In our second report from the Social Venture Institute (SVI) at Hollyhock, Elisa Birnbaum from SEE Change Magazine sat down with Joel Solomon to chat about his work, what motivates him to get up each morning and his ever-optimistic vision of the social venture community.
With titles, accolades and commitments as seemingly boundless as the 57-year-old’s energy level, Solomon is a visionary, activist, mentor and investor rolled into one. I’m not sure when he finds time to sleep but here’s the current list of involvements: Board chair of Hollyhock, president of Renewal Partners, Chairman of Renewal2 Investment Fund, entrepreneur-in residence at RSF Social Finance in San Francisco and at Vancouver’s Vancity, volunteer board member of Tides Canada and Tides Foundation in the US. And let’s not forget his involvement in civic politics as an adviser and supporter of Vancouver’s green-hued mayor, Gregor Robertson.
Yet, what I found most remarkable about Solomon has nothing to do with titles. Affable, friendly and approachable to his very core, this busy guy goes out of his way to make time for anyone seeking advice, mentorship or a kind word of support. I’ve had the opportunity to meet hundreds of leaders, investors, CEOs etc. and I can assure you it’s an (unfortunately) unique – and most appreciated – attribute. And it doesn’t go unnoticed.
What inspired you to take the steps you have in your life?
Some of it was my family. I had a family that cared about involvement, cared about the world. Then I entered adulthood and looked at the options available for me. I felt that “young person frustration” and idealism about why things weren’t different. And then I had what turned out to be the benefit of a diagnosis of a genetic kidney disease that was degenerative. And I was told I could die soon or live long but there was nothing I could do about it.
That really sent me on a path of searching. I had come from a business family and [thought]: what could I do with the skills and the privilege and access that I have that would benefit the long-term future of things I cared about, which were planet and people? And I saw the population of the world go from 3 billion to 7 billion in my lifetime and we were reaching the limits…and I saw that human ingenuity is an awesome and brilliant thing. It’s been able to invent and create in such a way that is reaching past the wisdom that humans have to handle all that power.
So all of that came to me in one way or another. And I started seeking people who I can be inspired by. And I ended up in one progressive philanthropic organization called the Threshold Foundation, out of which was born SVN (Social Venture Network). I went to the founding SVN meeting 25 years ago and as a young person was inspired by the Ben and Jerrys, the Anita Roddicks, the Patagonias, Gary Hirshberg (I met him early on and became an investor in Stonyfield). So I was really mentored by following those who I thought were attempting to do things differently with money and business because I felt they [money and business] were the driver of what might destroy us.
There’s an interesting mix in the “social venture community”. There are idealists and the more pragmatic; people with money and those without. How are you working with each?
We have a mass movement emerging of young people and mid-career people that have a strong sense that they need to do things differently. People are saying the common sense of money, business, values and purpose must align. That common sense— which the supposedly rational people out there have acted opposite of – is coming back. And people are waking up, saying, “Whatever nickel I have, if I place it somewhere or buy something with it, I have some responsibility to think about its impact.” That’s getting more mass consciousness. There’s a whole range of people – from the very idealistic to the very pragmatic – and we need them all.
Our investment business goes into companies that have two million and up in sales, are ready to grow and have proven they know what they’re doing. My convening and lifelong learning commitment – through places like Hollyhock, SVI and the Social Innovation conference series that Hollyhock runs and the various other networks – that’s a way to serve a broader population, bringing more expert people together with younger, keener, newbies. And it helps the idealist find a pathway through being pragmatic and confident, to maintain the values that drive the idealism and help it mature into an understanding of how to get things to happen.
I value the whole system because all of them are consumers of each others’ things; they are constituents for politics, for issues and they have families and friends. You need this multifaceted whole system wave of change to happen.
You’ve been involved in this “field” for many years. Have you seen it evolve?
When I started 30 years ago, for a long time I knew every organization, every book, every business, every anything, that talked like this or thought about it. I now can’t even come close to keeping up with the number of organizations, conferences, universities, books, thinkers, businesses…it’s way vast now already and it’s still micro. I can’t keep up anymore. I can’t come close to keeping up. I’m continually excited every day by the kinds of things I find out…even in my own city. Even here at SVI there’s probably 40 people from Vancouver I never met and who are doing things I’m thrilled by.
What do you see as the primary challenges facing those working in this area?
There are success challenges – demand is outstripping the product (supply). And the product choice is still very underdeveloped. So if you’re going to do a diverse portfolio with capital, for example, or even more challenging, if you’re a pension fund or a big institution that has a lot of pressure from owners/ members, and if you have big money to put out there, this system can’t absorb it yet. As far as financial products go, I’m involved with RSFSocial Finance and Vancity in addition to our own organization. They’re launching products and their colleagues are launching products and are still not even on the map in terms of scale.
Some say one of the bigger issues is scalability. Would you agree?
I don’t like the lingo that we have to use. And once we use it you narrow the universe in a way that makes it even harder… I’m the recipient of a kidney transplant. I have drugs that were so much better than they were 20 years ago….It just depends on your definition and how you cut it.
So if you’re talking about people called social entrepreneurs who are using nonprofit models to solve poverty and things like that, these are near-impossible tasks taken on by visionary pioneers. And we’re at the very earliest stage. Think of the first people that went out and said “we’re going to dig a hole and find oil,” or “we’re going to create things that run around with wheels”. And that’s not even a hundred years ago. Or someone who’s going to fly. Or go to the moon. Telephones. We’re at the early stage. Give them a break; give them a decade.
You’re involved in (at least) eight separate activities these days. How do they all fit into your overall vision?
My methodology is to be a minority partner and not have the controlling interest in things. Hollyhock is the last thing my wife and I have the direct responsibility for. I have responsibility to investors with Renewal 2, a growth-stage investment fund in green and social businesses in Canada and the US. With Renewal Partners, after 18 years of helping build it, I continue looking after the private equity investment portfolio part-time. I hold two entrepreneur-in-residence type positions. One with RSF Social Finance in San Francisco and one with Vancity. I am a voluntary board member of Tides Canada and Tides in the US. That plus Hollyhock are my major volunteer commitments.
My eighth involvement is in civic politics in Vancouver through my very good friend who became mayor on a very green and social agenda. I advise and support him. They [all the activities] all make sense to me because what I’m attempting to do in the later stages of my career is to use my experience, connections and reputation to help leverage bigger flows of capital to social change through business and nonprofits.
Mentoring is what everyone should be doing in the later part of their careers. But it also gives me a lot. This is my way to learn about the world. Especially as I age, it allows me to be involved in younger, more energetic, exciting new things. So I’m just designing the life of my dreams that continues to maximize whoever and whatever I am and whatever I’ve done to now give back in every way that I can.
What’s next for Joel Solomon?
I would like to do a next version of a model that I did with Carol Newell (founding investor and principal of Renewal), Renewal and the Endswell Foundation, which is to work with capital that is both visionary enough and fluid enough to take risk and be about deep social change that likes the idea of systemic approach over a period of time. Right now I’m seeing dozens and dozens of promising business, social entrepreneurs, nonprofits, potential political candidates, infrastructures, capacities that can support dozens of others. And I feel I have developed the ability to move money out into the world in a low-damage high impact caring way.
What I learned through my years of being a foundation executive and a fund manager is that there’s a lot of pain and bad practice and the emotional, psychological and spiritual side of money is generally ignored and belittled. That causes a lot of damage in the world. I don’t think there are that many people who have had the opportunity to just use instinct, common sense, situational analysis and true commitment to impact and be able to be relatively free with money to move it out there. So I’d like to do more of that now.
Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.