Alumni Spotlight: Graham Day, 2013 cohort
Graham was part of the 2013 cohort, working as an Investment Manager for LGT Venture Philanthropy (at the time LGT Impact Ventures). In this Spotlight interview he talks about his journey switching sides from an impact investor to CFO in a social enterprise and back to the impact investor side.
In the Alumni Spotlight series, we dive deep into past Fellows’ experiences and learnings from their Fellowship, and their career trajectories since then.
Question: As an LGT Impact Fellow (at the time iCats program), your mission was to launch the LGT Accelerator Program in Columbia. The Accelerator Program provided hands-on business consulting through LGT Impact Fellows on the ground and financial support to promising early-stage social enterprises. After the Fellowship you stayed with LGT Venture Philanthropy (at the time LGT Impact Ventures) for three years in the role of Regional Investment Manager for Latin America. What were the most important lessons you learnt in that role? And how has this time shaped you for the career that followed?
One of the overarching lessons was to have empathy for the entrepreneurs. During my Fellowship and the time at LGT VP, I was exposed to so many companies in such a short period of time. Seeing what the entrepreneurs were going through and understanding what challenges their businesses face was key to me and helped me later in my career.
Moreover, having been exposed to all these entrepreneurs gave me faith and belief in ideas that constantly come up in the ecosystem. It is fascinating to see that against all odds, there are so many hungry entrepreneurs out there willing to give their ideas a try. Today I am no longer surprised by the richness of the ecosystem, but still very inspired by the fertility of entrepreneurship to address problems we face in society and the environment.
Q: After more than 4 years at LGT you became the CFO of a social enterprise – Sistema.bio in Mexico. How have you experienced the transition from consulting social enterprises to actually working for a social enterprise yourself and managing the Financials of it? Has it changed your perspectives?
It was a fun transition and at the time I was really craving to contribute to companies on a deeper level. It was a really humbling experience to understand the effort it takes to execute and operationalize the plan that you have promised to your investors, with only very little margin for errors. I learnt that the key to success are strong teams in combination with solid processes. The way investors evaluate teams, and maybe the only way they can, is to look at the top-level management and then assume that if they are strong, the company must be strong. This is largely true, but seeing a company from the inside, I realized that the real key is looking at the level below the executive team. You can really see how processes have been built within an organization and ultimately how resilient an organization is to withstand shocks and pivots.
At Sistema.bio I gained important insights from this perspective shift. While before I was evaluating the plans and how the investment would be spent, I now got to see how plans turn into action, who is responsible for them, when, how, where, etc. I saw Sistema.bio grow from 40 to 400 people and hence building processes for this organization gave me an amazing perspective for what growth really means.
Another learning was to understand how burdensome investors can be! I realized how much work seemingly simple investor requests, such as updating plans and budgets, can be, especially if you are dealing with 10 or more investors. I felt that many of us as investors don’t have that understanding, particularly investors who do not have operational experience. As a result, l have since tried to be a real partner to companies rather than a burden. And partnership means much more than providing capital; it means providing support when it’s needed, even if it means spending hours at the company’s office working through problems with them. It was the most incredible perspective to have that experience on the company side, and the best career decision I could have made.
Q: You have worked with many entrepreneurs across the globe offering solutions that improve the quality of life in their communities. Can you give an example of an entrepreneur who particularly inspired you?
I remember three entrepreneurs who particularly inspired me and all of them for the same reasons:
They were all first-time entrepreneurs and they all started their businesses as a result of spending time on the ground to really understand the problem.
Tyler Youngblood was learning from the farmers in Colombia, sleeping on the floor of their houses and getting up early with them. He eventually understood that some of the farmers produce great quality coffee which isn’t recognized as such. As a result, he founded Azahar and started exporting premium coffee, while paying his farmers many times over the market price for their beans.
Alex Eaton had a similar approach. He was very close to agriculture and tried to understand what it is like to be a dairy farmer in rural Mexico. Using his background in biogas, he developed a small biodigester for these farmers and founded Sistema.bio.
And Jorge Garcia was a doctor who went door to door as part of his training and realized that many people don’t have access to health care, even though they would be willing to pay a small amount for a health care membership. As a result, he co-founded Bive in Colombia with Diana Quintero, who later became an LGT Impact Fellow herself!
All of them were inspiring to me because they didn’t come up with a business plan, an accelerator, and a whiteboard in capital city, but they let themselves be inspired by spending time on the ground and then followed their inspiration. I respect that a lot.
Q: I looked up the Impact Report you had submitted at the end of your Fellowship and found the following quote:
“Ideas and passion are abundant in Colombia’s social sector. The tricky part is finding good management teams to execute plans and take them to fruition. I spent the year journeying with these brave entrepreneurs, striving to find ways to make their business as sustainable and impactful as possible. It was a challenge like no other.”
Almost 10 years later, would you say the social sector has changed? How? And are the challenges still the same?
It’s still pretty true today as well. On the one hand the problems we face are constantly shifting and so are the solutions. For example, today some education problems are partially addressed thanks to technology solutions, allowing children in rural areas to access education through apps, access better information and be more connected. But on the other hand, this gave rise to new problems, such as fake news, misinformation, cyberbullying, etc.
At any given time the problems and solutions look different, but a lot of fundamentals are the same.
In Latin America it is still difficult for organizations to be funded, particularly if they are based outside urban areas. There are only a few companies that are connected to wealthy families, while all others have a huge disadvantage. There is some advancement with a few big international donors and Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) in the US and Europe improving their understanding of local ecosystems and hence playing a better role in the funding ecosystems. Nevertheless, it is still very hard in developing countries, particularly in rural areas.
Another challenge that remains is building strong teams. With many young people coming back to their home countries after having been educated and having gained work experience abroad, the human capital in many developing countries is available, however, the challenge is to direct it to impactful corporations.
Q: You have spent most of your career working with social enterprises as an executive, impact investor, consultant and board member. Which career advice would you give to candidates considering the LGT Impact Fellowship or any person considering a career in the social sector?
To candidates interested in the Fellowship: Go in with an open mind and treat the Fellowship as a discovery process. The world is changing, and things move under your feet as you go. Get excited about those changes and lean into them! You will find yourself with a set of ideas and expectations about the Fellowship or the development sector in general. Those will be challenged and at times you may be frustrated, disappointed, or discouraged. But for every time that happens, there is a moment that is inspirational and hence it is best to be flexible and see the experience as a discovery process.
To people interested in the social sector in general: Don’t worry too much about the label “social sector”. Impact can be found in many companies, big and small. Look for a company that inspires you and does something positive rather than looking for a label. Go with your instincts first as opposed to restricting yourself to what has been labelled as a social enterprise.
Q: What do you do today?
I recently took on the Impact Investment Director role at Spring Activator, a global incubator, accelerator, and advisory firm that helps impact entrepreneurs, investors and ecosystem-builders build thriving communities, with the vision to change the world through innovation. I work for the investment pillar to facilitate more investment into impactful companies. One of our most interesting programs is the “Impact Investor Challenge”, which aims at growing the impact investor community by training and guiding new investors and impact-curious individuals, as well as funding impact entrepreneurs.
I am particularly excited about it, because I have been working in developing countries for a long time, where the capital mostly comes from foreign DFIs or local funds funded by the elite. With this model, there is an opportunity to democratize impact investing further – in both developed and developing countries.
On a final note: I would love to get back in touch with other Alumni and current Fellows so that we can support each other in our respective careers and missions. Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn.
Great article , so many things you said rang true to me . If investors aren’t ready to get their hands dirty and get in the mud with you to really understand your business then don’t take their money.