After months of planning, Stanford Business School student Jenna Nicholas (2016 Fellow) packed her bags up and flew to Williamson, West Virginia for an action-packed four day trip. Williamson may not be where most Stanford MBA students spend their summers, but for Jenna, who is focused on impact investing, Williamson is full of possibility.
Jenna is the head of her own impact investing firm, and she cofounded an initiative called Impact Experience, which is working to build relationships between investors, philanthropists, innovators and leaders of local communities. Impact Experience organizes multi-day trips to locations across the United States and the world for participants who are interested in learning about the challenges and opportunities present at the local level. Each trip typically includes 20 participants who come from a range of professional backgrounds, such as impact investors, philanthropists, nonprofit leaders, corporate executives, local community leaders, artists, and entrepreneurs. Jenna says that a key feature of Impact Experience’s approach is its focus on diversity, which Jenna believes is critical in all aspects of community investment—from who invests money and who receives it, to how it is used and the impact it has.
In Williamson, Jenna and the Impact Experience team saw an opportunity to explore an area that is building a post-coal future. They wanted to explore the role that impact investing, or investing with a social mission, could have—and that’s just what they did from July 7th to July 10th, after three months of preparation, with 21 leaders from across the country.
We are deeply concerned about the inequality plaguing underserved communities in this country. To date, we have organized seven convenings in seven different communities, tackling issues ranging from creating economic opportunity after fossil fuel companies leave communities devastated by job-loss, to working with a foundation on environmental conservation in Alaska.
Williamson, West Virginia was the perfect place for an Impact Experience convening. It faces the harsh reality of a waning coal industry and the adverse health effects of economic decline, including high rates of obesity, diabetes, poverty and substance abuse. But there are so many bright spots to build on, from the health clinic that is driving an economic revitalization and cultural shift, to the former coal mine sites that are being repurposed for local agriculture and various workforce development initiatives.
Our local partner, the Williamson Health and Wellness Center, is led by an amazing entrepreneur, Dr. Donovan “Dino” Beckett. Our Impact Experience team had been following Dr. Beckett's work for over five years, watching it become a nationally-recognized economic development engine that has created over 40 jobs in Mingo County, which lost nearly 2,200 jobs between 2012 and early 2016. Dr. Beckett is an amazing social entrepreneur. His vision for the future of Williamson, Mingo County, and Central Appalachia energized us to deliver a world-class experience for the community.
Based on the convenings that Impact Experience had organized in other communities, Dr Beckett reached out to us to see if we would host one in his community. Together we reached out to and organized an incredible group of people, majority of whom had not met each other previously.
We emphasized trust-building activities between the local leaders and the funders/innovators from the outside, as we have found that long-term collaboration that is highly adaptive to the local context and culture is much more likely to succeed. Often times, investments are made before this shared understanding is achieved, which can often limit the per-dollar impact.
Many participants remarked on the beauty of the area’s natural features, as well as how unique the culture is—Williamson is the home of the famous Hatfield–McCoy feud, for example. One of the participants offered the insight that this could be packaged and “productized,” based on his earlier career experiences monetizing eco-tourism opportunities. The discussion evolved into a broader “Mountain Festival” that would celebrate the culture of the outdoors, build world class mountain biking and ATV trails, and showcase the great work of the local health clinic improving outcomes, particularly around fitness.
Eco-tourism was just one of the many actionable ideas that the group generated. Others included repurposing coal mines to be economically viable places for solar installations and solar workforce development. Another idea was a “Center of Excellence” for rural health, where Williamson Health and Wellness could showcase their successes in overcoming some of the most intractable health challenges. The Center could both showcase their work and create a new revenue stream at the same time.
The group largely self-organized to move a number of different initiatives forward. For example, one of the participating impact investors, DBL, and their portfolio company, Solar City, a leading solar panel maker, are working with the head of the county’s redevelopment authority, Leasha Johnson, and a social entrepreneur, Brandon Dennison, who retrains former coal miners for new economy jobs, including green jobs. They are exploring different ways to retool former coal mines for 21st century jobs.
Two of our participants, a representative from the Benedum Foundation and a representative from the Appalachian Regional Commission, lead the Philanthropic Engagement working group at the Appalachian Funders Network, which helps national funders access funding opportunities to accelerate the region’s economic transition. We always look for local partners to join our trips so that they can keep other participants connected overtime.
People joined because they were invited. We carefully selected each person so that we would have a diverse group. Peoples’ reasons for accepting this invitation reflected their desire to engage in a drastically different community and context—some were passionate about health equity; some were drawn by West Virginia’s economic challenges and connection to coal; and others wanted to learn from Williamson and bring back lessons to their respective communities.
One of the common threads was a deep desire to apply their professional expertise to have a tangible impact in a community. We also noticed a strong diaspora element of engagement, meaning that West Virginians who lived in other parts of the country were really excited to get involved in some way. This is something we believe is applicable to other communities—identify people who are from certain communities and tap into their emotional connection with home as a way to galvanize energy and resources.
Our next Impact Experience will be in Oakland, exploring the intersection of “Implicit bias” within impact investing. Our experience as impact investing practitioners leads us to believe that implicit bias amongst investors can lead to certain underrepresented groups of entrepreneurs as well as certain categories of businesses to get unfairly underfunded, particularly women and minority founders. This convening will serve as a thoughtful, intentional space to explore such issues.
We have partnered with Stanford SPARQ (Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions), which is a cross-disciplinary “do tank” that partners with practitioners in government, business, and nonprofits to craft solutions to our communities’ most pressing problems. MacArthur Genius Fellow Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, who is one of the world’s leading researchers around implicit bias, will lead some of the discussion. ∎
The photo above is from the West Virginia trip. Those in the photo include: [Back Row]
Howard Parsons - Director, Travelin' Appalachian Revue Leasha Johnson - Executive Director, Mingo County Redevelopment Authority Kate Long - Co-Director, Try This West Virginia Sid Radhakrishna - Head of Special Projects & Chief of Staff to Daryn Dodson Ray Daffner - Director – Entrepreneurship Programming, Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) Dr. “Dino” Donovan Beckett - CEO & Medical Director, Williamson Health and Wellness Center Randall Ussery - CEO & Managing Partner, Free Range Dr. William D. Ramsey, MD, FACEP - Chief Collaboration Officer, WVU Health Sciences Center Brandon Dennison - CEO, Coalfield Development Corporation Julia Jezmir - MD/MBA Candidate at Stanford University Delonte Gholston - Pastor for Children, New City Church; Director, Trust Talk