Rahim Kanani

Daniel Izzo on Brazil’s First Impact Investing Venture Capital Firm

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Forbes Common Good Blog and reposted here with permission.

Recently, the Opportunities for the Majority (OMJ) Initiative of the Inter-American Development Bank hosted Daniel Izzo, co-founder and partner of Vox Capital, Brazil’s first impact investing venture capital firm, which focuses on high potential businesses that serve the Brazilian low income population through products and services with the potential to improve their lives. In addition, Vox Capital is the first Brazilian fund OMJ is investing in.

In this wide-ranging interview, I spoke to Daniel about his motivations, the portfolio of companies currently under Vox Capital’s belt, the social entrepreneurship sector in Brazil and Latin America more broadly, leadership lessons he’s acquired throughout his career, and much more.

Before Vox Capital, Daniel worked for 12 years in marketing and business development positions at Johnson & Johnson Brazil and Submarino, during its start-up phase. Daniel has been working with the Brazilian bottom of the pyramid populations since 2007 when, still at J&J, developed a project in low income communities in Rio de Janeiro, selling products, generating income to community members and educating the population on health issues.

Opportunities for the Majority (OMJ) is an Inter-American Development Bank presidential initiative launched in 2007. OMJ works with private sector partners to identify business models that are scalable and have the potential to be replicated. Through loans, guarantees, and grants OMJ seeks to increase productivity, bring the poor into the formal economy, create jobs, address market failures that raise costs for those least able to afford them, and bring quality goods and services to the 360 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean who are at the base of the socio-economic pyramid. OMJ’s portfolio reached over $200m in authorizations at the end of 2011.

Rahim Kanani: What motivated you to launch Brazil’s first impact investing venture capital fund, Vox Capital?

Daniel Izzo: On one hand, the daily observation of the huge income inequalities we face in Brazil, placing us constantly between the bottom ten countries on the Gini Index. It is impossible to walk on the streets of the largest Brazilian cities without noticing this. Poverty walks side by side with extreme wealth, generating all sorts of social tensions and problems. On the other hand, we are living in unrivalled times when it comes to the business potential and opportunities that are ahead of us due to the positive period the Brazilian economy is going through. The lower social classes are the next frontier on the economic field and must be considered in any serious business plan if it is to reach scale in the short to mid term future.

The mix of these two contrasting realities, made it clear that there was not only the opportunity, but most of all, there was a need for the creation of an impact investing fund, with the clear to goal to help improve the living conditions of the low income population while delivering financial return to the investors. This is a purpose shared by all the three founding partners at Vox Capital, Kelly, Antonio and I, who came to this same conclusion independently based on our life and work experiences and met due to our common business networks.

Rahim Kanani: What is the current portfolio of Vox Capital ventures, and what kind of impact are you having?

Daniel Izzo: Vox Capital’s current portfolio has 6 companies. Three of them received equity investments and three other, which are earlier stage ventures, received investments as convertible debt. The impact we, as a fund, have is completely related and dependent on the impact our portfolio companies deliver through their products and services. For example, one of our equity investments is in a company called Balcão de Empregos, a job placement company focused on technical and operational job opportunities, giving access to information on opportunities and, ultimately, to better quality jobs to tens of thousands of low income people in Brazil. It currently offers over 60,000 job opportunities.

Another investment is in a housing project that aims to produce 1,300 houses to low income families in the next 2.5 years. We also have investments in a company that provides extremely useful information to help people get access to local public health services and products, called Sautil, which has already been visited and utilized by over 150,000 people. Other investments include a microfinance institution, a market intelligence company focused on the Brazilian BOP population and a company that is developing a distribution network using more than 5,000 internet cafes across the country.

We are measuring the impact of our portfolio companies through IRIS (Impact Reporting and Investment Standards) and GIIRS (Global Impact InvestingRating System), from which we are a pioneer fund on testing and applying their methodology.

Rahim Kanani: As someone who spent 12 years in the marketing and business development areas at Johnson & Johnson Brazil and Submarino, during its start-up phase, what did you take away from those experiences that you bring to Vox Capital?

Daniel Izzo: My last two years at Johnson & Johnson were devoted to developing new business models for the Brazilian BOP population. It was a time were I had the chance to be in deeper contact with lower income communities, especially due to a partnership we set up with an NGO in Rio de Janeiro, called CEDAPS, that works together with over 100 community leaders in favelas and in the poorest areas of the city. We developed a door-to-door model that would generate income to local community women turned into product representatives, while they were also distributing information on health issues with a material developed by Johnson & Johnson. It would help the company increase its penetration on a segment of the population it did not have much access and it would empower and generate income to the women working on these communities.

With this experience I began to value the importance of win-win propositions when serving the BOP. It also helped me better identify the most important gaps on serving the Brazilian BOP population, which are: market intelligence (getting to know better the population you want to serve), distribution (reaching the last mile) and access to finance. Not a coincidence that, among Vox Capital’s first portfolio companies, we are investing in companies that deliver market intelligence (Plano CDE), solutions to distribution (CDI Lan) and financial products (Banco Pérola) for the BOP.

As for my experience at Submarino, it made me fall in love with the entrepreneurial spirit that only a startup with high potential for growth can deliver. It also helped me better identify and help entrepreneurs build the first processes and governance structures a company should have in place when growing in a fast pace.

Rahim Kanani: Where do you see the world of social entrepreneurship fitting into the continued economic and social growth of Brazil?

Daniel Izzo: For me, it is pretty straight forward: if the economic growth does not include developing business solutions to the whole population (including the BOP, which represents around 85% of the Brazilian population), there will not be long term economic growth. It will only be possible to take advantage of our great economic momentum and of our current demographic bonus if we include more people in the formal economy and make them prepared to join forces with the higher income classes in building a truly strong economy in the future.

The governmental programs that are in place, such as Bolsa Familia and Minha Casa Minha Vida are currently doing a great job in moving people out of extreme poverty and in giving them access to their own first assets, but the government alone can not do the whole job. We need the engagement of the private sector, especially companies delivering solutions in housing, health, education and financial services to truly include millions of people in the market economy and guarantee that Brazil will take advantage of the moment we are going through right now. This is the role of social entrepreneurs or, how I prefer to call them, businesses with social impact.

Rahim Kanani: In that same vein, how would you characterize the growing interest in social entrepreneurship and impact investing across Latin America?

Daniel Izzo: As a somewhat natural movement. It is a region characterized by large wealth inequalities which economy is growing at a fast pace. And people are getting ever more frustrated with the current state of affairs and with the traditional answers to trying to solve poverty. However, the sector is still in its infancy. There still exist few funds and angels actively doing impact investing, the ecosystem has several weaknesses and missing links and only now a great wealth of qualified human capital is seriously considering joining in. But you can already find pioneers doing great work on the field, such as Ignia and New Ventures in Mexico; Agora Partnerships in Central America; Fondo Inversor in Colombia; Artemisia in Brazil and Avina in the whole region, just to name a few.

These organizations have been receiving a lot of attention and interest from students and young professionals willing to work in the sector. It is a subject that is attracting a large number of youngsters (both as entrepreneurs of new businesses and as executives for existing businesses). This makes me optimistic on the future of the whole sector in Latin America.

Rahim Kanani: What are some of the leadership lessons you’ve learned along the way?

Daniel Izzo: Vox Capital is still a very young organization. We have completed 3 years of operations in 2012. There is still a long way to go before we can call what we are doing a success. And this is valid to the whole impact investing field, worldwide. On the other hand, if anything, we are already creating awareness about the sector in Brazil, attracting new investors (wealth families that would otherwise keep investing in more “traditional” assets), attracting human capital (there are two new initiatives to develop local impact investing funds, following our footsteps) and helping develop a local ANDE (Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs) chapter, which I am currently the Chapter Leader and, right now, is considered the most developed regional initiative at ANDE. I considered this a success since, from the beginning, Vox Capital founding partners had also as a goal to develop the local impact investing ecosystem. And we are clearly doing this.

As for the management of the fund, all the founding partners have very complementary experiences and background. I have over 15 years of experience in business development and marketing (including startup operations) and can bring a lot to help entrepreneurs develop and better structure their companies. Antonio has an amazing local network and has attracted one of the best advisory board any VC (not only impact investing) has in Brazil and they also serve as advisors to portfolio companies. Kelly is one of the pioneers in impact investing in the world and has been developing initiatives in the field since 2001 in places like Brazil, Senegal and India.

Rahim Kanani is a writer, advocate, strategist and entrepreneur for global social change. Follow him @rahimkanani and on Facebook. Have an idea for a great interview? Email rahim@rahimkanani.com.

Social Enterprise
impact investing, social enterprise