Just under six months ago, I stepped through the doors at Blackbird to lead the firm’s impact and ESG (environmental, social and governance) initiatives. I had a hypothesis that Blackbird has a unique opportunity to positively shape the world around us, and in doing so, help Blackbird companies and the firm reach their wildest ambitions.
The hypothesis was informed by my own experiences as the co-founder and CEO of the de-biased hiring platform Applied, which had joined Blackbird’s portfolio in 2018. I’d witnessed the scale of Blackbird’s ambition as an investor, and the value of its offering to founders and their teams. And I’d felt the power of both, on our business, and the wider startup ecosystem.
Luckily the team at Blackbird agreed with me and we’ve spent the last six months working out what we mean by “impact” and how we will build it into our processes for investing and helping founders.
We are now keen to share our Impact and ESG Policy with the wider community. We know that the best learning comes from exposing your thinking to others and hope that you will let us know what you make of our approach. The policy will change and evolve along with our thinking, but it is for now our best articulation of how impact intersects with how we invest in and support founders as they build world-leading companies.
*A note on wording. We choose to use the word ‘impact’ rather than ESG because it’s broader, and it better describes the tangible positive effect that we strive for our actions (and those of our portfolio companies) to have on the world. And because, fair or unfair, ESG connotes box-ticking and risk minimisation, not ambition and opportunity the way we believe impact does.
Impact has in a sense always been part of Blackbird’s DNA. It’s embedded in our vision to be generational owners of generational companies, and it’s written into our values, to “think in decades not days” and “make our kids proud”.
Most importantly, it’s in the 90+ companies we’ve backed that are hellbent on solving the world’s thorniest challenges, and using their scale and influence to give back.
My role as Head of Impact is about consolidating and accelerating that approach rather than changing or redirecting it. We wanted it to be a team-wide thing, and see it built into everything we do. So my role is very broad across Blackbird and the portfolio.
In this blog, we’ll share how impact influences the investment decisions we make, and how we’re building out more to support founders and operators looking to make a positive impact as they grow.
Our investment mandate isn’t changing. We’ve always sought out the wildest hearts, with the wildest ideas, right at the beginning and that’s still our goal.
But it’s increasingly clear that more than just avoiding harm, the companies that will become generational are those that seek to have a positive impact on the world around them. They will be the companies that will successfully attract and retain top talent, win great customers, and find the best investment partners. They’ll be the ones that are wildly commercially successful, too.
We’ve backed dozens of companies that have set out to move the dial on a global problem, from the next generation of climate and sustainability tech with SunDrive, EnergyBank, SeaChange, Mint and Carbon Chain, a sustainable future of food with Vow, Fable and Sunfed, modernised and inclusive workplaces with Multitudes, Applied, Mentorloop, Forage, EntryLevel and Culture Amp, or access to the best quality health and wellbeing with HarrisonAI, Cortical Labs, Oscer, Eucalyptus, ThroughLine, See-Mode or Vexev.
But we also see immense potential for companies whose underlying purpose might be described as impact ‘neutral’ to achieve positive impact through their practices. This is all the more so when they grow to be industry-leading companies, since by definition they interact with thousands, if not millions, of stakeholders through their operations.
We invest in early-stage companies, which means that often they’re pre-revenue and even pre-product. So when we get to know a founder and their company, we specifically and repeatedly ask ourselves questions like: given all that we know about how the world is changing, are they tackling the kind of problem that will be relevant in decades to come? Will they have thriving customers, and how will they make their customers’ lives 10x better? How will they attract diverse talent to help them on that journey? What kind of culture will they create?
There will be times when we have to take an educated guess on what the future of a company might look like, and we won’t always get those judgments right. But these questions help us make that process more systematic and thoughtful. This intention is also reflected in the clauses we include in our term sheets as standard focused on DEI and climate and sustainability.
If we want to live up to our vision of being generational owners, we have a responsibility and an opportunity to support all companies in our portfolio to live up to their potential.
At Blackbird, we define ‘impact’ as the combination of a company’s purpose (the ‘what’) and its practices (the ‘how’, often captured by ‘ESG’). Not rocket science.
We provide support to teams right the way through the evolution of their company:
Over the past six months, we’ve been interviewing founders about their needs and thinking deeply about the kinds of programs and expertise we can offer that will help them with the tangible, not esoteric, questions they face. Off the back of these conversations, we’re now working on projects ranging from climate and sustainability, to diversity, equity and inclusion, to data ethics and impact measurement.
Sometimes, what founders are looking for is as simple as gaining inspiration, tips and lessons from others across the portfolio. This was beautifully shown in Canva’s recent announcement of its two-step plan, which will see its founders create one of the largest foundations in Australia tackling some of the most pressing challenges.
Canva’s two step plan:
It’s evident in the increasing number of our portfolio companies, including Fable, Karbon, and CarbonChain, that have committed to carbon neutrality.
Or the suite of portfolio companies that have signed up to Kin’s campaign to redefine parental support for pregnancy loss.
This generation of founders, and their teams, think about business differently to their predecessors. They no longer see a hard line between their professional and personal selves and they want to work on a mission that inspires them. And just as we support our portfolio to build out world-leading teams, create winning go-to-market strategies, and market-defining product experiences, we also want to help them live up to their aspirations to do good while doing well. And show that doing so is part of what drives their growth, not secondary to it.
We’re alive to the cynicism that people feel when they don’t see organisations walk the talk. We’re proud to be a place where great people come to do their best work every day. And for that reason, we’re keen to make sure that the standards we set for our companies are ones we can live up to ourselves.
We’re not perfect, of course, but we are committed.
A few of the ways we’re aiming to live the values we profess include our commitment to:
We also believe that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing with others. That’s why as we build out our impact offering, we’ll also be looking to partnerships and collaborations with others in the field who share our outrageous ambitions.
In November 2021, we hosted our first Impact Summit, focused on diversity, equity and inclusion for our portfolio companies, bringing together experts from around the world to discuss ways that they can embed DEI into their companies as they scale. It was a successful experiment, and fuelled by that, we’re now opening up our second summit, focused on climate and sustainability, to all. It’s online, and you can register for free. We’d love to see you there.
This is a proud work in progress, but one we see as worth starting. For me personally, I’ve only started to scratch the surface of what this could become, so whether you’re a founder, operator, fellow investor or just passionate about impact, please get in touch, I have everything to learn.