Agents of Impact | January 17, 2019

Agent of Impact remembered: The legacy of I-DEV’s Jason Spindler

Dennis Price
ImpactAlpha Editor

Dennis Price

ImpactAlpha, January 16 – Jason Spindler understood risks. As a climber, he both took and mitigated risks (sometimes even with a rope). As a hero, he could disregard risk altogether. On Sept. 11, 2001, as thousands fled, Spindler ran into the rubble of the World Trade Center to help pull people out.

As co-founder of frontier markets investments advisory I-DEV International, Spindler took early risks on high-impact companies to demonstrate to other investors that perceptions of risk are often misplaced.

Risk is on the minds of the impact investing community as it absorbs the death of Spindler, who was killed in the attack on a business hub in Nairobi, Kenya on Tuesday. At least 20 other people also died, including members of development organizations Gatsby International and Adam Smith International. Staff of the African payments company Cellulant were still missing.

“A lot of the reason he was doing this was because we believed you could invest, could build businesses, that they would be a means to stabilize economies, reducing the need for terrorism, war, hatred,” Patricia Chin Sweeney, Spindler’s I-DEV co-founder, told KPIX 5 in San Francisco. “It’s ironic it ended this way. But when you choose these types of battles you don’t always win.”

The biggest risk in such tragedies, of course, is that the work stops, investors retreat, development folks pack up and businesses shutter. Spindler’s work lives on in the positive impact of companies like Runa and Twiga and funds such as Grassroots Business Fund. In total, I-DEV has helped 350 small and medium-size businesses in 45 countries, including 15 in sub-Saharan Africa. At least 40 businesses have raised about $80 million in follow-on investments and growth capital.

Seeding impact

A Texan who also lived in New York, Spindler moved to Nairobi about five years ago. With the I-DEV team, he worked with social enterprises to structure some of their earliest funding rounds. Before the arrival of billion-dollar impact funds and hundred-million-dollar deals, Spindler and I-DEV International cranked through dozens of five- and six-figure deals that each could take 18 months or more to close.

For example, Spindler and I-DEV supported the Peruvian agriculture cooperative that Spindler had worked with as a Peace Corps volunteer, Associacion de Productores de Tara, to strengthen its business practices and raise growth capital. Spindler’s company helped beverage company Runa, which partners with farmers in Ecuador’s rainforest, to raise bridge capital from EcoEnterprises Fund. I-DEV helped Grassroots Business Fund expand into Colombia and provided business assistance to the fund’s portfolio companies.

Spindler made an early bet on Twiga Foods, a logistics company that buys produce from Kenyan farmers and delivers it to urban markets and kiosks. The $2 million seed round that I-DEV helped secure in 2016 was at the time East Africa’s largest-ever. Twiga has since raised more than $20 million to become one of Kenya’s largest distributors of basic food items.

Spindler was a mentor for the entrepreneur network Endeavor, an early investor in Cellulant, an African payments company that has offices in the complex where the attacks took place. The company said only, “Some staff members are injured & we are currently undertaking a headcount.”

Cellulant has brought mobile banking services to tens of millions of Africans and last year raised a $47 million round of financing led by TPG Growth’s Rise Fund. The firm’s valuation topped $100 million, giving it a higher market capitalization than many companies on the Nairobi Securities Exchange. Then came Tuesday’s attacks.

Tributes from the field

“Jason always viewed one of I-DEV’s biggest assets as its ability to connect aligned forces,” Dan Block, an early I-DEV team member now with Global Innovation Fund, told ImpactAlpha. One of I-DEV’s early catch phrases: “As comfortable in the boardroom as in the field.” Spindler exemplified this, Block says, “and built an organization filled with people that embodied those qualities—sense of adventure, critical business rigor, and commitment to improving the world.”

“I-DEV was the embodiment of Jason’s life-passion for changing the world, and a testament of his incredible energy and vision,” said former I-DEV team member Camille Chouan. “Jason, you were a force to be reckoned with. You taught me to think big, not be afraid to ask the hard questions, push myself out of my comfort zone, and speak up for my ideas. Thank you for everything, you’ve impacted my life in ways you will never know.”

Impact investing advisor Jed Emerson shared with ImpactAlpha that Spindler, “was just an incredible light in our field—sharp as a tack, visionary, committed and just a funny mother– who was a pleasure to be around.”

The Cordes Foundation’s Steph Cordes spoke to Spindler the day before the attack. “It’s your fearlessness, leadership and confidence in the future of Africa that I’ve always admired and will forever be remembered,” she wrote on his Facebook page. “Hope that you’re up there continuing to spread that infectious smile and positive energy on life’s new unexpected turn. Make an adventure out of it, just like you always do.”

Village Capital’s Ross Baird tweeted, “Jason Spindler was infectiously curious, empathetic, adventurous, and effective at making the changes he wanted to see in the world. He was a generous friend to me and so many worldwide.” Ford Foundation’s Graham McMillan wrote, “Jason Spindler was a dreamer and a doer. He embodied the best of humanity. He cared more about others than he did himself. He left this world a better place and me a better person for having known him. Rest In Peace and know that what you did when you were here was worth it.”

“Jason, we love you and will try to honor and keep up your good works on this earth, and know your warm smile and spirit is shining down on us,” said Candide Group’s Morgan Simon.

The legacy of Spindler is the hard work of putting deals together and driving impact. Behind almost every deal written up in The Brief is a Spindler and an I-DEV or another often unsung intermediary that helped get it going. That’s not taking risks. It’s taking leadership.

ImpactAlpha’s Jessica Pothering contributed reporting.