Investment leader points to social change

Tokunboh Ishmael spoke to students about how investments can create positive social change.
Tokunboh Ishmael spoke to students about how investments can create positive social change. Photo by Carly Lovejoy.

Tokunboh Ishmael, one of Yale’s 2013 World Fellows and the co-founder of impact investment group Alitheia Capital, spoke to a small group of students Tuesday afternoon about how investments can create positive social change.

At a Davenport Master’s Tea attended by roughly 15 students, Ishmael shared the story of how her career began in computer science and eventually meandered toward the founding of an investment firm based and focused in Lagos, Nigeria. In college, she studied computer science and business, intending to pursue a job in technology or finance. But after college, during her time working on mergers and acquisitions for a finance firm in Nigeria, Ishmael realized that she wished to make more of a social difference as well as a financial one.

“I don’t want to invest for investment’s sake. I want them to be meaningful,” Ishmael said.

The founding of Alitheia Capital — an investment management and advisory firm that channels investments into businesses and providing access to finance, energy and housing for low-income families — grew out of Ishmael’s ambition to establish a finance institution that could also benefit individuals on a micro level. The company connects corporations in urban areas to people in villages who are in need of that corporation’s products.

Ishmael went on to discuss specific issues that Alitheia has tried to tackle so far, such as indoor pollution caused by firewood used for cooking. The smoke generated from burning firewood for cooking can be so dangerous that it leads to infant deaths, she said — but the solution to a problem like this could lie in increasing access to cooking gas for Nigerian mothers who live in villages. Alitheia has worked with a corporation that sells cylinders of cooking gas to re-engineer its product and make it accessible to low-income villagers, Ishmael said.

“We are for-profit,” she said. “[But we’re] using the traditional investment practice to make a difference.”

Another entrepreneurial endeavor that Alitheia has financed is an enterprise that increases access to banks for Nigerian villagers. This effort takes advantage of the increasing international trend of owning personal cell phones in order to increase bank access — since many village populations have cell phones, but not bank access, Alitheia helped finance an effort to create mobile platforms for banks so that villagers could use their phones as a medium to make transactions. Under this system, Ishmael said, financial security will be less of an issue and people will no longer have to store their money under a mattress.

The Alitheia team members see themselves “not just as financiers, but change agents,” Ishmael said.

“We are using our investments to solve a social problem,” she said.

Ishmael said that Alitheia is able to link people who have limited access to a product that will better their livelihood, such as cooking gas, and connect them with other corporations who are looking to increase their profit — thus creating a mutually beneficial relationship between the two, and also turning a traditionally excluded group into a marketable population.

Students and community members who attended the talk voiced their appreciation of Ishmael’s efforts to create a significant, positive social impact, particularly in a field that often receives a bad reputation.

Aaron Lewis ’16 agreed with the idea behind social enterprise — making money for a social purpose — and appreciated hearing from someone who is not “moving money around for the sake of moving money around.”

Yanique Joseph ’00, a New Haven resident who has been active in the social enterprise world, applauded the fact that social impact was being made on a for-profit model.

Another student, Talia Katz ’17, said she was glad that Yale was able to bring a speaker that is part of the social enterprise world.

There are currently 16 Yale World Fellows.

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