June 25th, 2015
Giving & Investing Towards Just & Sustainable Environment for All
For 25 years, when people ask me what I do, I have always answered, “I am an educator.” Lately, I have started to introduce myself as an entrepreneur. I realize that I have a lifetime of experience with start- ups. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs: my father built a successful commodity trading firm from the ground up, starting with an office in our garage. I also helped my mother develop the first children’s hospice in the US, the George Mark Children’s House. In high school I ran a costume design business out of my bedroom. In my thirties I co-founded the North Oakland Community Charter School. Later I created the Nia Community Fund and now I am launching an equities portfolio, Nia Global Solutions. I realize that I really enjoy taking on the challenges of creating businesses that fill needed gaps.
I did not grow up with money. When I was young, my Dad worked various jobs and managed apartments so our family would have a free place to live. My Mom was busy grading English papers and getting her degree as a clinical psychologist. As a white girl in Oakland, I was a minority at my local public school. Later, when my father started earning more money, my family moved to Piedmont, a nearby upscale and very white neighborhood. At first I was miserable, missing the diversity of my Oakland school friends and having a hard time fitting in with the upper middle class kids and their world. It was amazing to me that although these communities were only a few miles apart, they really knew nothing about each other. To me, it seemed as though they could have been on different planets.
This experience of moving from one world to another taught me, on a very personal level, that money does not make people happy: community makes people happy. I remember being perplexed and upset about how vast and unfair the differences in opportunities were for my friends from different neighborhoods. I knew early on I wanted to work to change this, and so I began my career as a teacher. Working in the bilingual program in Oakland was tough: my students were often hungry and the roof leaked. I taught classes in a trailer, and each day I was confronted with intense disparity and problems to solve. Motivated to learn more about leverage points for change, I went back to graduate school looking for answers to address our complicated and unequal educational system.
When I was on maternity leave from teaching, a friend and I started imagining an inner city school built on the principles of student centered learning, creativity, and diversity. We decided to start our own school and for the next ten years of my life I put my heart, soul and everything else into the North Oakland Community Charter School. It was a huge effort and such an incredible learning experience for me. My boys were among the first students, and the founding families, board and teachers are still some of my best friends.
During that period my family sold our commodity trading business to Goldman Saks and, for the first time in my life, I had much more money than I ever needed to live on. We put some of the proceeds of the sale into a family foundation. Up until that time, the most philanthropic thing I had done was to buy Girl Scout cookies. Knowing little and being a founding board member of the foundation, I set out to learn everything I could about social justice philanthropy and best giving practices. I attended a Global Philanthropy Forum conference session where a group called More for Mission was encouraging foundations to put 2% of their endowments into investments with positive social and environmental impacts. I asked myself, “If this is a good idea, why only 2%? Why not 100%?” A light bulb went off for me about the importance of consciously investing all our assets and I got started right away. Finance comes readily to me through my relationship with my father; I spent summers working for our company on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. As President of our family foundation, I was able to learn an incredible amount about conscious investing and, with my sisters, align 100% of our assets with our mission.
Last year, I embarked on the Nia Community Fund, a five million dollar fund of my own assets focused on social justice and environmental sustainability. Nia means “intention” and “purpose” in Swahili, which was perfect for my mission of being purposeful about leveraging change with my money. The fund is primarily invested in start up ventures working toward community solutions in food, health, local infrastructure, alternative finance, media and energy.
While also working on Nia, I am spending a lot of energy on Hub Oakland, a shared workspace for our growing community of change makers. We just raised more than $100,000 dollars with our first Kickstarter campaign from community donations, and are working toward opening our building in October.
While I am excited about using investments as additional tools for social and environmental change, I am still actively engaged in giving as an essential tool. I give away a minimum of $100,000 each year through both Nia and the family foundation and will hope to do more in the future. I love that I get to direct my dollars toward solutions as opposed to systems maintaining the status quo and harming our communities.
My work at Nia Community Fund led to an exciting opportunity to create a Global Solutions product with Domini Social Investments. I am working with our Domini team to develop and launch a complete portfolio of solution-based public equities that will be a new addition to the Domini Family of socially conscious financial products.
Through my different work endeavors I can sometimes be a bridge between the world of money and the needs of the community. I like being in a web of different systems and ideas, and my involvement in different projects and boards helps me to be innovative and connect the dots. For example, because I am involved in many non-profit projects in the Oakland Community I was aware of inspiring local investments for the Nia Community Fund, like Awaken Cafe, People’s Community Market and One Pacific Coast Bank. And, as it turns out, my investment relationships help me raise money for the non-profits I love. We are all interconnected and it can be fun to build bridges within and between the investment and philanthropic communities; In that vein, Nia Global Solutions links the more traditional world of negatively screened portfolios with the emerging field of using investing to move toward solutions.
I am definitely a hard worker: I serve on five non-profit boards, am co-founding the HUB, working with Domini to develop our Global Solutions Fund and am studying for my Series 7 exam. I love the opportunity to contribute and find the creative process energizes me. Where sometimes there are brick walls, I look for ways around them, and new realities and solutions on the other side. At the end of the day, I am still an educator, only now I am teaching investment and philanthropic communities to understand the transformative power of using investments to support the change we want to see.