By Sarah Cabell, Presidio MBA candidate
Who I am and How I got Here
I am a second-year MBA candidate at the Presidio Graduate School, where I focus on sustainable food systems and agriculture. Until very recently, I worked at the USDA Food and Nutrition Service overseeing funding, grants, policies, compliance, and reporting for the Western Region of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Previously, I administered funding and grants for fishery and marine conservation projects at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
With my deep connection to food, nutrition, and agriculture, and particularly how to increase access to sustainable, nutritious foods, I came to Presidio to learn how to use business tools to capture the true cost of food and help shift markets. The Slow Money conference last September demonstrated the potential of impact investing to move capital where it is most needed and most lacking to support local food systems and economies. Both professionally and intellectually, I saw impact investing as the bridge from traditional grants and philanthropy (my background) to business innovation and disruption (where I am headed) to achieve my goals.
What Internship? Why this internship?
I was interested in the Fink Foundation internship at RSF Social Finance for the above reasons, and because RSF Social Finance, in particular, aligns
with both my philosophy of how to do business and in its view of food systems and agriculture. RSF values personal connection, building trust, and
ensuring due diligence in business operations to make low-risk, high-impact investment decisions. It also has a broad portfolio and a variety of sources of capital to draw from to finance projects most aligned with its goals.
Through this internship, not only could I learn how different sources of capital can be used strategically to make the most impact, but I could also help shape impact investing going forward through my research contributions. Specifically, I could do this in my area of greatest interest: sustainable food and agriculture.
What I achieved
RSF brought in two interns from Presidio to research the greatest barriers early-stage entrepreneurs face in accessing capital and recommend ways to overcome these barriers through creative financing mechanisms. We identified target organizations that fit into previously identified verticals of greatest need and impact, organizations filling gaps in food system supply chains. We then reached out to and interviewed the entrepreneurs that started or are starting these organizations to understand how they financed start-up costs and whether and how they could finance growth. We also spoke with staff at RSF and other lending institutions, researched other impact investors in this space, and compiled our findings into a final presentation with a set of recommendations.
From this internship, I learned a great deal about the challenges and opportunities to support early-stage businesses that seek to affect an entire system. Impact investing is a powerful tool to fund organizations based on impact more than financial returns, but investors still require (albeit modest) returns, and risk and risk perceptions are real. The target businesses or fields are those that may not have yet proven their viability, whose margins are low, and who might not have collateral to secure their loans. Can we leverage traditional grants and philanthropy as well as other risk mitigation techniques to support the investments that will make the most difference? While we drew some conclusions through our research, I am still exploring these questions and will continue my research this semester in my Capital Markets course at Presidio.
For anyone wanting to pursue this type of work, I recommend attending as many workshops, meetings, conferences, and events as possible to learn how people, organizations, and businesses are navigating the nascent field of impact investing. To learn more specifically about sustainable food and agriculture, Slow Money is a great resource, bringing various types of capital opportunities to local food-systems entrepreneurs to support local food economies.
The field of impact investing is highly collaborative and will best succeed through information sharing. Ask lots of questions and share the lessons you learn about what works and doesn’t work. Be creative and open-minded. Don’t get stuck in a box of traditional finance or businesses, but also know that sound business financials and operations are essential for attracting funders and ensuring success. Finally, look at different sources of capital as components of a whole that together can make a greater difference.
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