It was 10 o’clock on a summer’s morning when we video-called Fernando Russo from his home in Amsterdam. With coffee in hand, Fernando explained how he had been virtually lecturing students during the night on sustainable investing at the University of São Paulo, in his home country of Brazil.
“I do that on the side,” he explains, “because for me, it’s important to pave the space for this idea of impact investing as a philosophy to grow. People still think impact investing is an asset class or confuse it with philanthropy. So I have a lot of work to do.”
With a successful career in marketing and an innate entrepreneurial drive, Fernando launched his family office, Meraki Impact, in 2016 following a transformative move to sell his all-consuming business of nine years and reconnect to what he cared about most in life – the environment.
Meraki’s ‘Deep Impact’ Portfolio
In the pursuit to heal the earth, Meraki Impacts’s portfolio has an investment strategy to invest in regenerative food systems and agriculture. “My theory of transformation”, Fernando explains, “ is that if we can change the way we produce food, it would have a large positive impact on biodiversity, curving down deforestation and regenerating land destroyed. This is what I have been exploring for the last five years and what I call my ‘deep impact’ expertise.”
Fernando’s next step was to broaden his scope even further. He recalls being introduced to Deetken Impacts’ Caribbean Basin Sustainable Energy Fund (CABEF) which invests in sustainable energy infrastructure in Central America and the Caribbean. “I met Fernando Alvarado, the CABEF fund manager, in Costa Rica last year and I was really excited about the work he was doing, which included changing the energy systems in countries like Honduras. Our background checks confirmed he really understands impact, the energy sector, and that he’s able to make deals in multiple countries, which diversifies the risk.”
With renewable energy in Europe now the norm and traditional investors eyeing the space, Fernando believes that if he can prove that investing in Latin America works, then a tipping point will eventuate where investing in a fund such as the CABEF becomes mainstream, as it has done in Europe.
Bridging the Gap Between Europe and Latin America
Passionate about expanding and improving the impact investing ecosystem, Fernando moved to the Netherlands. “I wanted to be close to people who know what they’re doing, so I entered a Dutch community coping with it.”
As a Brazilian family, Fernando described his arrival into the European impact investing networks as ‘very exotic’. They were the first Latin American family office to join a number of purely Benelux impact investment communities. Communities which have since been vital in bridging the gap between European and Latin American impact investing networks.
Fernando acknowledges that his European counterparts can be conservative in their approach to investing in Latin America and that he has been actively fermenting the space to bring more money from European family offices to projects in Latin America linked to biodiversity and positive environmental impact.
As an influential force in the space, families with a pure ‘financial return’ mindset are now approaching Fernando about impact. “The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are the big challenges for humanity but this is also where business opportunities are” he says. “I tell these families that social impact, environmental impact and financial returns – it can go together. And then I show them a few things I have in my portfolio that proves this is possible.”
Advice for Family Offices looking to Invest in Impact
Fernando speaks with family offices looking for guidance on a weekly basis. “The first exercise is to explain that investing in impact is a philosophy. People think it’s investing in innovative start-ups and separate 5 percent of their portfolio for early-stage direct deals. I even did that in the beginning,” he smiles. ”Chances are you’re going to make a very bad investment like I did because you’re new to the space and your family office is going to say ‘enough of this impact story, this is too risky!”
Instead, Fernando creates discussion around the philosophy values of the family; What is their story? How was the family business created in previous generations? What does the family care about – education, health, alleviation of poverty, or a region? And how can they blend this into their portfolio?
An Early Lesson
Fernando’s early set-back involved a bad deal with a start-up making sustainable packaging. “The first mistake I made was that I could see a lot of low hanging fruit, including the need for me as a marketing director,” he laughs. “And this was a very egoic stupid idea I had. Because at the end of the day if I can see low hanging fruits that I can pick up, and the founders are not picking these up themselves, there’s a problem.”
It was a timely lesson for Fernando, prompting an adjustment in investment strategy to focus on established funds. “Deetken Impact for instance” he says, “I’m 100 percent confident that Mr. Alvarado knows 100 times more about renewable energy in Central America than I do. He’s from the region, he knows the industry and he is responsible for managing the deal and we do much better this way.”
Fernando adds, “I also see a lot of family offices doing direct deals early on. Next thing you have five early stage deals, they represent 0.5 percent of your portfolio but suck 98 percent of your time, and this is not an impactful way of doing things.”
Key Criteria for Making an Impact Investment
Fernando has four key criteria when considering an investment in impact. First and most fundamental, the core business of the company has to be linked to the impact. “For example,” he says, “there’s a brand called Veja. They produce these very cool sneakers made from sustainable sources in Brazil. I love the work they do and although I’m involved with the supply chain, I wouldn’t invest in them, as the core business is not linked to changing the system – and that’s the number one thing.”
Secondly, Fernando looks to the founders. “I invest in people,” he explains. “Who are the people managing this? Do they have a growth mindset? Do they have impact in their heart and are they humble enough to pivot to change?”
The third step of the diligence process is to assess the business model and the industry framework; is it a growing industry or are they riding a big green wave? Are they looking at the interface of technological disruptions?
The final consideration is to weigh potential return versus impact by reviewing the financials. “For me, it’s the last relevant point,” clarifies Fernando, “it’s important, but it’s not the key factor.”
Fernando’s view is that people with traditional investments that are not aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals are holding risky assets. “They don’t see it because they are looking at the past,” he says, “if we are to build a climate resilient future we need to have a climate-smart portfolio. And the way of doing that is looking at impact.”