Impact Investors of Tomorrow: The Turner MIINT Program

Written By:

Carly Joos ‘22  
Digital Content Editor 
Connect with Carly on LinkedIn 

Devon Maddux ‘22 
Contributing Writer 
Connect with Devon on LinkedIn 

It was a crisp October afternoon when our team first met. The whiteboard in our meeting room mapped out the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, pulling together themes and ideas on which we could base our investment thesis. One kept catching our attention – “Affordable and Clean Energy.” The energy experts on the team, Ben Foxman and Josh Kriesberg, chimed in with energy-burden metrics while we discussed the realities of climate justice. Quickly, our thesis became clear, “our firm will invest in companies at the nexus of clean technology and accessibility.” We unofficially dubbed ourselves Empathic Ventures and embarked on our journey through the Turner MIINT competition. 

Source: Slide from the UVM MIINT Team’s Final Presentation

Every year the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business pairs up with the Bridges Impact Foundation to host the Turner MBA Impact Investing Network & Training (MIINT) program. This year-long competition is designed to give MBA students a hands-on experience as early-stage impact investors. During the 2021-2022 academic year, 630 students competed from 45 global institutions. The grand prize? A $50,000 investment into an impact-driven startup of the team’s choosing. Along the way, each team was required to develop an investment thesis, source potential investments, conduct due diligence, and ultimately craft an investment memo and pitch their chosen startup.  

This was the second year that students from the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Sustainable Innovation MBA (SI-MBA) program participated in the competition. Two teams competed internally to make it to the semi-finals – our team versus another whose investment thesis focused on women’s healthcare. We felt honored to be chosen to represent UVM in the semi-finals and, ultimately, our team was one of eight that made it to the final competition. We competed in the finals alongside other top business programs including the London School of Economics, MIT Sloan School of Management, the Wharton School, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, Columbia SIPA, Harvard Business School, and the Yale School of Management. 

In addition to a competition, the Turner MIINT program offers an incredible opportunity to learn the ins and outs of impact investing and venture capital. The program provided a host of resources and asynchronous learning modules that guided our team through the full investment cycle. We attended workshops with industry experts who shared frameworks for analyzing both business performance and social and environmental impact. Participating in this challenge, we were both humbled and inspired by the global scale at which the sustainable revolution is washing over the private equity and venture capital industry. Students from all over the globe were able to have the shared experience of learning what it means to be an impact investor. 

Alongside guidance from the Turner MIINT competition facilitators and partners, the SI-MBA program paired us with faculty advisor Cairn Cross. Cairn is the Co-founder and Managing Director of Fresh Tracks Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm focused on financing businesses in Vermont. Cairn was very generous with his time, scheduling frequent check-ins to help our team understand core topics in venture capital. These topics included: developing an investment thesis, sourcing potential deals, analyzing startup pro-forma financial statements, and more. Cairn also brought in experts from his network to help us through the due diligence process, provide feedback and support, and ultimately judge our investment memo and pitch. These sessions, along with the work required to advance through the competition, often required hours of work each week in addition to our accelerated MBA curriculum. Nevertheless, our team thrived knowing that we could provide catalytic capital to help a potentially world-changing company get its start. 

UVM Turner MIINT Finalists (from left to right) Ben Foxman, Devon Maddux, Tate Moeller, Carly Joos & Josh Kriesberg 

After a rigorous sourcing and due diligence process where we explored over 20 different early-stage ventures, we ultimately recommended investment in Community Energy Labs (CEL). CEL is a woman-founded, woman-run company with a mission to make smart energy management and decarbonization accessible and affordable. The company’s commercial building control solution uses machine learning to monitor, learn, and adjust building energy use to meet client goals. CEL is focused on bringing their affordable solution to schools, universities, and municipalities to help buildings lower energy costs, reduce CO2 emissions, and ultimately prepare for a transition to renewable energy sources. Although our team did not have the opportunity to invest in CEL, we continue to stay close to the company’s founder, Tanya Barham, and are excited to continue supporting its mission as we advance into our post-MBA careers. 

“MIINT opened my eyes to the sustainable change and positive non-financial outcomes created through impact investment,” Tate Moeller reflected about her experience in the program. “In 2021, just 2% of venture capital funds were awarded to female-founded companies. Pitching a woman-owned and led, energy and tech-focused startup in the finals of Wharton’s global competition was one of my proudest accomplishments this year. I am very grateful to have shared it with wonderful classmates and friends.” 

Overall, the Turner MIINT competition provided an incredible experience that left our team with a great network, new skills, and, most importantly, lifelong friendships. In addition to the personal growth we gained through this program, we are humbled to be part of the larger industry shift toward impact investing. We hope to support the increasing momentum that impact investing has in securing a more sustainable future for business. Ultimately, it will be the disruptive entrepreneurs of today that pave the way for the sustainable businesses of tomorrow. 

Moving Beyond ESG to System Impact

Written By:
Taylor Smith ’22
Content Editor
Connect with Taylor on LinkedIn

Students in UVM’s Sustainable Innovation MBA (SI-MBA) program have taken control of the newly established SI-MBA Impact Fund. This donor-supported investment fund is committed to promoting the electrification of the U.S. economy. The fund is built around an emerging school of thought termed “system-level investing.” This approach acknowledges the interplay between the investment decisions made by individuals and the underlying social, economic, and environmental systems that ultimately drive U.S. financial markets.

Conventional investment approaches have a history of degrading our foundational systems in the pursuit of quarterly profits. Ever since the economist Milton Friedman embedded the concept of shareholder primacy1 in the 1960s and 1970s, profit maximization has been the aim of most corporate decision making. Even as our systems show the effects of degradation, it has been difficult to popularize a new paradigm of investment theory.

1Shareholder primacy is a form of corporate governance that focuses on maximizing the value of shareholders before considering the interests of other corporate stakeholders, such as society, the community, customers, employees, and the environment.

In 21st Century Investing (2021), William Burckart and Steve Lydenberg explore the emerging school of system-level investing. A key recognition of this investment approach is that we are not passive participants in capital markets. Our collective investments depend on, and influence, the long-term health of our underlying shared systems. The upshot is our investment decisions can support the health of our institutions and the environment. For instance, strategic investments in renewable energy diversify our electric grid and improve resiliency, but also reduce many social, environmental, and financial costs associated with pollution and climate risk.

21st Century Investing by William Burckart and Steve Lydenberg

System-level investors also recognize that various asset classes are inherently suited to tackle specific types of challenges. Fixed income government assets (bonds) can be used to construct public works. Equities (stocks) provide voting power and can influence long-term initiatives within large publicly traded firms. Venture capital investments can empower new start-ups that disrupt established industry players. Investors can participate and magnify their impact by funding the asset classes that maximize societal benefits in their chosen arena. Tactical groups of investments across several asset classes can work collectively to solve critical problems.

System-level investing confronts the problems of short-termism head-on. As Burckart and Lydenberg note, “Investors with long-term time horizons…recognize that the further out they look, the more their interests and those of society coincide. The greater their commitment to a long-term approach, the more they value the health of underlying systems.” System-level investors recognize a simple truth; to maximize returns in the long run, the underlying systems must be sustainable. Otherwise, the system breaks down. It is no surprise that many pension funds, such as those supporting workers in California (CalPERS), Quebec (CDPQ), and the Church of England, are drawn to a systems approach.

Few issues rise to the level where a systems approach makes sense. According to Burckart and Lydenberg, appropriate issues are those that have achieved widespread consensus as to their systematic importance, are broadly relevant to investment returns, are capable of being influenced by investors, and have long-term uncertainty. Issues that meet this threshold include climate change, income inequality, access to fresh water, and future pandemics.

In the SI-MBA program, student analysts, faculty advisors, and alumni practitioners are working to address our chosen theme: the full electrification of the U.S. economy. This theme was selected in support of UVM’s strong commitment to climate action. Embedded within the U.S. power grid are the diversified categories of 1) energy creation and distribution, 2) energy storage, and 3) energy consumption. Teams of students are collaborating to search for best-in-class, innovative public companies within each of these divisions that are helping to accelerate the U.S. energy transition. The energy grid is being considered at a global level, from the mining companies that extract heavy metals for battery and solar manufacturing, to the marketers who influence cultural trends and spending habits.

Photo by Aidan Hancock on Unsplash

SI-MBA students are committed to driving sustainable change across diverse fields: energy, education, public health, and many others. Thanks to UVM’s donors, those interested in pursuing careers in finance and analytics are gaining real world experience, with a chance to support systemic change long before graduation. While the SI-MBA Impact Fund isn’t likely to disrupt financial markets on its own, we are supporting a growing community of sustainable finance professionals. Collective action is essential for scaling impact.

We know that financial professionals can use a system-level investing approach to create societal benefits without sacrificing financial returns. Bolstering the health of underlying social, financial, and environmental systems creates a rising tide of investment opportunities for all. Before long, conventional investors will choose to ride the wave.

Opinion: Robinhood Isn’t the Hero We Need Right Now

Written By: 
Taylor R. Smith ‘22 
Editor, Finance 
Connect with Taylor on LinkedIn 

“It’s hard to find a job you can retire on.” The sentiment runs deep. As I sat with writer’s block in my cramped Burlington apartment, my roommates bustled in the kitchen making lunch and small talk. Katy, a soil scientist with the Franklin County Natural Resources Conservation District, had recently been on a field assignment to meet with a farmer in snowy northern Vermont. In the hours spent passing paperwork around a kitchen table, the conversation touched on retirement. The offhand comment, from a dairy farmer aged about 60, is reflective of the fact that retirement readiness is a serious challenge – a unifying anxiety across generations of American workers.

For many, the simplest way to start investing for the future is through an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Dairy farmers in rural Vermont don’t have that luxury. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports only 67% of workers in private industry had access to an employer retirement plan in 2020. The distribution of those retirement plans follows a predictable and troubling pattern, with high earners far more likely to have access; only 39% of part-time workers have an employer-sponsored plan.

A secure retirement can feel especially remote for people without access to a plan through their workplace. For starters, sparing a few dollars is no small feat. Between student loans, rising rents, and (not-so-transitory) inflation, times are feeling very tight indeed. If you can ration the funds, it may still be difficult to cross the starting line. In a pandemic that feels more and more like a never-ending airline delay, it’s tough to muster the mental energy to explore investment options and dive in.

For those ready to take the plunge, the investment marketplace can be scary. Many individuals aren’t inclined to trust the financial services industry, as Wall Street’s reputation continues to recover from the 2008 financial crisis. Faced with the multitude of investment options and complex-sounding terms, I’ve seen “analysis paralysis” stop potential investors in their tracks. What brokerage firm should I choose? Do I need an advisor? When it comes to fees, how high is too high? What the heck is an ETF?! As Ryan Gosling quips in The Big Short,

It’s pretty confusing right? Does it make you feel bored? Or stupid? Well, it is supposed to. Wall Street loves to use terms to make you think only they can do what they do.” 

Ryan Gosling, The Big Short
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Enter Robinhood. Established in 2013, the investing app has seen its popularity explode in the past few years, with huge user growth between 2020 and 2021. Granted, Robinhood doesn’t bill itself as a retirement service, but it may be the most accessible option for new investors – at least for now. Robinhood’s website proudly states: “We’re on a mission to democratize finance for all.” That’s a mission I can get behind, but critiques aren’t hard to find. Selections from Vice and NBC News touch on a few common criticisms, from Robinhood’s gamification of investing (complete with casino style graphics and confetti) to their sale of user order flow1. Robinhood also allows advanced investment techniques typically reserved for seasoned investors and professionals.

1A substantial portion of Robinhood’s revenue is derived from their sale of order flow. When you make a trade on Robinhood, the app sells your order to a larger investment firm for final execution. Your order is sold to the highest bidder, not to the firm that will complete the trade most quickly. Robinhood gets paid a fee, the outside firm gains a slight advantage on the open market, and the user pays a price.

A core tenet of finance is the relationship between risk and return. Riskier investments demand a higher expected return to justify their potential downside. It’s an open question whether apps like Robinhood shift this relationship out of balance for the at-home retail investor. The meteoric rise of Robinhood coincides with a period of strong economic growth following the Covid-crash of March 2020. Many retail investors cashed in, and new investors flocked into the market. A recent survey by Charles Schwab suggests 15% of stock market investors got their start in 2020. But what does the future hold during a downturn? Have inexperienced users been conditioned to take outsized risks, and if so, can these habits be reined in? 

Financial Technology (Fintech) companies are rising to meet the soaring demand for retail financial services. While it’s still early in the game, I’m interested to see which companies can profitably occupy a middle ground between the jargon-heavy multinational corporations of the past and the gamified trading apps led by Robinhood. We need a platform that is accessible to new investors but encourages stable portfolios geared for the long term.

Photo by on Unsplash

The right platform could fill the needs of a large segment of American workers that have been historically passed over by the financial services industry. I’m advocating for a new service that forgoes the frequent dopamine hits of Robinhood and lacks the intimidating interface of a legacy firm. In other words, a platform that’s not too hot, and not too cold. Just right.

Acorns and Greenlight offer two intriguing models. Both startups seem to put a larger emphasis on education and financial literacy (based on my informal review of their online platforms and messaging). Acorns facilitates micro-investing into diversified portfolios by rounding up daily purchases and investing the so-called “spare change.” Acorns does not currently allow trading of individual stocks, though according to Bloomberg this feature could be added in a limited capacity down the line. Greenlight focuses on a young audience (with parental controls in place), allowing money earned from chores and allowances to be invested into stocks and ETFs. In their words, they hope to “…empower parents to raise financially-smart kids.” 

These offerings from Acorns and Greenlight are promising, and more options will surely rise in the coming years. There’s little time to waste. The mathematics of compounding interest are compelling – an early start can make all the difference for an investor. I hope these services, and others, can bring more inclusion to a retirement industry that has typically catered to an affluent customer base. Our country will be more prosperous and secure if its workers are better positioned for a stable future. It’s also the right thing to do.

In the folktales, Robin Hood is the hero, stealing from the rich for the benefit of the poor. But the winners and losers aren’t so clear in the rapidly changing world of Fintech. Buyer beware, Robin Hood was also a master of disguise.

The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and do not represent the views of UVM or the Sustainable Innovation Review editorial team. This is not an endorsement of any investment product or service.