Spotlight

An Impact Investor’s Journey From Appalachia to Silicon Valley and Back

Amy Cortese | September 30, 2015

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These days, you can often find Kevin Doyle Jones out walking with his dog, Izzy, on the sprawling 16-acre farm in western North Carolina that he now calls home. It’s a long way from the money and tech epicenter of San Francisco, where Jones runs a social impact fund, oversees the Impact Hubs he helped launch, and hosts the annual SOCAP conference, a high-powered gathering of impact investors that kicks off next week.

Jones and his wife Rosa Lee Harden, an Episcopal priest and the producer of SOCAP, moved from the Bay Area to Asheville a couple of years ago to be closer to their grandkids. “I want to invest in companies that are within a morning’s drive of where my grandsons go to sleep,” explains Jones.

Upon arriving in Asheville, Jones, never one to sit still for long, began looking around for ways to invest and make an impact in his adopted hometown. “I was trying to do here in Asheville what I had done in San Francisco reasonably well, which is venture capital and equity kind of things,” he says.

There was just one problem: he quickly discovered that what works in Silicon Valley does not necessarily work in Asheville.

“We should just get over that fantasy that we’re going to create Silicon Prairie or Silicon whatever – we’re not.”

Sure, there were plenty of good businesses looking for a modest loan to boost their growth, but Jones found few companies with the kind of go-to-the-moon ambitions that venture investors (even the impact kind) crave. “There’s an audacity gap in the entrepreneurs in Asheville,” he says.

Also missing was a community of angel investors active in the area. “No pipeline of companies. No pool of investors. So what do you do?” he wondered.

That question led Jones on a quest to figure out how to invest in and strengthen communities like Asheville and others in Southern Appalachia, the mountainous corridor stretching from West Virginia to northeastern Mississippi, far from the money centers, tech hubs and billion-dollar unicorns. It’s a quest that has important implications for much of the country. Because, as Jones points out, “There are many more places like Mississippi than like Silicon Valley.”

Jones is exasperated by communities that try to model themselves after Silicon Valley. “We should just get over that fantasy that we’re going to create Silicon Prairie or Silicon whatever – we’re not,” he says. “Venture capital works in rare places, and you need a critical mass of all the right factors for that to work. And most places don’t have that.”

Instead, communities would do better to take stock of the assets they have and invest in them with local funds, he believes. “We need to focus on the rest of our economy. That’s where I’m finding it super interesting to work now.”

For the past year, Jones has immersed himself in the details of community building, place-making and resiliency—the hallmarks of local economy groups such as BALLE and Transition Towns. But he’s brought to it a professional rigor and venture investor’s desire for scale and impact. That’s meant studying the flow of capital and resources at a community level, engaging diverse stakeholders, and devising ways to channel funds into projects and ventures that can strengthen communities. “This is like capital meets community organizing,” says Jones. “It’s a new kind of field.”

His first step was to create a Neighborhood Economics Network made up of big and small Appalachian towns stretching from Allentown, PA to Nashville, TN. The idea is to share ideas about what’s working, accelerate learning and promote regional resilience.

Next, he cobbled together a funding toolkit tailored for non-Silicon Valleys, like the towns in his network, where venture capital does not work. The Neighborhood Economics Funding Kit, as it is called, culls from existing ideas like low-cost lending, donor-advised funds, giving circles, and community savings bonds. The idea is to blend different forms of capital and bring them to bear when and where they make sense. And to let all residents participate, whether they have $25 to give or $25,000.

Funders-Kit

And, betting that there is a larger shift going on—possibly as big as the one that led him to create SOCAP a decade ago—Jones launched a brand new event called (what else?) Neighborhood Economics.

In announcing the new initiative, Jones noted a return to the local economy as an underlying trend and motivation. “The movement toward place-based innovation and a network of resilient towns and small cities in an economy that is ultimately rooted in relationships of trust is a movement we must learn from and humbly participate in,” he wrote.

The first Neighborhood Economics gathering, held in Louisville last fall, was almost a beta test. The second one, scheduled for November 17 – 18 in Cincinnati, is more ambitious in scope (full disclosure: I will be speaking at the event). But whether it is dramatically bigger is almost beside the point. Jones takes the long view.

“Kevin is the rare combination of pioneering vision and humility,” says Tim Soerens, cofounder of the Parish Collective, a faith-based community development group, and Jones’ partner in Neighborhood Economics.  “He sees ideas that could make real change and works hard to see them come into reality. But at the end of the day, it’s not about him. He often says, ‘it just seems like this is the thing that wants to happen.’”

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In many ways, Jones has come full circle. He started his career in Appalachia, first in northeast Mississippi, where he was a reporter for a weekly community newspaper owned by Rosa Lee’s father that served the residents of Fulton, a small town near Tupelo. “My perspective on community comes from my father-in-law,” says Jones. “He had to build a community so his business could survive.” From there, Jones bought and ran other publications in Mississippi as well as a subscription service that monitored local legislation before starting a catfish farming business—then a brand new concept.Appalachian_region_of_United_States

The catfish entrepreneur took to the road with a local chef to sell the idea that “catfish is not just something you eat fried as country food.” The bottom-dwelling fish, it turned out, becomes a flaky white fish when farmed. “The technology changed the fish, so we had to tell a new story about it,” Jones explains.

When Rosa Lee decided to go to the seminary, the couple moved to San Francisco. The dot-com boom was just taking shape, and Jones started a company that produced conferences and events focused on Internet marketplaces. He sold it near the peak of the NASDAQ, just before the dot-com era came crashing down to earth.

It was at that time that his daughter asked Jones a question that would change the course of his career. “She said, ‘Dad, what is your life about?’ “ he recalls. “I realized that I hadn’t answered—or asked—that question since college.”

After some soul-searching, Jones got involved with nonprofits, travelling to Africa to help combat malaria. But he chafed at the restrictions and limits of the nonprofit world. That’s when his friend Tim Freundlich, then with the Calvert Foundation, approached him about collaborating. Along with a third partner, Joy Anderson, they created Good Capital LLC, a fund that would invest in for-profit enterprises with a social mission.

The idea was fairly novel at the time, and Jones brought a disruptor’s energy to it. “He was fresh and rambunctious, and it was a shot in the arm for me and the space at that time,” says Freundlich, who runs ImpactAssets, a donor-advised fund spun off from Calvert Foundation. Like farmed catfish, they needed to create a new narrative for the fund to make sense. Thus was born Social Capital Markets—or SOCAP, as it’s fondly known.

“No one is going to come in and fix it for us, there’s not going to be a Marshall Plan, so we need to rely on each other”

From the start, SOCAP attempted to bring together a diversity of voices and perspectives, in contrast to the somewhat exclusive nature of philanthropic investing at the time. “Markets are about the valuable stranger and finding the unlikely ally,” muses Jones. “They need to work for the barbarians and the Byzantines, they need to work for the really fussy and the wild ones.”

The first SOCAP conference, in 2005, drew 600 participants. This year, close to 3,000 are expected to make the pilgrimage to San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center.

The conversation at SOCAP has evolved, as well. In the last few years, there has been growing focus on community-based investing—no doubt a reflection of Jones’ own evolution.

In the early days of SOCAP, “People didn’t have to think locally in a way they do now,” explains Jones. “The great downside of traditional capital wasn’t as clear to people as it has been post-2008.”

That economic shock helped people to realize that, if we want to solve the pressing problems facing our communities and society, we’re going to have to do it ourselves. “One motivation behind community investing is the realization that no one is going to come in and fix it for us, there’s not going to be a Marshall Plan, so we need to rely on each other,” he says. “People are becoming entrepreneurial because it’s a necessity.”

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Izzy
Izzy

Back in Asheville, Jones has immersed himself in the task of community building. There’s a local foodhub project, and he and Rosa Lee mentor entrepreneurs at Accelerating Appalachia, an accelerator for sustainable food and textile producers. He’s fine-tuning the Funding Toolkit, and the peer-learning network of Appalachian towns is going strong. “We’re learning and listening a lot to each other,” he says.

All of this suits him just fine. “To go from a place like Silicon Valley, where people love change, and go back and work in Appalachia, where I started, is an odd thing. But it feels really comfortable at the same time,” Jones reflects. “There are not a lot of investors I know that like to hunker down with rednecks as long as it takes, but I’ve done that for years, so there’s a strange kind of familiarity with what I’m doing.”

Amy Cortese is a journalist and the founder & editor of Locavesting.com. This article was co-published with Conscious Company Magazine

Photos courtesy of Kevin Jones. 

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