The 2018 VERGE Vanguard Awards — Nancy Pfund — Godmother of impact investing

September 17, 2018

Godmother of impact investing

Nancy Pfund

Founder and managing director, DBL Partners; San Francisco

It seems iron­ic to con­tem­plate today, but when she start­ed her pro­fes­sion­al career with the Sier­ra Club, leg­endary ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Nan­cy Pfund — one of the ear­li­est investors in Tes­la and SolarCi­ty — was skep­ti­cal of the busi­ness world’s abil­i­ty to cat­alyze pos­i­tive social change.

She lat­er recon­sid­ered her “adver­sar­i­al” world­view while work­ing along­side the late Intel co-founder Robert Noyce, whose inter­ac­tions with gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy­mak­ers taught her the val­ue of pub­lic-pri­vate collaboration.

The VC firm Pfund co-found­ed in 2003, San Fran­cis­co-based DBL Part­ners, was among the first to val­ue its invest­ment deci­sions using social fac­tors such as eco­nom­ic inclu­sion, gen­der and racial diver­si­ty and envi­ron­men­tal action, not just finan­cial return.

It’s a phi­los­o­phy that more main­stream investors — par­tic­u­lar­ly insti­tu­tion­al invest­ment funds — are just now ral­ly­ing around. “We don’t waste time sep­a­rat­ing the world into arti­fi­cial silos,” Pfund said. “We can do bet­ter than that.”

DBL’s cur­rent port­fo­lio is diverse, but one sec­tor in which she has devel­oped an appetite is agtech. Data sug­gests agri­cul­tur­al activ­i­ties account for up to 30 per­cent of world­wide car­bon emis­sions, so address­ing it real­ly isn’t option­al if the world hopes to meet the goals of the Paris Agree­ment on cli­mate change. Two of her bets in this space: Farm­ers Busi­ness Net­work, which uses data to help farm­ers improve yields and nego­ti­ate bet­ter pric­ing, and Apeel Sci­ences, which cre­at­ed a plant-derived coat­ing that helps pre­vent food waste.