That’s one reason I love the model of Slurrp Farm, and the spirit of it – because it’s a product you want, you know it’s a desirable product, it’s been taste tested and the brand is very attractive. It’s also designed to think about the world that we want for our children, the well-being that they should have, in terms of what they put in their bodies and how they grow. Also, I really like how Shauravi and Meghana think about the food system and grain-sourcing, and the climate impact of having diverse grains. That comes through to me in the way that company is designed as well.

Slurrp Farm FoundersSlurrp Farm co-founders Shauravi and Meghana

In terms of measuring impact, we’re in a much better place today than we were 10 years ago. It’s still not easy, it takes a lot of time and effort to figure out what works for investors and companies. The trick is finding something that is cost-efficient, resource-efficient and brings you value from both an impact and a commercial perspective.

One of my favourite tools for measuring impact is actually customer surveys. But I do think you can go too far as well. So there’s a balance you need between trying to learn about the people buying your product and recognizing they might not want to tell you how much money they earned! There has to be dignity as well. Historically, with aid, there’s been this dynamic of the giver and the receiver, when we should be partners. Our impact measurement should not even use the word beneficiary, it feels like a power imbalance. So I think we haven’t solved that part yet.

In a recent paper that you co-wrote, you said the amount of money spent on impact investing by 2020 far outstripped predictions. What explains that and what’s your prediction for 2030? Do you think we’ll cover the USD2.5 trillion annual gap that there still is to achieve the UN SDGs?

Yes! I want to say yeah, I have to believe that. There’s so much momentum in institutional investors, the big challenge is not actually the money, but how to channel the money into the right things. But the asset managers of the world are all designing products, every day there’s another acquisition of a boutique asset manager. So I’m going to be gutsy and say yes we can get there.

On going beyond predictions, one reason is the slight merger of different pools of activity that had a relationship but were not considered side by side. One is development finance, which is a creation of post-World War recognition that we needed to fund globally. A bit like the pandemic – if one country is not doing well, no country is doing well. So recognising that it’s a global system of economic trade, and we should be supporting each other with both grants and investments. But development finance was not considered part of impact investment when impact investment emerged as a concept. It’s only in more recent years that those two are converging, so now you can say yes, development finance institutions invest with the intent of impact on social and environmental outcomes, and they measure that, so they should be considered part of impact investment.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are ESG/sustainable investing/responsible investing storylines in public equity. So these things coming closer together somewhat explains why it was more than organic growth.

Do you think societal change in the last 10 years has also driven impact investing? For example, corporates are putting in billions to benefit the Black community and women specifically. How much of that is to do with social media, with movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the #MeToo movement?

If you mean grassroots consumer demand, yes definitely that has contributed, and there’s obviously the climate angle there as well. All of these used to be movements that would stay on the street, in the domain of a protest. Now they’re actually translating into corporate behaviour and asset allocation. Companies are starting to see that their customers will abandon them if they don’t act, and that customer voice has become very loud.

People are starting to connect their buying decisions with their values – you see people choosing products on the basis of what packaging it comes with, for example.

Coming to the climate crisis – there has also been increased investment to combat it, but the gap between the amount that’s needed and the amount that’s currently in the game is still huge. You wrote that there’s USD30 billion per year versus a need of 300 billion. Why aren’t people investing enough in this area?

Climate is a public good. It’s a shared asset across companies, communities, countries. So the challenge is bringing collective action to bear. The collaborative spirit and partnership that’s required to fight the climate crisis is not there, that’s why we haven’t arrived at the kind of funding we need. Domestic politics in certain countries, like the last four years of the Trump administration, have also hindered climate action – I hope things will start to change now.

Things like COP 26 [the climate conference to be held in Glasgow later this year] are really important milestones because it puts healthy competitive pressure on governments – that they have to start working together.

When there is so much research to show that businesses that do good are actually the ones that do well financially, why are there still so many companies that are still just not on board? Is it just plain shortsightedness or is it a desire to play safe and not rock the boat, particularly in countries where doing good might clash with certain societal or cultural norms?

First, some people just believe that the world is more efficient and effective if you have the companies that make the money and then you have the charities that deliver the services. There’s a long history of operating like that, so there is a mindset shift needed to actually pull these two things together.

Even in the land of charities, foundations and charitable endowments are often still managed just to optimise financial return, and then they hand over some of that return to the charitable side that funds the programmes that will deliver the outcomes. Even today it’s rare for an endowment to say it will make money while delivering impact through its capital, and then fund its charitable work.

Second, it’s complicated to have a mixed set of objectives. You can try your best to align them, but it’s complicated. I was talking to someone yesterday who said the idea of pursuing impact through a business means that you have a triangle of objectives: financial, impact, and risk management, and you’re floating within that triangle. As a shareholder, you’re telling the management team, “I want you to achieve these three objectives in some combination.” It’s very different from saying, “I want an equity return of 12 percent, go and get it.”

And being on the receiving end of that fuzzy triangle versus a 12% number is difficult. People who’ve built their careers in management, they’re used to a number. They’re used to performance metrics that are very numerical and based on quantitative, quantifiable things, and pretty much profitability – our whole economic system has been driven by this Milton Friedman idea that the purpose of shareholders is to generate profitability, generate value for shareholders.

When we talk of major global events, Covid is the most obvious and the most disruptive. Will, there be increased pressure to invest in long-term climate-conscious outfits, given the role of environmental causes in the pandemic, or will there be bigger spends on more immediate mitigation efforts like vaccines?

I don’t think enough time and energy is spent on the environmental origins of the pandemic. Right now, it’s all treatment of the symptoms, not the root cause. Rolling out the vaccine, the race to manufacture, sure it’s more immediate and of course, it is needed, but the slow work of reducing plastic, of afforestation, and protecting biodiversity – that doesn’t grab headlines, it takes years.

I’ve written your question down actually, I think it’s a really good point. We’re actually just drafting our next five-year strategy for CDC and one of the questions is: What are the big gaps? What’s nobody funding right now? Things like biodiversity are very challenging business models –  how do you generate revenue from encouraging the preservation of animals, but there are ecotourism models where you can start to think about it.

Finally, you are a mother to three young boys. So how have you juggled your very demanding career with motherhood, and what is the legacy that you want to leave for your kids?

I get energy from the work that I do. And whenever I’ve felt that start to dwindle, I’ve sought to change. Also, prior to having kids, I was a multitasker. Now I work really hard to organize my day so that I can be clear and focused on the thing in front of me, whether it’s my work or my kids or my husband, or myself – I actually spend a lot of time sorting out my calendar so that I can move from one thing to the next, and I reserve space for space in my calendar.

In terms of a legacy for my kids, what works for me is working hard, then resting and recuperating. And those are two different things in my mind. I actually got this from a human rights activist in India, who said for him, rest is rest, but recuperation is to go and do something else right that gives you a different energy. Not a hobby, but to engage your professional mind with somebody in a totally different sector doing something totally different. That will generate something for you that is new, you’ll feel value in it and it will bring you energy that you will bring back to your everyday life. That’s why I took up a role as a trustee for Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. I was also a governor at the school for my kids.

I chose carefully – my day job is a lot of impact abroad, but I also wanted to have an impact in my own city, and I care a lot about health and education. I felt really proud of myself and I also felt proud to tell my kids, “I’m actually not going to be home till 7.30 tonight because I’m at school, helping the head teacher figure out what the school needs to be doing to improve education for you kids”, and they felt really proud of me for that.

I wouldn’t say it’s easy. I missed the first day of school for our eldest son, and I sat in this meeting with tears in my eyes. I knew at that moment that if I was in the right job, I’d be okay with this because I would have had other reasons to justify it, but that was the day I decided to leave that job.

In my current job too, I missed a presentation at school by my eldest son, so we made a game. I said to him, “Okay, I have my presentation in Sri Lanka, you have yours at your school, and we each have to make our audiences laugh. And whoever makes the audience laugh more wins the competition. So I made my colleagues wear comedy hats and did it like a game show, pitching different investment ideas to the audience. I told them if I’m missing my son’s presentation, this is what I’m going to do, you’re all going to pay for it! It was also great that I had that equation with them – who you work with matters so much. I really enjoy who I work with and feel like I can be true to what I need to take care of my family, yet be honest with my colleagues about how to get things done.

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