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Bethany Larsen: “Make your own opportunities”

Team Dynamics — We need to like each other (and this works both ways). We hope to build long-term partnerships with our borrowers, so we need to make sure that we can collaborate and have honest, open dialogues right at the outset. We also need to see that the team has the experience and expertise to implement and […]

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Team Dynamics — We need to like each other (and this works both ways). We hope to build long-term partnerships with our borrowers, so we need to make sure that we can collaborate and have honest, open dialogues right at the outset.

We also need to see that the team has the experience and expertise to implement and manage the project they propose. While we invest very early in the company life cycle, we do not fund R&D or proof of concept projects. We expect the companies will have tested the product and proven their ability to implement, at least on a small scale, before we will approve a loan.


As a part of our series about “Social Impact Investors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bethany Larsen, Co-Founder and Chief Investment Officer for Charm Impact. It is an impact investment platform that crowdsources small scale loans for clean energy startups in emerging markets. Prior to Charm, Beth worked as the Director of Development for a health nonprofit organization in Kigali, Rwanda. She then received the Pershing Square Graduate Scholarship to complete a dual masters at the University of Oxford, where she focused on social entrepreneurship and impact finance.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Bethany! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Well, I’ve taken a fairly unconventional route to impact investing. If you told me 10 years ago that I was going to be an investor I would have thought you were absolutely insane. I never wanted to be in business. In my mind, there were two camps that were diametrically opposed: there were people in nonprofits and public institutions who helped people and then there were people in business who only cared about themselves. I wanted nothing to do with the business world.

Actually, I always wanted to be a doctor. I had a pretty insane opportunity to travel to what is now South Sudan back in 2008 with a group called Mission to Heal that does surgical medical missions in some of the most remote locations around the world. This experience opened my eyes to the world of global health, and I left convinced that my destiny was to join Doctors Without Borders. Then in university, I co-founded a chapter of a student organization called GlobeMed. We were partnered with an organization called Health Development Initiative (HDI) and supported the development of a sexual and reproductive health education program for secondary school students in Kigali, Rwanda. Through this work, I realized that I didn’t need to be a doctor to solve global health problems and saw medicine as treating the symptoms of deeply rooted social and economic disparities. I wanted to tackle the entire system but wasn’t sure where to start.

Just before senior year, I decided I was not going to apply to medical school and, after graduation, I moved to Kigali, Rwanda to work for HDI. I realized very quickly that organizations like HDI had no power in the foreign aid system. There was (and still is) a massive gap between the people who had the money and the problems on the ground, which made it difficult for local organizations like HDI to access the funding they needed. The accountability structures were so perverse. We were held accountable to our donors rather than the people we were trying to help, which often meant that projects were designed to suit the donor’s interests over the community’s needs. I saw social business as a way to break that mold and create organizations that were held accountable to their customers.

I was incredibly lucky to receive the Pershing Square scholarship to do a dual master’s at the University of Oxford. In Oxford, I learned more about impact measurement and impact investing. Like many of us, I was drawn to the idea that you could use finance to make a measurable impact alongside a financial return. If we were going to address complex global challenges like poverty and climate change, we needed a way to unlock private wealth for social good.

Post-graduation, I had the opportunity to work with my professor to build an impact finance research and teaching initiative at the university. At the same time, I was working with a couple Executive-MBA friends to structure an impact fund in Luxembourg. It was really tough and did not work out in the end. Though my first attempt at raising a fund didn’t go as planned, I did meet my Co-Founder at Charm Impact, Gavriel Landau, in the process (win!) and the rest is history!

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

That’s an interesting question. Let me tell you about the time that I led a group of four young women to the middle of nowhere in Ecuador to work for an organization that didn’t exist. This is not really a humorous story, but it was definitely a massive wakeup call that has shaped my approach to partnership.

If we go way back to the start of my international development work, my first attempt at leading any kind of organization was with GlobeMed while I was in university. Our first partner organization was actually based in a rural mountain village outside of Riobamba, Ecuador. It was an education nonprofit, hand-selected by representatives at the GlobeMed National Office, that was supporting children in the highlands with school supplies and uniforms so they could attend school. We spent the year fundraising for school supplies and school uniforms and raised about 5k dollars for the organization. Then, we recruited a team of four who would travel to Ecuador to meet the organization and oversee the delivery of the supplies.

When we arrived in Ecuador, we were all incredibly excited to finally meet the organization and get to work. We met four volunteers who had full-time jobs in different cities but ran the nonprofit’s activities in their spare time. They then led us to an empty cement building in the middle of the highlands, which had been the nonprofit’s offices at one point but had since fallen into disrepair. There was nothing. We brought most of our own supplies (bedding, gas burners to cook, a fridge, etc.). There was no running water. I’m pretty sure we had to re-connect the electricity. They suggested that we should teach English lessons at a nearby primary school and then left.

There we were: four young women in a freezing cold cement building in the mountains without running water that was supposedly our office. We were all very confused and my stress levels were off the charts. Meanwhile, I’m on the phone with our chapter advisor who was telling me, “Beth, use your leadership skills to work with these people!” So, we went to the primary school the next morning and asked the volunteer who met us there what the organization normally does when we weren’t there. He replied, “nada.” Nothing.

It turns out that the organization had been run by an Italian missionary who had fallen ill and was forced to leave years prior. The volunteers were trying to keep the activities going because they saw how much it helped the community, but just could not run the organization full-time without a lot more funding than we could hope to provide. We had to re-partner and chose to work with Health Development Initiative.

We were completely devastated that we let the volunteers down and had to change partners like that. It was also a massive blow to our organization’s morale, which was incredibly difficult to navigate in the subsequent years. One big lesson I learned was to do my own due diligence. Always. Never make assumptions about the screens that other people have done. I also learned to recognize my limits and know when to call it quits, even if that meant making a horrible, heartbreaking decision.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

I think the biggest tipping point in my career until this point was graduate school. I was surrounded by brilliant people and bombarded with new ideas — people joke that it’s like drinking water from a fire hose, and they’re not kidding. I was completely overwhelmed and insecure, and somehow that experience forced me to get a better idea of what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be.

It was through this insanity that I was learning more about impact investing and diving deep into impact measurement. By graduation, I was known as a bit of an impact measurement nerd, and that specialization opened the door to a few impact finance opportunities: building an impact finance research initiative with my professor, trying to launch an impact fund, and eventually Charm Impact.

My takeaways from this are:

  1. Find your niche. For me, it was all about impact measurement. This is a big pain point for the industry, so even though I was coming from a nonprofit background (which does make it more difficult to break into the industry, unfortunately!), I was able to find a skill that made me interesting. There are many areas of expertise that are valuable beyond having a finance background. Figure out where you are most useful.
  2. Network like crazy. Once you’ve found your niche, make sure everyone knows what you want to do. All of the opportunities I’ve had in social finance were through friends, professors, and meeting people at different impact finance conferences and events. So, get out there and talk to people and make sure that, when there is an opportunity or an opening, people think of contacting you first.
  3. Make your own opportunities. It’s difficult to break into impact investing. It’s a small, niche community. The great news is — we need more of pretty much everything. The financing need is huge, the industry is young, and we are all making this up as we go. SO, if you see a gap and an opportunity to throw your hat in the ring, do it. Don’t waste time second-guessing yourself. If you can’t get a job in the industry, go make more jobs.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person or mentor to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve had a lot of help. There wasn’t a particular mentorper se, but there have been a series of people who have placed big bets on me at different points in my career that changed the trajectory of my life.

This is a bit cheesy, but first I want to say my parents! It takes some kind of trust/respect/insanity to let your 16-year old daughter go to Sudan. Their unwavering support and confidence in me and my judgment has been with me through my entire young adult life. They have supported me through moving to faraway places and trying new things, and I always knew that, if something didn’t work out, I could count on them to be there. It’s a real privilege to have parents like them.

Beyond my awesome parents, I’ve had three fairy godparents of sorts:

  1. Glen Geelhoed at Mission to Heal was brave enough to let a 16-year old accompany him on a surgical mission to Sudan. I owe my global perspective and relentless drive to end poverty to him and that experience.
  2. Cassien Havugimana at Health Development Initiative (HDI) in Rwanda offered me my first “real job,” giving me the chance to learn about community development from the perspective of a local NGO. Working with Cassien showed me what it meant to be a real partner to marginalized people and communities and how to fight for human rights in the face of extreme adversity. It also showed me many of the problems with the foreign aid system, which led me to business school.
  3. The Pershing Square Foundation gave me a scholarship and, along with it, the chance to study at Oxford and gain the skills I needed to break into impact investing. It also gave me the financial freedom to try to launch an impact investing startup after graduation. I know many people who had to make the hard decision to do something that made money over something they were truly passionate about, and I am incredibly grateful that I was not forced to make that choice!

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that many have attempted, but eventually gave up on. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path but are afraid of the prospect of failure?

As a recovering perfectionist, I completely understand the fear of failure and how crippling that fear can be. Failure sucks. Rejection sucks. Criticism sucks. The problem is, this is such a small, nascent industry that you will almost inevitably face one or all of those things very early in your career. Job opportunities are limited, and the competition is fierce. If you let that fear stop you, you will give up before you even have a chance to get started.

Advice-wise, first I would say: stop taking it personally. Stop telling yourself that the reason you aren’t getting your dream job instantly is because there is something fundamentally wrong with you as a person. It isn’t true, and that kind of self-talk isn’t going to get you anywhere. It’s actively holding you back from getting where you want to go.

Next, get better at sitting with discomfort. The only way I’ve been able to fight my perfectionism is to continually put myself in situations where I feel like I don’t know anything. I’ve felt stupid and embarrassed, but I keep doing it because I’m a firm believer that the more uncomfortable you are, the more you learn. So, if you want to learn new skills or break into a new industry, get used to being uncomfortable!

Finally, get your ass into the arena. There is this amazing quote by Theodore Roosevelt that Brené Brown shares in her book Daring Greatly:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I love this. It’s framed on my wall, so I read it almost every day. It’s important to know that everyone is afraid of failure. You’re not alone. None of this is about not being afraid; it’s about knowing you will fail but having the courage to put yourself out there and do it anyway. That’s the only way you’ll make it in this industry.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our discussion. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share a few things that need to be done on a broader societal level to expand VC opportunities for women, minorities, and people of color?

I’m going to preface this by saying that my perspective is shaped by the fact that I am an American citizen running a UK-based company that is investing in emerging markets. Unequal opportunity when accessing capital is a massive issue everywhere. Even investments into emerging markets are heavily skewed towards foreign (often white) male founders. For example, Village Capital found that between 2015–2016, 90% of capital invested in East Africa went to companies that had one or more European or North American founders.

We investors make a lot of excuses. I hear all the time that it’s difficult to find investable companies that are led by local founders, but that just isn’t our experience. From the five investments we’ve made in the last year, 100% of our founders are people of color and 80% are locally based teams. In our current pipeline of opportunities, 85% are locally led and 100% are led by people of color. That said, we do have challenges with gender diversity in our current portfolio that we are working to close.

Here’s how we’re currently thinking about diversity and inclusion at Charm:

  1. Have a real diversity and inclusion strategy with clearly defined goals. Without clear targets, we have nothing to measure ourselves against. What gets measured gets improved upon, so we need to make sure we know where we want to go and the gap between our current state and our ideal future.
  2. Figure out how you’re going to be held accountable. Once we have our goals, we need to figure out who is going to hold us accountable. These goals need to be put in writing as part of the core strategy of the company so that the board can hold us accountable to those goals.
  3. Broaden your search. If we want to attract a diverse group of entrepreneurs, we need to put in the effort to find people who are not in our close networks and then meet them where they are at. For us, this means building partnerships with local accelerators, membership networks and manufacturers, going to regional conferences and events and partnering with other local funders to share pipeline.
  4. Build a diverse team and inclusive culture. As we grow, we’ll need to recruit a diverse team. We’ll also need to make sure we have systems and policies in place to sustain an inclusive culture, including unconscious bias training, family leave policies, flexible work policies, equal pay analysis, etc.

There is actually an awesome Diversity and Inclusion Roadmap that I saw in ImpactAlpha the other day. It has a lot of resources for anyone interested in diving into this work!

You are a VC who is focused on investments that are making a positive social impact. Can you share with us a bit about the projects and companies you have focused on, and look to focus on in the future?

Charm Impact is actually an impact investment platform, rather than a traditional VC fund, which has allowed us to focus on smaller companies that are at a much earlier stage in their development than those targeted by VCs.

Charm crowdsources loans for early-stage clean energy startups in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. We focus on the earliest stage of the market, offering loans ranging from £10k-£250k. Our target companies are generally around the pre-seed/seed stage of investment, so they have commercially viable business models and some proof of concept but have yet to achieve scale. Our goal is to develop long-term partnerships with companies to help them grow, develop a credit history and get to the point where they are attractive to larger-scale debt and equity funders.

As part of our investment mandate, we have a strong bias towards companies with local founding teams and those that are women-led. We also prefer projects that empower women (e.g. as agents, improving profitability of female entrepreneurs, etc.).

What you are doing is not very common. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were going to focus on social impact investing? Can you share the story with us?

Funnily enough, I did have a bit of an “aha moment” where I thought I invented impact investing. I remember I was sitting at a café in Kigali fuming about some donor who had been messing around and wasting our time. I was so frustrated with the whole system at this point, wondering why these donors, who clearly had no idea of the reality on the ground, had so much power over what we did.

So, I’m sitting in this café raging about the system when it dawns on me that if we were a business, the “beneficiaries” would be our customers and would therefore have the power to decide whether or not we should exist (through buying our services). Then I was like, “Wait. What if we could tie financial returns to impact goals?!”

Of course, someone had already thought of that! There was an entire impact investing industry that, though small at that time, was starting to grow quite rapidly. At least it was somewhat validating to know there were others who agreed that the whole “profit with purpose” thing was a good idea. Anyway, that’s the point where I started doing some real research into the industry and found the inspiration to go to business school to learn more about social entrepreneurship and impact investing.

Can you share a story with us about your most successful Angel or VC investment? Or an investment that you are most proud of? What was its lesson?

I’d say that Winock Energy was Charm’s most successful loan to date. This was actually our very first loan, so it helped us test our model and has had a huge influence on the company’s strategy to date. It was a really small (~10k dollars) loan to provide solar home systems to ten microbusinesses in a market in Abuja, Nigeria. After Winock had been paying back for a few quarters, we were able to introduce them to a larger impact investor, which turned into their first major equity investment!

What was so exciting about this investment is that it helped prove our model. Giving early stage companies access to debt, even in really small amounts, helps them to build a track record that makes them more interesting to larger industry players. Our hope for all of our borrowers is that we can grow with them until they outgrow us onto bigger and better things. With this approach, we can build a pipeline of companies for the rest of the industry and help grow the entire off-grid energy market.

Can you share a story of an Angel or VC funding failure of yours? What was its lesson?

We haven’t had any defaults yet (knock on wood!), but we have made mistakes that have taught us how much of a responsibility it is to help people invest their money, especially when that money can have a huge influence on the successful running of a business.

We recently did the commercial launch of our platform, bringing all of our loans online. We had pre-agreed two projects that would be the first to go through our new platform and had sourced investors ahead of time for both projects. The launch of the platform did not go as planned. There were technical issues along the way, which led to delays. Those two projects received their money late due to the time it took us to sort everything between the development team and payment provider. That was really tough to manage. Fortunately, that won’t happen again now that the bugs are fixed and investments are sent directly to companies through the platform.

The main lesson here was to be careful what promises you make, particularly in terms of timelines! Nothing ever goes as planned, especially when dealing with technology and people, so manage expectations and be careful sharing timelines until you’re absolutely sure you can pull it off!

Is there a company that you turned down, but now regret? Can you share the story? What lesson did you learn from that story?

I do have a couple stories about companies that we turned down, but I wouldn’t call them regrets.

For example, we had been speaking with a company for several months about a possible loan, but there were certain aspects throughout the due diligence process that just didn’t “feel” right. The biggest alarm bell was when we asked for a reference from a previous investor and they refused. We turned down the opportunity to offer this company a loan and found out recently that they have actually closed the majority of their operations. The lesson there was to follow our intuition. Just because others have invested in the past does not mean that company merits further investment. Sometimes when things don’t seem right, they probably aren’t, and it’s important to listen to that human instinct even when we try to automate as much as we can!

In another more recent example, we rejected an established, foreign-owned company. They wanted a bridging loan to help them test a new product. This would have been an incredibly low-risk loan for us; however, it was not aligned with our values. The company was not early stage and wasn’t led by a local team. They could probably get that funding from a number of other places. So, we turned down the opportunity so that we could focus on raising for our target investment group. The lesson here was to stay true to ourselves. We don’t have regrets because we are constantly questioning whether our decisions are aligned with our mission and values. We are learning as we grow, so who knows, maybe these decisions will be future regrets? I don’t expect so but will keep you posted!

Super. Here is the main question of this interview. What are your “5 things I need to see before making a VC investment” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Before accepting a company for due diligence, we expect to see that these companies work in the clean energy sector and are at the stage where we are funding entrepreneurs on their journey to scale. We have a strong positive bias towards local founding teams and those where women are represented in leadership/senior management roles and/or are empowered through the company’s activities.

Then, the five things that we absolutely must see before making an investment are the following:

  1. Team Dynamics

We need to like each other (and this works both ways). We hope to build long-term partnerships with our borrowers, so we need to make sure that we can collaborate and have honest, open dialogues right at the outset.

We also need to see that the team has the experience and expertise to implement and manage the project they propose. While we invest very early in the company life cycle, we do not fund R&D or proof of concept projects. We expect the companies will have tested the product and proven their ability to implement, at least on a small scale, before we will approve a loan.

2. Business Model

This may seem obvious, but the business model needs to be commercially viable. Do they really understand the cost of customer acquisition? What is the viability of their customer base? Have they understood the expected loss rate of their sales and how this impacts their unit economics? If the company does not have a good handle on their basic unit economics or does not understand how they’re going to make money off of the project (and pay us back), then that is a dealbreaker.

We also need to see a vision for growth/scale. Our business model relies on the assumption that we can build long-term partnerships with our borrowers, providing a series of loans of increasing size until they can “graduate” from us onto other larger funds. If they do not have a clear plan for how they will grow after their first loan, then we would likely pass.

3. Market Demand

We need to see proof of the demand for the product from the company’s customers because we need to be confident that they will sell their products fast enough to repay us within 24 months. Can the entrepreneur clearly articulate the market need? Do they understand the potential size of their market? As we focus on local entrepreneurs, what do you know about the market and your customers that gives you an edge?

We also need to see that the products are affordable for customers. Our borrowers are often working in rural or poor urban settings and we need to ensure that the entrepreneurs we are supporting are not exploiting their customer base (even inadvertently!) due to lack of available alternatives.

4. Product Fit

Borrowers must have a clear understanding of the problems their customers are facing and how their solution is solving those problems. If this is not articulated clearly and explicitly, that is a huge red flag. All of our entrepreneurs have close relationships with their customers and are incredibly passionate about solving problems rather than pushing solutions.

So, what is the problem you are solving? Can you demonstrate an intimate understanding of your customer base? How is your solution addressing their pain points? How is it unique or differentiated from other available solutions?

5. Competitive Advantage

We need to see that entrepreneurs have a clear understanding of the competition they’re facing and how they are different/better. We’ve had entrepreneurs tell us, “We’re the only ones doing this!” just to go online and find five direct competitors within minutes. Side note: don’t try to hide your competition!

So, we need to see an understanding of the competitive landscape. Who else is doing it (both directly and globally)? What have you learned from your competition to avoid making their mistakes? Do you have an understanding of the local nuances of competition, such as the impact of government schemes that can distort the market? What is the next best alternative (e.g. diesel fuel) and how do its price fluctuations affect the demand for your product?

Most importantly, it’s about showing us that you know your business back to front, rather than trying to tell us what you think we want to hear: that never turns out well!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Democratize investment! The upsides of investment have been reserved for very few people, which is leading to enormous wealth inequality and stifling the growth of local economies.

Let me give you an example from our current crowdfunding equity round. If we want to raise money from US investors, they have to be “accredited investors.” According to the Securities Act of 1933, this means they have to have a net worth of more than 1m dollars or have one member of their household earning 200k dollars/year for the last two years. Less than 10% of Americans fit that description. Once you have money, it’s easier to make more money, but so many people are kept entirely out of the investment game.

Everything we are doing at Charm is about changing the way the world invests and unlocking investment opportunities for both investors and investees. If we can build bridges between everyday people and high-impact entrepreneurs, investors can earn triple bottom line returns (profit + people + planet) while generating enormous amounts of value for local economies.

We need to figure out how to help the average American make smaller investments into SMEs to build local economies and create a better, more inclusive capitalist society. Charm is currently focused on the UK, but as we expand we will be targeting new markets to democratize impact investment on a global scale. The more people who get involved, the more impact we can make and the faster we’ll be able to ensure a sustainable future for us all.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

There’s this quote by Octavia E. Butler that I love: “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” I read it to remind myself to keep moving even when I don’t want to because there’s always more to do. I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely gone through times where I’m just like, “When does it end?! When do we get to the point where we’ve made it, and everything is good enough so we can stop?” It can be exhausting caring about the world. But the thing is, there will always be problems to solve and people to help. The more of us that care, look for purpose in our work and demand more of ourselves, our employers and our communities, the faster we will build the world we want to live in.

That said, please take care of yourself! This is definitely something I need to get better at: the whole “put on your own oxygen mask before helping others” thing. The world needs you at your best! You’ll need to set boundaries and ensure you have the support you need so that you do not burn out in the process. One way to do this is to surround yourself with people that hold each other accountable and support one another through the good times and the bad. A big reason why I love my work at Charm is that we really do love and support one another. Actually, our whole brand is about togetherness: how in isolation we might feel powerless to affect change on a global scale, but together can we make a real impact. Working in a supportive and inclusive environment makes a massive difference.

I guess my advice is to get into the arena. Once you’re there, find your tribe (your Charm!). Then, be relentless. Do whatever you need to do to keep moving forward. Be kind to yourself, be kind to others and keep going.

We are very blessed that a lot of amazing founders and social impact organizations read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. 🙂

Michelle Obama! She’s my idol. She never wanted to be in politics and has been on the receiving end of so much harassment and abuse since she was FLOTUS, yet she still got up during the DNC and had this message that was filled with so much love and compassion for all Americans. That’s leadership. I hope to be half the woman she is.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow Charm’s work at www.charmimpact.com or on social media (@charmimpact). You can also follow me if you like on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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