This is an interview by Nash Roberts, Carofin’s Vice President of Sales and Syndication, with Janine Firpo, author of “Activate Your Money” and investor in Carofin offerings. In it, Janine shares her ongoing personal journey to align her investment portfolio with her values and make a difference in this world.
- Challenge your worldview by juxtaposing it with very different cultures.
- Taking control of your money can be liberating.
- Decide on the values that are important to you, then
- Incorporate them into your investment portfolio.
- Your money can change the world.
I want to start by thanking you for joining us for this discussion. Investors in the Carofin network tend to skew male. But I want to promote the book because many of us have wives, sisters or daughters who would benefit greatly from reading your book.
Thanks so much for speaking with me, Nash. I appreciate your comment about the wives, daughters, and sisters of many of the men in your network. But I want to say that they can read the book, too, and might find value in it. It was true that I wrote my book primarily for women from a woman’s perspective. However, men should read it as well. Traditionally, books in this category have been written by men for men; I wanted to use a different voice and target a different audience.
Before we dive into your upcoming book Activate Your Money, can you give us some highlights of your career, starting in the tech-centric Bay Area, which, ultimately, led you to transition into non-profit work?
I’ve been blessed with very interesting career opportunities. I started in high tech in the late 1970’s before there were personal computers. Then, after about 14 years enjoying that career, I took a solo 5-month backpacking trip through Sub-Saharan Africa. During that trip, I saw levels of poverty that I had never witnessed before, and something shifted in me.
At the end of that trip, I knew I wanted my professional work to have a positive impact on the world. So, I reinvented myself and started looking at how technology and business thinking could be applied to combat poverty. That led to a 20-year career in international development. During that time, I got involved in issues related to women and their financial lives. In addition, I was participating in many conversations in the Silicon Valley about what has become known as impact investing.
About ten years ago, I realized something. While my life’s work had shifted dramatically to align with my values, my money had not. I made a vow to figure out how to move all my assets to support the communities, people, and products I want to see in the world without giving up financial return. That journey is what, ultimately, led to this book.
It sounds like the solo 5-month backpacking trip through Africa was a catalyst for you in a lot of ways. Did you experience anything notable during this trip that realigned your focus from a career in tech to non-profit work?
I think two factors were really transformative. The first was the realization that I loved being in these countries and what I was learning there. I relished challenging my current worldview with a completely different set of values and life experiences. For example, In the United States we are very independent and value the power of the individual. But in many African countries, one’s community is more important. People tend to think in terms “we” instead of “I.” I loved my growing awareness about the level of choice and possibility that exists when we take away our own blinders. And I wanted more of that. I wanted to understand the cultures that I was seeing at an even deeper level.
The other piece I mentioned earlier – the level of poverty I witnessed. It shattered everything I thought I knew about harsh living conditions. I knew that, somehow, I had to find a way to help. The question I took away from Africa was, “How do I craft a career that allows me to be here to learn and to help?
Generally, people are aware of the gender pay gap. But you cite BlackRock’s 2018 study that notes the investment gap between men and women. Statistically, women are better savers than most men. But they may lack knowledge, tools and networks for actually deploying capital into investments. Particularly in a zero interest rate environment, this can especially damage returns if money sits in cash. What are some of the basic steps women can take to transition cautiously from saving to investing?
The very first step is to build confidence as an investor, and that means learning. Women – and men – need to educate themselves. I wrote Activate Your Money specifically to educate and help individuals gain confidence as investors. The next step is to start experimenting! If you’re nervous, you can start with small amounts of money that you’re okay losing.
You can also build a dummy online investment account where you can “buy” and “sell” and watch the outcome over time. I have used these tactics many times over the years. And, something that I think is particularly powerful for women is enlisting their friends and learning together. There is nothing that says you have to learn how to invest alone. It is actually a lot more fun and far less time consuming to learn with others in a safe environment where you can share your fears and ask “stupid” questions without concern.
Each chapter of Activate Your Money ends with a call to action to help solidify the chapter’s knowledge. There is also a companion website that allows readers to download spreadsheets, tools, and training videos to help them turn their knowledge into action. And I am such a huge advocate of investment clubs that we have also developed a 15-module curriculum that women can use to run their clubs. All this additional material is freely available and can be found at activateyourmoney.net.
When you and I first spoke last year, I think you had just completed the process of aligning your entire portfolio with your values, essentially divesting assets that didn’t line up with issues that deeply mattered to you. Can you give us some examples of issues that are of importance to you and how you’ve used values-aligned investing to drive positive change around these issues?
One of the ways that I identified the values that are important to me was by using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. These are seventeen goals that governments, corporations and individuals around the world are working to achieve. I picked five of the goals as my priorities, and I am now tailoring my investments around them. The goals that I chose include supporting women and girls, building healthy, livable communities, and ensuring that we pass onto our children and grandchildren a sustainable beautiful planet.
To support women and my community, I shifted my checking and savings from a large financial institution into two local community banks. Those banks are using my money to provide loans to women-run businesses. They’re also providing home loans, car loans, and student loans to underserved populations. I get periodic updates that tell me about the impact my money is having.
Another example is the municipal bonds I’m investing in. These bonds are improving schools, ensuring clean, efficient water systems, and building key infrastructure in cities and towns in California, where I live, as well as across the country. I’m also an angel investor, so, in addition to investing in bonds and the stock market, I invest in private enterprises. I look for companies that are creating innovative solutions for a better world. I prioritize companies led by women. An example is Evrnu, a textile innovation company that takes excess stock from clothing manufacturers and breaks it down into fibers to reuse in new material and clothing.
From reading your book, it sounds like it was a tough leap taking the direction of your portfolio into your own hands. For example, you mentioned feeling anxious disagreeing with a financial advisor who wasn’t a fit for you personally. While I understand you’ve relied on advisors and different networks over the years, you realized that no one would care as deeply as you about the overall direction of your portfolio. In aligning your portfolio with your values, what were some of the other difficult lessons you learned?
The biggest lesson is that non-action is not an option. I sold a piece of real estate, and I was sitting on a significant amount of capital. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, and I left it in cash as I watched the stock market grow. If I had invested it instead of waiting, I would have enjoyed a significant period of growth. Instead, my cash was stagnant.
Another lesson was that not all financial advisors are created equal. They have different investment philosophies and approaches to investing. It is important to decide if those views align with your own. There are a growing number of financial advisors that will listen closely to your needs and that will even teach you. So, if your advisor is not meeting your needs or is telling you that is not possible to invest your values without giving up financial return, find a new advisor. We help you do that in Activate Your Money.
The investment policy statement (IPS) seems to be a keystone document for helping someone craft a portfolio that aligns with their values. Where did you come across this concept, and where can people access a template to use for their own portfolio construction?
I would say the IPS is a great tool, whether you’re aligning your values or not. It helps you to see clearly what your investing goals. I did not write Activate Your Money by myself. Over 150 women and a few men helped me, and some were financial advisors who wrote early versions of chapters. One of the first chapters in the book is sort of a “Finance 101.” Lisa Leff Cooper, who runs a values-aligned financial advisory, wrote a first draft of this chapter, and she included the IPS. She develops one with everyone one of her clients. So, that is where I first heard about the concept. Since then, I have seen it in a lot of other places.
Anyone who is interested can an example of an IPS on the activateyourmoney.net site. There is both an example, as well as a form that you can fill out on your own or with an investment club.
With markets having recovered from the unprecedented drop in 2020, we speak with many investors who are looking to reallocate capital out of the public markets and into new directions. What investment themes and trends, particularly post-COVID, excite you the most in the private markets?
Diversification is the name of the game. I think it’s great that people are looking beyond the public markets. I have been a big fan of investing in private companies led by women and people of color because they are overlooked and undervalued. Last year, just 2.3% of VC funding went to women-led companies. The statistics are even worse for companies led by women of color.
As a result of COVID and much of the other upheaval of the past year, more investors are looking for leadership diversity in their portfolios.
In addition, many of the women I know are looking at private debt. For a number of reasons, I have found that I prefer debt to equity. Since only about 1% of new companies in this country are appropriate for equity investments, a lot of other start-ups are left seeking other forms of capital. I am intrigued not just by debt but also by revenue-based lending. There are other innovative financial structures that provide an attractive return and more exit opportunities for the investor, as well as a less scale-driven growth path for the start-up enterprises.
You mentioned that, earlier in your life, your “money story” was heavily influenced by your parents who grew up in the Depression. You consistently did without. However, you shifted your own mentality to one of abundance by taking control of money. Can you elaborate here on this transition and how it’s affected your investing outlook?
Money was a constant theme while I was young because my parents both grew up poor. As a young family, we struggled financially. It was not until I was in my pre-teen years that our fortunes began to change because my mother taught herself how to buy and sell residential real estate.
Those early money experiences left me with an underlying, ultimately irrational fear, that I would end up as an impoverished 80-year-old living under a bridge eating cat food. I had this “bag lady” syndrome as recently as 7 or 8 years ago. However, as I started to take my money more seriously and really look at my assets, those fears subsided.
Now that I have been deeply involved in investing my money and as I started experimenting with private investing, I am realizing that I can take even more risk. So, it has been, and still is, a process for me. I try something, watch how it turns out, gain confidence, and push a bit farther. I am incredibly happy without that fear, knowing I can put my money to work building a better world.
As an aside, can you give us some examples of your private investment portfolio? These can be present or prior holdings.
Sure. One of the earliest private equity investments I made was in Elevar Equity, a venture fund that invests in start-up enterprises in Latin America and India that are providing financial services to poor households. I have also invested in some debt funds that were supporting green building, alternative energy, and affordable housing.
In addition to putting assets into private funds, I also invest in individual businesses. One example is an investment I made in a woman who wanted to open a bagel store in my neighborhood. Not only did she pay back the loan in full a year earlier than expected, but I get more than just the financial reward. Every time I go by the store, it fills me with joy to see her business thriving and to know I played a small role in her success. I have also invested in some debt funds that were supporting green building, alternative energy, and affordable housing.
I also invested in a deal that Carofin led during the pandemic. You pulled together a fund for a small financial institution in Asheville, North Carolina that needed additional capital so it could provide more PPP loans to the members of its community. That was a very successful investment for me.* The loan was paid back in less than 6 months at what would have been an annualized return of 8%. Plus, I knew the money was helping exactly the types of small local companies that I would like to see prosper.
*Ms. Firpo’s experiences may not reflect the experiences of other Carofin investors and are not a guarantee of future performance or success in other Carofin offerings.
A concept we think a lot about here is “investing where it matters.” This concept means different things to different people. How do you think about this and incorporate it into your investing approach, particularly with investing or lending directly in privately held businesses?
The concept of investing where it matters is the only way I invest. In the private space, it is possible to get more specific, or directed, about where your money goes and what it supports. That is harder to do in the public markets.
One of the areas where I have wanted to invest is in water, a huge worldwide challenge. Almost 1 million people lack access to clean drinking water, and, not surprising, the problem affects women and girls most acutely. I was very excited to learn about the Water Equity Fund, a new financial facility that works with microfinance institutions in Africa, India, and other developing countries so poor people can buy access to clean water – and toilets. The lack of toilets is another huge problem. The prevalence of community toilets in unsafe neighborhoods increases the risk of sexual assault on women. I am delighted that my money can help solve this problem, while also providing me with an attractive return.
You mention the concept of financial fulfillment, which is beyond financial independence. Do you feel like you’ve arrived at financial fulfillment, or is this an ongoing process?
Let me start by explaining my view of those terms. Financial freedom is often interpreted as feeling like we have enough to do the things we want to do. I first heard the term “financial independence” when Suzy Orman was interviewed. She explained that is possible to be financially free, but, if you don’t understand your money or how it is invested, then you are not financially independent. You are beholden to someone else who controls your money. That really struck me. It is so true. And it is such a female pattern. Don’t worry about the money. Give that problem to someone else to handle. I want both financial freedom and financial independence – and so do a lot of other women.
Financial fulfilment is a term I started using to describe the next step – the step where you find deep inner joy knowing that your money is working for you and for your values. And yes, at this point, I do feel financially fulfilled.
My money is not about having money. My money is possibility.
My money creates the things I want to see and the world I want to envision.
My money holds the power to change the world.
Get your copy of Janine Firpo’s book, Activate Your Money here.