The Conduit: Doing good while eating and drinking well (podcast)



There’s one thing clear from the winding-down fall circuit of impact investing events: these folks like to hang out with each other.

Whether it was Delhi or New York or San Francisco or London or Paris (for the even hardier, Zug, Copenhagen and more), these agents of impact like to meet, drink and make plans to collaborate. At the next stop on the circuit, they meet, drink and collaborate some more.

ImpactAlpha channeled some of this social stream ourselves Friday night in London, with a stellar (by all accounts) meet-and-drink experience for our subscribers and the special agents still on a gender-lens high from the two-day Gender-Smart Investing Summit. That followed a splendid dinner by an up-and-coming chef and an engaging “salon” in Paris for “agents of impact” gathered for the Global Impact Investing Forum’s Investor forum.

So we’re upping our game as a convenor of the conversation (while worrying that we risk becoming an anecdote in some sequel to “Winners Take All,” the talk-of-the-town book by Anand Giridharadas that skewers “the elite charade of changing the world.”) To be sure, it’s easy to mock high-minded talk of “ending poverty in all its forms” (as called for by Sustainable Development Goal No. 1) that takes place over fine wine and a Michelin-starred meal. Embrace the irony, as they say.

Big winners want to be changemakers? Hold them to it.

ImpactAlpha’s London event  took place in the basement speakeasy at The Conduit, a new club in the Mayfair district that bills itself as “a home for a diverse community of people passionate about social change.” The floors above include a lounge, an event space for 150 people, a rooftop bar, co-working space and a restaurant with the requisite Michelin-starred chef.

There’s also a showroom for the luxury brand Maiyet, an “ethical fashion” venture (think environmentally sustainable cashmere yarn from nomadic goat herders in Outer Mongolia) that has attracted a roster of impact investors. Maiyet, and The Conduit itself, were co-founded by Paul van Zyl, who is building a business around that very same notion that agents of impact want to hang around each other.

“If you’re going to build an impact business with impact at its core, you need a posse of people around you to help you,” van Zyl told me when I sat down with him – in the bar, of course – to record the latest episode of our Returns on Investment podcast.

The Conduit’s membership includes not only investors and entrepreneurs, but corporate and finance types as well as a nonprofit/NGO/academic/policy and even government crowd. “You have people you otherwise would not interact with.”

Van Zyl’s own journey from human rights lawyer (he was executive secretary of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as a co-founder of the International Center for Transitional Justice) included whistlestops at the Skoll World Forum (where he was a Skoll social entrepreneurship awardee) and Davos (where he was a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader). The Conduit is in some ways a permanent installation of such gatherings.

“What The Conduit has tried to do is say, ‘How do we cluster together a community of people who will provide the resources, the capital, the expertise, the business plans, the marketing to be able to birth new businesses where they’re required, but also seek to scale businesses that have real potential?’” van Zyl told me.

In essence, van Zyl has turned what are often considered an overhead burden or at least operating cost – technical assistance, entrepreneurship support, venture incubation – into the drawing card for a club that people are clamoring to join.  

“Platform businesses are wildly valuable,” he says. “Not just of value to us, but to a group of entrepreneurs trying to build businesses and support each other. There’s something about the reciprocity of that: ‘If I help you, you’ll help me.’”

The Conduit’s platform includes financial capital for startups, “a community of investors who are not just going to write checks, but are going to stand by in good times and hard times and provide assistance.” The holding company is already working on expanding The Conduit concept to additional cities, most likely starting with New York. Then it will be on to the U.S. west coast and European cities, like Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Berlin, that are having their moment at the intersection of tech, innovation and social impact.

And so the circuit expands.  

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