Impact investing needs its own parody series on Netflix

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ImpactAlpha, Jan. 10 – Maybe it’s the brash head of the star-studded social impact fund who went to federal prison for his role in a college-admissions scandal. 

Or the “environmental, social and governance” funds loaded up with shares of fossil fuel and cigarette companies. 

Or the elite gatherings in places like Davos, Riyadh and Glasgow, where business leaders land in private jets to discuss how to reduce carbon emissions and save the world.  

With real-world examples so easy to mock, the stage is set to create an actual parody. And to sell it to Netflix!

That was the inspiration for a post on LinkedIn by Delilah Rothenberg last month. “Can somebody please produce a parody TV series on the #ESG and #impactinvesting space similar to Silicon Valley?” asked Rothenberg, founder of The Predistribution Initiative.

The dozens of responses suggest that there’s not only an appetite for (presumably gentle) self-mocking, but plenty of rich material to mine and characters to skewer as well. 

“It can be much more relatable, fun, and a way to build trust if we can recognize some of our own humanity and imperfections in the field via parody,” Rothenberg told ImpactAlpha, “as opposed to people in finance sounding preachy about the issues, doing a documentary or drama.”

A hit TV series could also help Rothenberg explain The Predistribution Initiative, for example to her parents. The initiative “supports investors in co-creating new approaches that align their internal investment governance and financial analysis practices with the principles of system-level investing and Universal Ownership,” according to its website. Yes, Rothenberg is willing to take her own hits in any parody. 

“We need all hands on deck to solve global problems, not just people in finance,” she says. “But first people need to understand one another. What better way to communicate finance’s role, which can often be complex and esoteric, than through pop culture?”

Slow roast

The streamers and cable networks are already at work. An earlier plotline of Billions, Showtime’s saga of wealth and corruption co-created by financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, found Wendy Rhoades (played by actor Maggie Siff) and Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) maneuvering to turn Bobby Axelrod’s (Damian Lewis) Axe Capital into an impact investment fund.

More recently, Axe went all-out to win an Opportunity Zone deal in his childhood hometown of Yonkers, while Rhoads and Mason persuade an oil company to go green (or do they?). By the end of the episode, the motivations of some of the players are revealed to be – surprise – less than pure.

In the Netflix series Sex / Life, the Cooper Connelly character was an impact investor who raises a biotech venture fund. As Connelly tells a group of undergraduates, “Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk — their dream wasn’t to make money, their dream was to change the future for the better. Money’s just what they got for being right.” Sure, Coop, as Salon put it

Whether any of their efforts will get impact investors to heaven is a very open question. For a philosophical take on the meaning of it all, SunTrust Robinson Humphrey’s Sal Catrini suggests this episode of The Good Place.

Sparc Impact’s Mark Tulay, who envisions Silicon Valley meets Succession with some Modern Family and the Office sprinkled in for good measure. “All the acronyms, the occasional super wokeness, the silly fights over terminology, saying things like ‘accountants will change the world’, and of course describing the steamy and fascinating world of proxy voting (led, of course, by fabulous nuns)…”

Get real

Any such production would have to span the globe to capture the regional varieties of pretense and pomposity. Europeans already are having a laugh at Norwegians trying to save the planet with their trillion dollars in oil winnings (h/t Carbon Tracker’s Henrik Krasilnikoff Jeppesen). Discovery’s sitcom, The Oil Fund “revels in the clash between the opulence of high finance and the Nordic country’s culture of moderation and strict bureaucracy,” Bloomberg reports, “but also brings in the debate of how to responsibly invest wealth amassed from decades of oil and gas production.”

Journalist Simon Clark is partial to the saga of Abraaj Group, the high-flying Dubai-based private equity player that crashed to earth amid fraud charges against founder Arif Naqvi, who is alleged to have misappropriated hundreds of millions from a health care fund. “It also happens to be true,” Clark says.

Clark and co-author Will Louch recount the cautionary tale in “The Key Man,” and open their chapter on impact investing with the line, “The meeting to end poverty started with cocktails before dinner.”

The settings could range from Naqvi’s mansion in Dubai to the World Economic Forum in Davos to the halls of the United Nations, where Abraaj was touted as a partner in efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. The Bill Gates character could appear as both a gullible dupe who kicks off fundraising with a $100 billion investment toward the $1 billion Growth Markets Health Care Fund, and as the head of the foundation that eventually blows the whistle on the fraud. (In a neat plot twist, the health care fund is eventually transferred to TPG Growth’s Rise Fund, which at the time was struggling with the arrest of its own founder, Bill McGlashan, he of the Varsity Blues college-admission scandal.)

Says Palladium’s Tom Adlam, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” 

What if

It seems there are as many ways to poke fun at impact as there are to measure it. Advisor and investor Lenora Suki suggested a TikTok channel. Others pushed for an impact investing version of The Onion (such as The Sunion, which already pokes fun at the solar and renewable energy industries).

A reality show is another promising direction. An #ESG version of Shark Tank, suggested Mary Beggs. “I would watch all the time.” 

“Even the judges would be judging each other,” noted Rothenberg, who herself is something of a thorn in the side of impact fund managers who would prefer to have a pass on their own questions of accountability and transparency. “That may be the most entertaining part 😂”

The alphabet soup of industry jargon and regulatory regimes suggests such a show would require a crib sheet, if not subtitles, or at least a companion publication like ImpactAlpha. The World Benchmarking Alliance’s Daniel Neale, imagines his introduction from a reality show host:

“Dan ran the CHRB in the WBA, spending a lot of time discussing TIFD and SASB with PDI and B4IG. Fresh from a meeting of the EFRAG PTF ESRS EWG, he has some great ideas to pitch ESG and CSR data harmonization to support the SDGs and allow PE, VC, AM, AO, IDB and IFI capital to jump the shark from II to SRI while achieving alpha and SROI. 

“But IIRC, SASB, CDSB (IFRS’ ISSB), IOSCO, SEC, GRI and GIIN all have doubts. Will his 6 min PPT pitch convince them?”

Beyond the acronyms, there is the potential for real human drama, says Graham Singh of the Trinity Centres Foundation in Montreal, who is ‘Transforming church properties for impact,’ according to his LinkedIn handle. 

“I have footage of elderly ladies CRYING at the thought of our new fund,” Singh writes. “Tears on TV folks. ESG tears. Just sayin’.”

Gabriel Brodbar, principal at GB Consulting, suggestsfor the soundtrack, “Impact: The Musical,” created by Jackie Emerson, the Hunger Games actress, based on the book, “The Purpose of Capital,” by her uncle, blended-value veteran Jed Emerson. The floor is open for suggestions on who should play Jed, now Tiedemann Advisors global lead for impact investing. Sample lyrics: 

What if we redefined what money is and can do?

What if we thought of capital as energy too?

What if we thought of cash in a completely new vein?

What if we utilized our funds for impact not gain?

OK, It may take more than parody to shake the earnestness of the impact faithful.

“The show could help people in finance learn about some of their own blind spots,” Rothenberg says, including “investment structures that can exacerbate inequality and environmental degradation, or not integrating stakeholders into designing solutions.” 

Cue the laugh track.