Natalie Wong, an investment officer with Engineers Without Borders Canada, wouldn’t have known about impact investing if not for Acumen. Her journey in this field, from Toronto to Kampala via Hong Kong, began as she volunteered with +Acumen and led her to working with innovative entrepreneurs in East Africa to achieve scalable social impact on the ground.
She first got involved with the Toronto+Acumen chapter in 2011, when she was recruited as a volunteer for the +Acumen Venture Network, a pilot project which aimed to seek out and empower pioneering social entrepreneurs. “The aim of the project was to look for an enterprise in Toronto that would broadly fit the mandate of Acumen, so a social enterprise that provided a critical good or service to a low-income population,” she explained, “and then pitch this investment to Acumen.”
With no prior knowledge of social entrepreneurship or impact investing, Natalie saw the +Acumen project as an opportunity to learn about poverty alleviation, while at the same time making the most of her background in economics and finance. “That was really eye-opening to me, it was the first time I came across the idea of impact investing and how it could be applied in a developed society context."
“Looking for entrepreneurs that provided things the bottom of the pyramid needed, in a way that was dignifying to the people they served, that resonated with me very well. The belief that everyone is created equal and to alleviate poverty we must recognize the dignity of the poor by listening and working alongside entrepreneurs is a beautiful ideal that I believe we must adhere to if we want to create lasting, systemic change.”
Volunteering with Acumen helped her learn more about impact investing, ‘get her foot in the door’, and this triggered a new passion. “It helped me understand the players in this space, the essence of what it means to make an impact investment, and, most importantly, it helped me develop and demonstrate my commitment to impact investing,” she said. “It’s really using my financial skills, but in a way that provides opportunities to people who wouldn’t otherwise have that.”
In 2013 she took a new job in the finance sector and moved to Hong Kong, a place where neither Acumen or impact investing had a strong presence at the time. Driven by her new passion, Natalie founded the HK+Acumen chapter with a mission to grow the Hong Kong ecosystem of future impact investing leaders through events and by providing opportunities to benefit social enterprises locally.
“Our main events are Filanthropy, which is our funding event for social enterprises in Hong Kong, and the Impact Investing Forum, which is more of a knowledge-sharing initiative to spread the word on impact investing,” she adds. “Because in Hong Kong impact investing is not as fully understood as it is in North America, it remains a very nascent concept there; people still associate social entrepreneurship more with charity and don’t fully see the commercial potential of it.”
As she continued to develop her career in finance and a better understanding of impact investing through Acumen, there came a point when Natalie wanted to combine the two. “I decided to follow my passion for impact investing and moved to Uganda to work in this field full-time.”
Arriving in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to work as a summer investment fellow with Mango Fund in 2015, she gained first-hand experience with impact investing as a career. During her three-month internship, Natalie worked with and supported local entrepreneurs to grow their businesses, after which she joined Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada as an investment officer in Kampala.
In this role, Natalie seeks out innovative and scalable social enterprises that unlock access to services for the underserved. “What I do is broadly quite similar to Acumen’s investment mandate, but the field we’re in is a little bit different as we’re much more early-stage, and our ticket size is smaller.”
One of the latest investments she helped secure was for a company founded by two Kenyan women that helps farmers, who are not traditionally regarded as viable borrowers, to obtain credit. “They come from a farming community and went to University of Nairobi to study computer science,” she explained. “The venture takes data from farmers, such as profit, revenue, expenses, runs it through an algorithm and comes up with credit recommendations.”
“The success of this company would mean opening up farmers’ access to credit, which is a huge barrier to the growth of a lot of the region’s farmers. I don’t think it’s that different from Acumen’s investment mandate and I feel very fortunate to be able to serve the people that I would like to.”
Reflecting on the future of impact investing, Natalie is optimistic. “I think that as a collective sector, there’s been tremendous growth and progress – investors are making strides in measuring impact, more capital is deployed, and an increasing amount of qualified people are attracted to the sector to look for more meaningful careers. So there’s a lot of hope and a lot of growing opportunities.”
Nevertheless, it remains a challenging field which relies on people to invest resources and skills. “There are a lot of challenges for investors to go in if they’re looking for return. EWB and also Acumen are able to take on that risk appetite because they’re funded by really generous donors, and that support will continue to be needed as the impact investing sector continues to develop.
“And especially for ventures, rather than impact investors, getting the right talent is an issue - getting talent with the technical know-how, management experience, and more importantly the right soft skills and willingness to be on the ground is hard. I think it’s very exciting and there’s a lot of hope, but it’s also challenging and it calls for people who have that, as Jacqueline [Novogratz, Acumen Founder] would say, moral imagination and grit,” she adds.
“I’m currently in an ecosystem with a lot of people who have the same beliefs and mission as those who work for Acumen and it’s been really great, and I can trace the routes back to my volunteering with Acumen.”