💸 Agency, commitment, and funding the good life

TL; DR – I live and work by two values – agency and commitment. When those values manifest in my day job funding and scaling tech ideas, is when I feel I’m doing the most ‘good’.

The best thing a job can offer you is the chance to make money, while living by your values.

For the last 5 years, I’ve worked in teams to fund ideas (usually tech ideas) and help them to scale. It’s been an amazing journey alongside my friends at Brink, and our amazing clients and ventures.

Our goal – and the goals of ventures we work with – orients towards social impact. We work together towards a more equal, healthier, happier world, by introducing new ideas in low income countries.

The ventures we’ve funded vary a lot. From high-growth, high impact tech startups (like Ampersand, who have raised $9m to scale electric motorbike taxis in Rwanda), to grassroots organisations serving their communities (like Deaf Reach, who provide schools for deaf children in Pakistan), to sector shapers (like Koalaa, who want prosthetics for amputees around the world to be as affordable and easy to buy as a pair of shoes), to totally new ideas, blazing a trail for others to follow (like Datarella, who are building a blockchain-enabled supply chain tracking platform for humanitarian aid).

Funding and working with amazing ventures like these has made me think a lot about what it means to “do good”.

In this piece, I want to talk about doing good, by talking about two values I hold close to my heart. Two values that underpin what I believe it means to live a good life (of course, you, or anyone reading this, might have different ideas).

1/ A good life is a life lived on your own terms. A life lived by truths, crafted by you and those you care about (let’s call this agency).

2/ A good life is a life where you can commit deeply with all your heart, to projects and relationships (let’s call this commitment).

When I’m at my best, I bring these values to my job funding and supporting new tech ideas. And when I do that, I believe I do my bit to make the world a better place. I truly ‘do good’.

Here’s three ways I’ve lived those values in my work for the last five years. And here’s to sticking by them, for the next five.

Fund and work with enablers of human wellbeing, that give people the foundation to live life on their terms (without dictating to them).

Enablers give you the chance to shape a life by your own truths. Things like…

  • An education, that means you can read, write, communicate, think critically, and define what a good life means to you.
  • A healthy mind and body.
  • An environment (natural and man-made) that calms and sustains.
  • Supportive and enriching public and digital spaces

Lots of tech products don’t do this.

They shape your decisions, often in ways you don’t realise through ‘black box’ algorithms and opinionated user interfaces.

They create wants that prioritise short-term gratification over long-term wellbeing (think: a $555m-funded instant groceries app, that “saves” you a walk to the shops).

They syphon money from communities (think: billion dollar apps that take 40% of a sale, shifting money from local restaurants to global investors). Giving you the illusion of more choice and convenience, while eroding your neighbourhood, its vibrancy, and the joy you get from it.

Designing funds that target enablers of human wellbeing, such as education and health, never go out of fashion. They’re things people will always need and want, to build a meaningful life for themselves. So it’s not only means a more ethical fund, but a more resilient one too.

Commit to listening, and changing your approach. At the same time, commit to stay the course on your mission.

Years of funding tech ideas has taught me that the real work starts once those ideas come into contact with the real world. It’s work that involves listening deeply to what the world is saying. Listening to your users, and all those affected by the intended and unintended consequences of your idea . And it involves investing real resources into changing what your idea and organisation is, and how it works. Listen, pivot, and update your plans.

There’s a paradox here. I’m asking you to shift what you do, while also asking you to stay the course.

What I mean is: on the level of strategy, commit to listening and pivoting what you do based on what you learn. On the deeper, more fundamental level of purpose, commit to its pursuit and staying the course. Change the ‘how’, but stick with the ‘why’. In a world of unlimited choice, to do this is to be a boat against the current of modernity, and the sheer number of options it throws at us.

Funds that hold onto positions for 2+ years famously outperform highly active funds in equity markets. And commitment doesn’t only lead to a financial return on investment, but a social one too. Ford Foundation supported organisations tackling racial discrimination from the early 1960s; they committed to the civil rights movement before and until its acceptance into the mainstream. Then, they applied the tactics they’d honed to further the rights of other minority groups in the US, including Latino and Native American groups. Their commitment to a mission (universal human rights) fueled their commitment to listening and iterating the tactics (like funding legal defence cases) to get there.

Stick around, and you build trust, a reputation, and your ability to capitalise on moments. Black Lives Matter, founded in 2013, built up their ability and know-how for direct action and organising rallies, ready for when the moment came in 2020.

When you’re committed, you listen deeply for the best ‘how’ to achieve your purpose. To commit is to care, and to care is to put your heart into a pursuit and work hard to find the best way. When you do that, you truly have a stake in its outcome. Unless that mission harms or suppresses others, caring and having a stake in it is the most ethical and effective way to fund and scale ideas.

Fund locally led organisations, and in people aligned to a community’s values.

I’ve had the privilege to work with ventures based and operating all over the world. My conclusion: the closer the link between where the venture calls home, and where those it affects live their lives, the better.

A lot of my work has been in sub-Saharan Africa. Between 2017-21, just 28% of venture-capital funding in Africa went to African CEOs. It’s a stat that illustrates how much capital goes to Founders building companies for communities, far from where they were born and grew up.

A Founder who grew up in the same context as their user, and those affected by their work, is one signal of a locally led organisation. Beyond that, autonomous local teams (even of foreign organisations) can also make sure that products and services are aligned to local values.

For instance, Koalaa (the UK-based prosthetics manufacturing startup I mentioned earlier), set up in Sierra Leone with local clinicians, local tailors (who built the prosthetics using locally sourced materials) and, eventually, a local leadership team.

That team is committed to the long-term flourishing of the amputees Koalaa serves in Sierra Leone. They understand users’ needs, and are present to follow up over the months and years to make sure that a user makes the most of their prosthetic arm. They knew what it took to have an enduring impact on their countrymen’s lives. They can – like all locally led organisations – commit to serving their communities better and more sustainably. As we said before, they have a real stake in the outcome, so they’ll keep listening and learning to achieve their purpose.

Making money is a means to an end, never an end in itself. Impact investors have done a lot in the last few years to champion more holistic metrics. Beyond revenue and profitability, towards impact on people’s lives and the environment. That ventures should target a ‘triple bottom line’ (profit, people, planet) has made it to Harvard Business School.

There’s more to it though.

It’s easy to take “doing good” for granted if you work with ideas targeting people/planet as well as profit. I believe ethical work in the worlds of startup, venture capital, philanthropy, and incubating/accelerating ideas, means being deeply intentional about agency and commitment. Again, you might pick different things (and I’d love to hear from you if you do).

Working to fund and shape the course technology ideas is a true privilege. Few things have tech’s potential to increase human wellbeing; and that potential is only growing. My work exists to try and bend the arc of tech ideas towards ‘good’, and pieces like this reflect on what that actually means. You can read more about the work we do to fund and grow ideas here. If my work, or this reflection, strikes a chord: get in touch.

🎬 Thanks to Chris Angelis, Michael Shafer, and Kym Ellis for looking at drafts of this.

🤔 Got thoughts? Don’t keep them to yourself. Email me on asad@asadrahman.io. Let’s figure this out together.

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