Amid the buzzing noise and energized chatter that fills the hallway of a conference during the coffee break period, I feel a light touch on my arm and someone saying, “You have to meet Jake. He’s a Yale MBA and an impact investor.” While the second part of introduction felt like a vast overstatement of my credentials, I was attending the conference looking for a startup that I might be able to convince some of the leading impact investors in the world is worthy of a $50,000 investment. As one of 25 Yale School of Management students participating in the MBA Impact Investing Network and Training (MIINT) program this fall, I’ve found myself entering dozens of conversations like this one. This unique experiential learning opportunity has provided me and my classmates with the opportunity to dive into the mechanics of early stage venture capital investing, hone in on the challenges faced by an impact investor, and meet some truly awesome entrepreneurs.
The MIINT program has a two-pronged approach: Students participate in online modules on topics such as formulating an investment thesis, conducting due diligence, or structuring an investment. Concurrently, students gain hands-on experience developing their own investment thesis, sourcing startups, and preparing an investment pitch for one company of their choosing. The program culminates in April in a competition hosted by the Wharton Social Impact Initiative and Bridges Ventures in April, where students from top schools across the world compete for a $50,000 investment in the company they pitch.
At Yale, interest is so high that we have five different teams focused on different investment theses that span financial inclusion, the future of work, climate change, food systems/nutrition, and—for my team—the in-vogue technology, blockchain. In February, we will host an internal competition in front of students, faculty, and real impact investors to determine which of our five teams will move forward to compete in the cross-school competition at Wharton.
The “real stakes” of the MIINT program has provided incredible access to entrepreneurs, accelerators, and investors. Grace Myers, a first-year Yale SOM MBA and fellow MIINT team captain puts it this way, “MIINT has given me an opportunity to engage directly with entrepreneurs solving challenges that I’m passionate about. The program provides a tangible opportunity to both apply my classroom learnings in a real-world context and work closely with fellow SOMers who are passionate about social innovation.”
This brings me back to the conference this fall and being introduced as “the impact investor.” A team member and I were attending the Blockchain for Social Impact Conference hosted by Consensys, a blockchain venture production studio, and Microsoft. We were there sourcing companies for our MIINT team. Representing our team from Yale SOM and the MIINT competition, we were able to speak with more than a dozen entrepreneurs solving major social and environmental challenges from supply chain tracking to homelessness. These companies represented only a handful of the more than 100 companies we connected or spoke with over the course of the semester.
Along the way we also encountered many of the challenges faced by an early stage venture investor, from finding a company with a great product or team but no feasible market size to coming across companies with inflated valuations, the latter in part attributable to my teams’ focus on blockchain technology.
Having an investment thesis centered around blockchain has put us squarely in the murky waters of this emergent technology and the stir it is causing within venture capital circles. Encountering numerous companies with cryptocurrency-based business models, conducting Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) or token sales, or proposing sky-high valuations has forced our team to really focus on the suitability of the companies’ use of the technology to solve a real social problem and the value to investors behind any financing structure or deal. Wading through this ecosystem has forced us to use every part of our MBA toolkit from conducting industry analysis to reviewing a company’s financials. For those of us interested in careers in venture capital, it has also provided the opportunity to start building out a network in this space and think about future deal flow.
Over the next few weeks, the Yale SOM teams will select their final companies, complete our due diligence, assess a company’s potential impact, and prepare our pitches for the competition. Whether or not a student is interested in pursuing a career in impact investing, which many of the Yale MIINT participants are, the program has provided a rewarding extension to the MBA academic experience. The tireless work, numerous conversations with companies, and market research has been a truly immersive experience that has allowed students to take on the role of an early-stage impact investor and all of the challenges that come with it. Four months in, the program’s intensive learning and the high volume of repetitions to source, review, and analyze deals has left me much more confident, and with one small caveat, comfortable, to introduce myself as “Jake, a Yale MBA, and (student) impact investor.”