From Farm to a Seat at the Table: Impact America Fund’s Journey

From Farm to a Seat at the Table: Impact America Fund’s Journey

Four years ago, Kaiton Williams and his wife held a dinner party in their home in Oakland for friends, some old and some new, as they often did prior to the pandemic. Over Jamaican food, he got to know Kesha Cash. The two talked about their experiences growing up on farms – Kaiton in Jamaica and Kesha in South Carolina – as well as who controls money in this country, and how technology could be used to promote racial equity. “Kaiton and I aren’t afraid of getting our hands dirty,” says Kesha. “We’re not afraid of tackling complex topics.”

Inspired to get more money into the hands of entrepreneurs serving communities of color, Kesha had recently started raising capital for Impact America Fund II, the second venture capital fund on the Impact America platform. Kaiton, an engineer-turned-design-researcher, was wrapping up a PhD focused on the challenges that Black entrepreneurs face when investors do not value them, their products, nor the communities they are trying to serve.   

Kesha thought Kaiton’s skills could help her firm double down on its impact and in 2017, Kaiton joined Impact America as its first “Cultural Technologist,” focusing on the ways in which technology can help create a more equitable and sustainable society. “If we’re building companies and products and solutions that affect a community, that community must be drawn into the decision-making process,” he says. “Is this an unusual or radical proposition? I don’t think so.”

To date, Impact America has raised $65 million across two funds, representing the largest venture capital firm in America led by a sole Black female general partner. The diverse team works in a sector that is notoriously white and male: just 1.3 percent of assets under management globally are overseen by firms that are majority owned by women or people of color, according to a 2019 report from the Knight Foundation.

In 2019, the San Francisco Foundation committed $1 million to Impact America Fund – part of a $50 million investment from its endowment in a mission-aligned investments pool that is aimed at  generating positive social and financial returns. “We’re incredibly proud to invest in firms owned by women and people of color,” says Mark Doherty, SFF’s Director of Investments. “Impact America Fund is getting capital into the hands of companies that truly understand the needs of communities of color.” (Learn about impact investing at SFF)

Impact America Fund’s portfolio currently includes 12 startups, including  Mayvenn, the wildly successful, Black-owned hair extension company in Oakland, and SMBX, a San-Francisco-based, Latinx-led company that helps small businesses raise money by selling bonds to their local neighbors and customers. “Many businesses in the US don’t have access to the financing they need to grow. Minority-owned businesses are particularly underserved, despite creating millions of jobs and accounting for half the new small businesses in the last decade,” Kaiton says. “SMBX provides a new option for people to invest in the growth of their local businesses while earning a return, helping small businesses get affordable access to capital that also brings them much closer to the communities they’re in.”

In addition to supporting for-profit startups, Impact America also lends its expertise to nonprofit endeavors. Kaiton, for example, serves on the Equity Work Council for Rework the Bay, an initiative hosted by the San Francisco Foundation that brings together leaders from various sectors to help Bay Area workers find high-quality and empowering jobs. 

“We need to make sure that the companies we champion are contributing to a world that we want to live in, and are abiding by a set of principles that make sense for our communities,” he says. “A focus on impact becomes a transformative, competitive advantage but it’s also a crucial form of stewardship.”

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