In this episode, we learn from one phenomenal woman, Laina Raveendran Greene, on how she created a social impact fund. Laina’s main focus is to ensure women entrepreneurs and investors develop mutually beneficial relationships.

You can listen to the full interview below.

Laina talks with us about her journey to becoming an investor and the desire to change the path to leadership for many women.

Meet Laina, a social impact woman entrepreneur

I'm the co-founder of Angels of Impact, which is based in Singapore. And what we are, fundamentally connecting women-led social enterprises who are helping alleviate poverty, connecting them to investors as well as to markets. Angels of Impact finds women from around the world who are creating social and environmental change. They connect these entrepreneurs to big investors and big companies to buy their products and amplify their social impact.

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Laina Raveendran Greene. She is the co-founder of Angels of Impact, based in Singapore. (PHOTO: COURTESY/ Angels of Impact)

What inspired your decision to found Angels of Impact?

I don’t come from a wealthy background. My mother was the daughter of a rice farmer. So I know what it's like to access the opportunities can hAnd I felt like I had a duty to pay it forward towards enabling others into social impact.

Angels of Impact finds women from around the world who are creating social and environmental change. They connect these entrepreneurs to big investors, and big companies to buy their products and amplify their social impact.

That is very interesting! Can you give us an example of some profiles of women that you're working with?

We have one remarkable woman who is working on restoring biodiversity in Indonesia. Her name is Helianti Hillman, and she is the founder of Javara. The company sells products like Biscotti, gluten-free pasta, jam, and many more. Helianti works with 50,000 farmers all across Indonesia. Helianti also has the idea of helping to alleviate them out of poverty so that small farm holders can continue to do farming rather than leave and go to the cities and trying to look for work. And she's doing amazing work which has a great social impact.

Where do you come in as Angels of Impact for Javara?

What Angels of Impact tried to do with her is to try to access markets for her. Team and I were able to get Javara products into the pantries of both Google and Facebook.

Is there any other woman entrepreneur you’d like to tell us about?

Yes. There is another lady who runs a bean to bar chocolate factory in Indonesia too. The woman, Sabrina Mustopo, is a former McKinsey (managing consulting firm) consultant but wanted to make the world a better place. Sabrina founded Krakakoa, a group that provides farmer education workshops. The workshops are on good agricultural practices and sustainable cocoa farming methods. Sabrina works directly with the farmers, helping them go up the value chain so that they can earn more and get out of poverty. And because she does bean-to-bar, they’re delicious quality chocolates. This ensures widespread social impact.

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Some of the available flavors for Krakakoa chocolate. Through the efforts of Angels of Impact, Google now gets a shipment of chocolates twice a month. (PHOTO/ COURTESY)

How Angels of Impact chipped in for Sabrina and Krakakoa?

Angels of Impact also got Sabrina’s products in Google’s offices. Google now gets a shipment of her company’s chocolates twice a month. Another way in which we came through for Sabrina is when she needed access to financing. We brought together a group of investors to help to access finance for her as well. This allows her to continue to do her work of social impact without worrying about the source of funding.

How do you find investors for women entrepreneurs?

We have this fundamental premise that many people out there actually have done well for themselves. But they all are searching for more meaning in their lives, and they want to do equally meaningful things. Some of them have contributed to charity, but being capitalists themselves and having made their money as entrepreneurs, they may feel a little bit awkward with just pure charity. They want to be more hands-on in their contributions. They want to help the business grow. So we began to look for people with that mindset. We point them in the direction of social impact business.

What has been your experience getting donors so far?

Initially, the way we positioned it was better than donations. So we could not guarantee maximum monetary returns from it. And for them, they were perfectly agreeable with that. This is because even better than donations and maybe getting the return on investment was the prospect of making a social impact. Now we're trying to take it to the next level of having people see this as a good investment. So this is how it's been viral so far. We call ourselves a network of entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs. And I feel that this is a smart money movement. It's not just flowing money but opening doors and helping mentorship as well, creating social impact. And that’s a relationship that more people are drawn to these days.

A network of entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs: What do you think fuels people’s involvement in your venture?

As we noted in part one of this series, impact investment is particularly rising amongst Millenials. One survey shows that 79 percent of millennials want to invest in ways that have a social impact and financial impact. People want to be part of a movement that is creating a more conscious society.

Many of them come to us saying,

Thank you. You know this is it made my life so much more worthwhile. I'm working at a bank or making lots of money. Or I'm running this company and made lots of money. But now I feel fulfilled because I can actually see people being lifted out of poverty and it makes so much meaning for that.

Those are the kind of people we look for, people who want to have more meaning in their lives. So that's why Angels of Impact. We don't just support women's social enterprise; we support those who are helping alleviate poverty.

That’s a very wonderful resume for your company. What about you? Has Angels of Impact done anything for you?

Angels of Impact also bring meaning into my own life. In a lot of ways, I see myself in the women I make investments in. My own family was very poor. My grandmother was a rice farmer in Singapore. And my family had to work their way up.

What did you do before starting Angels of Impact?

My professional background is in technology. I was CEO of one of the first tech startups in Singapore in the early 1990s. I have worked in 47 different countries, including Switzerland, the US, and Indonesia. As a woman, I had to work twice as hard to break the glass ceiling – because there was always an unconscious bias. So I very much empathized with how difficult it was to be a woman in a tech field and literally invisible and trying to make herself visible.

So what did you do next?

I went on to run my own company. I ran an e-learning company out of Singapore which provided services all around the region, including Australia, China and Vietnam. And in that process, I found entrepreneurship to be very empowering because I didn't have to go begging for a job. I created the opportunities, and I created opportunities for other people and thus created teams and created value.

But something was still missing even then?

Yes! Even though I was creating opportunities, I still felt like something was missing. I wanted to do more to help others. Because even though my family was able to lift themselves out of poverty, not all families are so lucky.

Where does your inspiration come from?

When I was very young, I watched Richard Attenborough's movie on Mahatma Gandhi. Mother Teresa was also one of my biggest role models, so I was always conflicted with business. I wanted to do some good, yes, but then I also wanted to do some good. So when I first started hearing about social entrepreneurship, I thought, what a brilliant idea. You know that you could use business fundamentals and do good. And one of the books that really changed my mindset was Professor Muhammad Yunus’ 'Creating a world without poverty' where it challenges economic theories. He challenges the fact that we need to restore dignity for the poor. You know they can help themselves. They are innovators. They are not passive recipients. This pointed strongly at social impact!

Could you break this down a little more?

You know, donating money is not that empowering. But when you invest money into a person or company aligned with the greater good, that is empowering both for the entrepreneur and the investor. It creates a better social impact. And that made so much sense to me, you know.

And so that's when I said okay, ‘How can I apply this network that I have already built up both in the business world as well as sort of the nonprofit world to be able to help others to do it?’ Right there and then, I decided that the best way to help others was to use my business know-how to enable women around the world to lift themselves out of poverty. I would help small women-run businesses find international investors.

The Ripple Effect: You are not alone

investing in women
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So I started by walking the talk by investing my own money. So even before I started Angels of Impact, I just talked to an entrepreneur and said, “You know how much money you need. What are you trying to do?” “Well, I'm trying to do this or that. And this is how much money I need.” The first one told me she needed $5000. I was like, “I can do $5,000.” The second entrepreneur needed $25,000. So I said, “Well, I can do $10,000.” And then I turned around and asked another friend of mine, “Hey, I'm giving $10,000 to this entrepreneur. Can you join me?” And she's like, “Yeah, of course!”

And that is how Angels of Impact started. The group became official in 2016, to give women-led social enterprises the finance they needed to grow into sustainable businesses. The social impact has been magnanimous since. Today the company invests in foods, drinks, and even sustainable fashion.

So, what amount of investment are we talking about for these types of endeavors?

Currently, because we're still in the early stages, we're using the lean startup methodology of testing the market as well. The Lean Startup methodology is a practice for developing products and businesses based on getting a lot of customer feedback very quickly. The idea is to shorten the amount of time it takes to develop a product. So we're doing smaller amounts anywhere from $50,000 to about $150,000. Okay. So that's sort of in the range where it's bigger than a micro-finance, but they're still too small for impact investors to be interested in. So the idea is, we helped them through this journey.

How do you then progress from the initial stage?

But in the process of helping them in that journey, especially when we open up markets for them, we're able to see where the real pain point is, you know? Is it that they don't have a team? Or not have enough equipment? Is it because the quality of the products is not good enough or maybe it’s packaged wrong? So that gives us the ability actually to learn with them. And it’s a mutual process, which makes it exciting for entrepreneurs to want to invest in this area because most of them are looking for social impact.

What is impact investing?

I noticed that as more people look for meaning, and as the popularity of impact investing rises, so does the broadness of the term's definition. I usually say it’s like an elephant; someone's holding a tail and they describe that as an investment, whereas someone holding the trunk describes that as impact investing. But everyone is right based on what they're holding and what they want to achieve.

Where do all these different approaches meet?

Different people have different expectations. So if some impact investors really do believe they can do good and do well at the same time, then that’s commendable. I don't think we should be talking about one particular definition of impact investing because I think people should state what their expectation is. Am I looking for a social return first and then at the same time want a sustainable business? Or do I want social impact first, and then I want a business that grows and gives me good healthy returns. Or do I want to have good healthy returns and some social impact at the same time?

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Recent regional summary of male vs. female entrepreneurs. Studies show that people are less likely to invest in women-owned businesses. (PHOTO/ COURTESY: Harvard Business Review)

You mentioned gender-based discrimination earlier. How do you maintain credibility at Angels of Impact against any discrimination?

As investors, people often do want healthy returns. And they’re more likely to invest in men to get those returns. People are less likely to invest in women-owned businesses. This is even though studies show that companies with women executives usually perform better than those led by men. To curb this gender discrimination, Angels of Impact vets its entrepreneurs inside and out – based on sales, quality of service and product, and customer satisfaction. I think we have tried to be able to eliminate some of these unconscious biases by giving data that is very credible. The data speaks for itself.

Any advice, especially for women entrepreneurs?

I strive to make leaders out of the women-owned companies that Angels of Impact works with.

The key to any good leader is empathy, humility, and the desire to do good for others. My biggest advice for women-entrepreneurs is to work hard, never give up. Women may have to work twice as hard, but we still can break the glass ceiling.

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