Can risk capital be used to build bridges and test ideas?

November 16, 2022

Shifting society requires us at Northpine to figure out how go beyond siloes to catalyze more equitable and thriving systems.

As an engineer driven by social justice, I have found myself navigating many siloes created in society. I recall being an engineering student in 2007 attending conferences to hear leaders of engineering companies speak about how they wanted innovative systems thinkers who understood people and communities.

I drank the kool-aid way too hard, quit my job building Blackberry smartphones (when that was still a thing) and left to do my Master of Social Policy and Development degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science. After which I came out extremely unemployable.

I came back to Canada to engineering companies that didn’t know what to do about me, most thinking I “left engineering to do that social stuff.” Alternatively, I could get a minimum wage job at a charity as when I walked in their doors, the question was, “oh, you’re the engineer, so you’re here to fix our computers and stuff, right?” when I had to explain, that really wasn’t why I was there. Most importantly, I had no guidance for myself to understand how to apply the talents and passions I carried to make a livelihood deeply connected into my values.

This is when I ended up in the buzzword of ‘innovation’. I worked in non-profits, policy think tanks, the UK government, multi-national private enterprises, and startups. I found that what made me good at innovation is that I lean 80% on my social sciences and humanities side and 20% on my engineering and technology side. However, I would see many siloes that still exist in innovation.

When I see people building bridges between siloes is where I would see magic happen. When we speak about the impact of siloes on the most underserved and underinvested in society, it makes me wonder if all of society is bringing our best self forward to ensure equitable outcomes for our neighbours.

This is one of key pillars of Northpine’s thesis – how can risk capital be used to build bridges and test ideas to a point of scaling or failing with kindness and ultimately accountable to outcomes realized by these underserved and underinvested communities

There is one major decision made to reflect this thesis:

Our Impact Managers are open to use donations, grants, loans, equity or hybrid to fuel impact objectives.

99.9% of people in the world are kind

We believe that wholeheartedly. And if there were a way, many more people would participate in solving problems or creating opportunities for thriving for the communities we focus on.

We are betting on this so much that we decided not to have an endowment. Rather, we want to intentionally understand exactly how our capital connects to our objectives to serve our communities.

Hence, the ideal we are working towards is 100% of the capital flowing through Northpine catalyzing scalable outcomes for our communities. We also find that this approach allows us to engage with many more people to enable that society.


Beyond billion-dollar siloes

With global philanthropy granting/donating ~$200B/yr, OECD countries spending ~$10T/yr on social services, and the investment markets covering ~$250T (including managing philanthropy assets not in the $200B) (Cohen, 2020), shifting society requires us at Northpine to figure out how go beyond siloes to catalyze more equitable and thriving systems.

No doubt, there are a lot of challenges in this.

  • How do we continuously fuel Northpine going forward with such a thesis given the financial returns in our focus areas may be limited?
  • How do we ensure we don’t get caught up focusing on financial returns when impact is the most important?
  • How do we translate this across sectors and stakeholders who may not see themselves in such an arrangement but might just be the perfect transformative leaders to catalyze outcomes for our communities?

Fortunately, we have an amazing team and community who are dedicated to figuring this out as we find it to be worth the challenge.