Janine Firpo is a writer, values-aligned investor, and entrepreneur. She left a career in the tech world many years ago to pursue a more meaningful work experience. This led her into the world of micro-finance and philanthropy. And now, for the last ten years she has been on a personal mission to invest all of her assets so they create a positive impact. It’s a bold move and she is all in.
A pioneer in Digital Financial Services (DFS), in 2002, Janine initiated and led a consortium of micro-finance leaders to explore the role technology could play in dramatically increasing the scale of financial services to the poor. In 2008, she became one of the first mobile money experts and advisors to mobile network operators, financial institutions, and other early DFS entrants. In her role at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she served as a Deputy Director on the Financial Services for the Poor team, Janine and her team designed philanthropic and impact investments to bring poor people out of poverty by leveraging DFS to bring them into the formal economy.
In 2017 Janine left her position at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to focus on bringing more female investors into the impact space.
She is currently one of the lead investors in the Next Wave Impact Fund an impact angel fund designed to help more women become angel investors, and she sits on the board of Zebras Unite, an organization developing the capital structures, community, and culture that non-unicorn start-up businesses need to thrive.
During her career, Janine worked for Apple Computer, Hewlett-Packard, and a number of technology start-ups. She also ran a non-profit that she spun out of her role at HP. Janine has consulted to corporations, government agencies, start-ups, and non-profits around the world.
You can email Janine at [email protected] if you want to know more.
Insights and Inspirations
- Figuring out what “impact” means in real estate investing is difficult for someone starting out. It’s impossible to find consistent metrics.
- According to Janine, not only can you expect financial return when you make a socially responsible investment, you can meet or beat the market!
- Only 5% of the US population is a millionaire. That means that 95% of the population does not have access to investment opportunities that are largely available to millionaires.
Information and Links
- Some of Janine’s cash is invested in CNote, which offers a 2.75% return with great liquidity after 3 months. Janine loves that their updates track how her money is helping women entrepreneurs
- Being part of the Next Wave Impact has been a great way for Janine to learn about angel investing in the company of other women, all of them committed to making an impact by supporting women-led companies.
- Janine is also investing Nia Global Solutions a female-led public equity fund. This fund investing in companies that promote sustainable agriculture, good health, quality education, affordable housing, and sustainable life, all the while beating market returns!
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:03] Hi there! Thanks so much for joining me today for the latest episode of Impact Real Estate Investing.
My guest today is Janine Firpo. Janine is a writer, values-aligned investor and entrepreneur. Janine’s background is fascinating. She left a career in the tech world many years ago to pursue a more meaningful work experience. This led her into the world of microfinance and philanthropy. She has consulted and lived all over the world. And now for almost 10 years, she has been on a personal mission to invest all of her assets so they create a positive impact. It’s a bold move and she is all in.
Be sure to go to EvePicker.com to find out more about Janine on the show notes page for this episode. And be sure to sign up for my newsletter so you can access information about impact real estate investing and get the latest news about the exciting projects on my crowdfunding platform, Small Change.
Eve: [00:01:21] Hello Janine, thanks so much for joining me today.
Janine Firpo: [00:01:24] It’s my pleasure, Eve. Thank you so much for asking me and for being interested in what I’m doing.
Eve: [00:01:30] Yeah, well, you’ve had a really fascinating career, starting with technology companies when they were startups, and are household names now. And you left that path to follow a very different one. But I wanted to ask you how you started your career?
Janine: [00:01:45] I’d be happy to tell you. So, I actually started my career very early in 1981. It’s a long time ago for many people. And I sort of fell into the computer industry, first in Louisiana, and then when I really got into it, I moved back to the Silicon Valley where I was originally from and I’m still here. And I worked in high tech for about 15 years, worked at Apple Computer in the 80s, and then also did some startup work. And then in 1995 I left a job and I did a solo backpacking trip through sub-Saharan Africa. And what was really interesting about that is when I left on my trip, I was in something called the CD-ROM and multimedia industry. And when I came back, everyone I knew was in the Internet industry. So the internet literally turned on in the four months that I was away.
Eve: [00:02:37] Wow.
Janine: [00:02:38] And I was perfectly positioned to get on that ride, that dot com ride. But when I was in Africa, I saw poverty like I had never seen it before. And I decided that I wanted to use my life in a way that had meaning. And so I set out on a track to figure out how could I use the skills I had, technology and business knowledge, to bring change to the levels of poverty that I was seeing in Africa. And so that launched me on then what became a twenty-year career in international development and bringing technology into Africa, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. And while I was on that trajectory, I got involved in something called microfinance, which is making loans to poor women, primarily in developing countries around the world. And in looking at what is the role that tech could play in really scaling microfinance, it was reaching 100 million people in the world when I started, and the need was to reach two and a half billion people. That inquiry, other people were involved in it as well, led to something called ‘mobile money,’ which is using the cell phone as a bank for the poor.
Eve: [00:03:50] I was at the Bellagio Foundation in Italy, a few years back, with someone who was writing a book about the M-Pesa.
Janine: [00:03:58] Exactly! M-Pesa, which was one of the first incidences of this, it actually started in the Philippines, but M-Pesa was the example that just shot off the charts within the first year. It came out in 2007, and within its first year it had a million people using the service. And in the second year it was many more millions. And it’s now serving, over 85 percent of the population of Kenya uses M-Pesa now, and it has become a de facto way to move money. And now people are getting loans over it. It’s being used as a financial mechanism for all sorts of things. So, it became an amazing industry. There are now over 250 incidences in more than 90 countries around the world.
Eve: [00:04:44] But it really started because people had cell phones. Right? And they needed to move money.
Janine: [00:04:51] They had cell phones, well, actually the way it really started was the people behind M-Pesa was Vodacom, and they were trying to apply the cell phone technology to microfinance. And they started in 2004 with a microfinance institution in Kenya. And it just didn’t work for a lot of reasons that I won’t go into. But what they found that was really interesting when they were trying to help this microfinance industry scale its business was that people were using the phone just to move money back and forth. And they saw a real opportunity. So, they retrenched. They rethought everything. They set up all the infrastructure that they needed. And then in … February of 2007, they launched M-Pesa as we know it today, which was a money transfer service. Now, super-fascinating the way it all unfolded.
Eve: [00:05:40] Yeah.
Janine: [00:05:41] Yeah. And then so I had this great career for 20 years. I traveled all over the world. I’ve been to more than 80 countries. I worked all over the world. It was amazing. I loved it, but I was also traveling 50 to 70 percent of the time for 20 years. And the industry became huge. And I was always more interested in startups and new things. And so it just became time, a couple years ago, for me to leave that. And so I retired from that career. And along with being involved in all of that, so, I was sort of a social entrepreneur before that kind of word became a thing. And because I was in the Bay Area I was involved in all of these conversations around what has ultimately become known as impact investing. I was working at Hewlett Packard in the corporate social responsibility world. So, part of just that entire conversation about the new philanthropy and different ways of using our money. And about 10 years ago, even though I am not a high net wealth individual myself, I realized I’d made the choices in my life to live and lead from a life of value, and something where I was making a difference in the world, and I realized my money was working against me. And so I decided I was going to figure out how to invest all of my own money, from my cash to my public stocks to private stuff. If I could do that to real estate, all of it, how do I invest all of that in a way that lines with my values and is supporting the world I want to see.
Eve: [00:07:18] That’s a pretty powerful step to take, Janine.
Janine: [00:07:19] Well, it just was really in alignment with who I was. And it was because I was watching, I was going to these conferences and I was seeing these ultra-rich people and financial, you know, foundations and institutional investors doing this. And I thought, well, why can’t, why can’t the rest of us do this? Why is this yet another thing that’s just being left to the very rich? And so I decided to try on my own. And in the 10 years I was working super hard, so I had financial advisors. They didn’t get me where I wanted to go. And so when I retired a couple of years ago, I took a lot of my assets back. And I’ve been working on this myself.
Eve: [00:08:01] Wow.
Janine: [00:08:03] And I have realized that in the 20 years that I was, have been sort of watching this space, it’s really evolved. And I now think we’ve gotten to a point where the goal of investing your money in alignment with your values is becoming mainstream. At this point, one of four dollars that are invested by institutional investors are invested in socially responsible ways. It just hasn’t trickled down enough to those of us who aren’t wealthy. And it shouldn’t be that way, because there are now products across virtually all asset classes that you can invest in a values-aligned way, even if you’re a non-accredited investor, which means even if you don’t have a million dollars in net worth, you can invest this way. And so I have corralled a bunch of the brilliant women I know who are now helping me develop a book, helping people, primarily women, because we have been really left out of the financial services conversation in a lot of ways, to help them think about how to be smarter about their investing overall and how to do this in a way that aligns with their values, too.
Eve: [00:09:12] That’s pretty fabulous. So, just shifting gears a bit, when we talked awhile back, you mentioned that you were interested in investing in impactful real estate, the next step in this process for you. And …
Janine: [00:09:25] Yes.
Eve: [00:09:25] First of all, I’m wondering why that’s an interest now?
Janine: [00:09:28] Because, well, I currently own real estate. So, when I was a kid, I actually learned a lot about money from my mom, and my mom when I was a really young kid, we didn’t have very much money. In fact, we were kind of poor. We didn’t always know where we were going to get food. We were wearing secondhand clothes. My mom was a coupon shopper. And at some point along the way, she decided that she needed to find a way to make more money. And so she got herself into real estate. She became a real estate professional. And she started learning about buying property, buying and selling property. And so she, we’re talking like back in the 60s, I think, she started going to the courthouse steps and buying foreclosed property and sometimes sight unseen. She would buy them and then she would turn my sisters and I into her crew and we would go … we were, like, this is how I spent my summers, my teen years. Ripping up carpets, refinishing carpets, painting interiors, painting exteriors, cleaning, you know, all of that. We were her crew. And then she would rent these properties out. Sometimes she’d sell them. So, I learned about real estate and I’m in the Bay Area. This is a really hot real estate market. And so I’ve, you know, I’ve learned something along the way. And … I bought my first house when I was 30, and have purchased real estate. So, I have those assets. Now, if I am truly aligning all of my money with my values, then that has to include my real estate. And so I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve pretty much figured out a strategy for all of my other asset classes. My cash has all been moved in alignment with my values. I’m working on doing that with my public equity stuff. My fixed income is moving that way. I’m an angel investor. I only invest in socially responsible businesses and I primarily am investing in companies that are started by female CEOs, because women get less than two percent of the private equity capital in this country. So, we need to support more women founders. So, I’m doing that with a lot of my money already. It’s time for me now to start shifting my focus to the real estate. So how do I get out of, so I’m starting to think about, how do I get out of single family residences, and what might have more values aligned real estate set of opportunities look like.
Eve: [00:12:02] That’s really interesting. I have the reverse problem, so I’m going to probably ask for your help in dealing with my other assets.
Janine: [00:12:11] Happy to do that.
Eve: [00:12:12] So, you’ve been looking. And what does real estate impact investing look like to you? What does that mean?
Janine: [00:12:19] Well, that’s a really good question. And I have to be honest that I’m in the early days of this journey. And so I’m just starting to learn and that’s how I found you. Actually, I was out on the Web and I was kind of searching around and thinking, well, who’s doing anything out there in real estate? And that’s how I found you. So, I know a little bit. So, and I’ve invested in a little bit. So, my last job was up in Seattle working through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And when I was up there, I heard about a company, that basically what they were doing was they were buying distressed property in Seattle, and they were single family, and they were gutting a lot of these places and then rebuilding them green. And could actually tell the buyer this is what you’re energy saving is as the result of buying this house. So, green is one way of thinking about this. I’m also somewhat familiar with affordable housing. And my current financial advisor actually has me in an affordable housing fund. I forget the name right now. I apologize for that. But they had me in that kind of fund. I’ve been aware of the whole opportunity zone set of things that are cropping up around the country. Although I’ve heard varied things about those opportunities. And, you know, those are basically things that I know. I also am invested, a very small amount of money, this particular deal could only take a thousand dollars from each investor. But it’s a woman here in Oakland, the city that I live in, who is basically raising down payments through gathering money from many, many investors. And then she’s getting loans and she’s buying multi-unit properties that already have tenants, low-income tenants, and what she’s doing is, she’s setting up structures where these tenants, as they’re paying rent, are actually in basically a buy-to-own situation. And she’s turning these buildings into cooperatives that are owned by the people that live in them. So, I think there’s some interesting models out there. I just don’t, I only have seen a smattering of them so far.
Eve: [00:14:40] Yeah, actually, I think, I just interviewed Rebecca Foster, who is also in the Bay Area on the Housing Accelerator Fund, which is a different model, they are working on raising money to preserve existing affordable housing in San Francisco. Yeah, I think there’s lots of ways to make impact and you’re just really scratching the surface. Right?
Janine: [00:14:59] Exactly. And there’s a, yeah, there’s a man that I met recently through something I’m involved in who’s in the real estate business out here. And he’s starting to think about building his career around socially responsible real estate. So, he and I have had a couple of conversations. And one of the things that he sort of suggested to me, although I don’t know that I have enough assets to do this, but he talked about wouldn’t it be cool to like have a building where you could have businesses in it and and tenants in it, residential and office space combined. But really determine that you want a certain kind of business. Like create a space where these are all businesses that are run by women, or these are, you know, so … or these are all businesses that are in this kind of vertical and they’re helping each other and that particular vertical is good for the world. That was kind of an interesting thought.
Eve: [00:16:02] I think a lot of people are thinking about this in many very different ways. Like, I built a portfolio of what I believe are socially responsible projects, but really starting before green was the theme. And I focused on underserved neighborhoods and blighted architecture …
Janine: [00:16:26] Right.
Eve: [00:16:27] And so what I think is interesting about the real estate impact investing world is there’s really 1001 ways to make an impact. You just really need to figure out what matters the most for you.
Janine: [00:16:41] I totally agree. In fact, that’s one of the things that I’m talking about in this book I mentioned is I am moving away from the words impact investing and socially responsible investing and all of that, because I think so many people use those words and they mean different things by them. And what I and it’s, so it’s hard to get a clear definition on it. And what I’ve found is when push comes to shove and you talk to people who are thinking about impact investing, they’re usually talking about private deal flow, private debt and private equity. And I’m really interested in looking across all of your assets. So, what I’ve come to realize is even though I believe that if enough of us move our money this way, we can change the economy. At the end of the day this is really about our individual choices and who we think we are as people and how we want our money to reflect who we are in the world.
Eve: [00:17:35] Yes.
Janine: [00:17:36] Right?
Eve: [00:17:37] When you take money, you use it, you spend time on it as well. So, for me, it’s even more than money. It’s how I spend the time around it.
Janine: [00:17:47] Exactly. In fact, I realized the other day, it’s, for me … so much of this conversation about values align or impact investing, it’s always the extra thing that people have to talk about. It’s, like, here’s your financial issues and how you invest in all of that. Oh, and then there’s this impact investing thing. And I realized, particularly for women and millennials, who the vast majority of us want to invest our money this way, it’s not the extra thing. It’s sort of like the icing on the cake. Yeah, you can go out and you can invest your money to maximize return or whatever. But it’s really kind of boring, in a way, to do, at least to me, it’s like, yeh, so my money is out there and it’s doing whatever and I don’t even know what it’s doing, and all I really care about is the return? No, I want more from my money than that. I’ve worked hard to get it. I care about everything I do in my life. Why wouldn’t I care about what my money is doing? And when I get feedback from the people that I invest in about how my money is being used and what it’s doing in the world, that makes me so insanely happy. And it’s really fun to be able to talk to people about the cool stuff that my money is doing. I love it. It changes the game.
Eve: [00:19:08] Are you still getting your return?
Janine: [00:19:10] Oh, my God, yes! This is not about giving up return. This has never been about giving up returns. I can meet or beat the return that you that any other investment is giving. So, for example, if you look at public equities markets, so, one of the things that I’m invested in is the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index. This is like one of the things that people talk about all the time. Go into an index fund, Vanguard is really cheap, blah, blah, blah. Right? Great thing to be invested in.
Eve: [00:19:41] Right.
Janine: [00:19:41] But if you actually look at that from the perspective of environmental sustainability, there is a website out there called As You Sow that ranks, if you look up As You Sow ‘Invest Your Values,’ you will go to a page that you can say, “I care about fossil free stuff” or “I care about gender diversity” or whatever. And you can put your stock tickers into this tool and it will tell you, it’ll show you a grade that that particular holding gets across all of these different variables. And it will show you how much of that fund is invested in the things you don’t want it to be in it. What are those holdings? And so that stock gets a D on As You Sow. Now, I did some homework on As You Sow and I actually found another Vanguard Fund, an FTSE Social Index Fund, and other funds that not only are getting a better grade like A’s and B’s, but they also get better returns over a 10 to 15 year time horizon than what I’m in, that’s getting a D.
Eve: [00:20:54] Wow.
Janine: [00:20:55] So why am I in that?
Eve: [00:20:57] Yes.
Janine: [00:20:57] I’m going to get out.
Eve: [00:20:59] Well, I have to ask, you spent a lot of time on this, right?
Janine: [00:21:02] Yes.
Eve: [00:21:03] What about those who are just trying to find time in between the cracks to figure out where to put our money?
Janine: [00:21:12] Right. Well, that’s why I’m writing a book, because I realized that this shouldn’t be this hard, and people shouldn’t have to do the level of work that I’ve had to do to figure this out. So, the book is going to tell you how to do it. It’s going to basically, what it’s going to do, it’s going to have three different sections, and the mid-section goes asset class by asset class and tells you this is what this asset class is, here’s how it works, here’s how it’s generally thought about, and here’s all the ways you can invest in this asset class in a values aligned way.
Eve: [00:21:42] Wow. Let’s go back to real estate. So, on your journey to find impact impactful real estate … Now I’m feeling very self-conscious about the word … What information haven’t you been able to find? What’s missing out there for someone who wants to figure this out?
Janine: [00:22:00] There is no place that really says these, this is what this space looks like, and here’s all the different kinds of deals that are available. And, you know, this is what’s going on, these are the cool things that people are doing. I mean, I think that you’re trying to do that through your podcast, and I applaud you. And that’s it. I mean, I realize in order to figure this out, I’m going to have to go do serious homework and talk to a lot of people and see what other people are doing and then start to piece together what feels like an interesting way for me to move forward. Finding the information is super, super hard.
Eve: [00:22:46] Yup, it’s very hard. There’s a lot of high level information that I’m aware of that I, that is really for sophisticated investors. I find it difficult to follow myself and, there is sort of an … exclusiveness around it … investing that I agree with use a little bit disappointing.
Janine: [00:23:10] So, there are financial advisers out there who are socially focused, but they don’t share information about the things that they invest their clients in.
Eve: [00:23:21] Oh.
Janine: [00:23:21] Because that knowledge is sort of their intellectual property. Right? So, there has been an opaqueness around this for a long time. And I feel like it’s time to blow that up, too, and just make this stuff completely transparent. There’s no reason why this information shouldn’t be easily available and easily accessible.
Eve: [00:23:43] Well that’s very exciting. So, have you found anything you want to invest in real estate?
Janine: [00:23:48] Not yet, because I haven’t gone far enough down the path. But I will say the other thing that has intrigued me is the idea of co-living or shared housing kinds of situations. I’ve been intrigued by some of the things that you’ve had on your show and, you know, have added them to my list of possibilities. But I’ve been so focused on the other asset classes and just trying to get this book, bringing this book to life, that I haven’t had the time to do the real homework on real estate.
Eve: [00:24:24] I mean, I think if I was starting out now, I’d be making a list for myself and not expecting to check every box, you know? Certainly if I think about moving other assets, top of my list would be women-owned businesses. You know, it’s just things that you, that I care about, that really matter to me that the next person, you’re about something else more.
Janine: [00:24:48] That’s exactly right. And there is there will be a chapter on this book, in this book about private debt and revenue-based financing and private equity and how women can get involved in that. Angel groups that are women-based angel groups, and some new innovative models that are coming out to bring women in, even at relatively small value points, and online platforms that are available now if you’re not accredited investors. So, there’s actually tons of ways to start investing in women, in businesses and things like that for anyone.
Eve: [00:25:24] So, I’m in the early, right at the beginning stage of talking to a group about a women’s development fund, a fund, not a huge one, a small one that would invest in women-led real estate projects.
Janine: [00:25:36] Oh, interesting.
Eve: [00:25:38] It’s going to take a little while to develop, but I’m very excited about that. I think it’s a, you know, a very strong purpose, right?
Janine: [00:25:47] Yeah, no, it’s great. So, I actually have a question for you. Because I seem to remember and I may have gotten this wrong, but I seem to remember in listening to one of your podcasts at one point that you talked about the fact that people who do impact real estate investing aren’t necessarily going to see the same kind of returns as people would in regular real estate deals. So, first of all, did I hear that right? And if I did, could you say more about that and why that’s the case? And also, what do you think is a good return?
Eve: [00:26:21] I think that’s not necessarily true across all types of real estate; affordable housing is the most difficult.
Janine: [00:26:30] Ah.
Eve: [00:26:30] And that’s because the more you return to an investor or a bank, the higher rents are going to be for the tenants.
Janine: [00:26:38] Right. I get it.
Eve: [00:26:39] So, if subsidy goes away as it has been, and we get a bigger and bigger and bigger need for affordable housing, which we have, this gap, ok? And if investors continue to want to be, quite frankly, a little bit greedy and expect 20 percent internal rate of return, I don’t know how you build those projects and keep housing affordable if that continues. So …
Janine: [00:27:09] Yeah.
Eve: [00:27:09] There are many examples of affordable housing projects we’ve done on Small Change that are offering quite generous returns. But they can do that because they have, they are a mixed-use project, they have new market tax credits, they have a grant from the city, they have, you know, historic tax, they do public-private financing, maxxed to be able to squeeze out the best return they can for investors. Very difficult. And so I think that’s not true for all real estate, but definitely for that class of real estate. I think a lot has to happen for it to be kind of a normal market driven …
Janine: [00:27:55] That actually makes a ton of sense. I totally hear what you’re saying. And I think those kinds of things in real estate and other verticals like health and education, perhaps. That not everything is going to deliver market rate returns. I mean, I think one of the fallacies and the problems that have come out of the impact investing movement, if you want to call it that, is the belief, or that’s come out of our very, the way we think about capitalism, is that everything has a market … everything can be done through the market. And that’s just totally not true. There’s a, there are brilliant things that can happen, like what you’re talking about with affordable housing that can deliver a good return to an investor. If there is a subsidy brought in, or if there is a recognition that, you know, this business model is not going to completely wash its face, it’s not going to completely be able to return what it needs to return. But there’s lots of ways that you can bring in guarantees or you can bring in first tranches of money that are willing to take a greater loss. Or very interesting things you can do with a financial stack.
Eve: [00:29:23] But ultimately is it right for a private investor to get a 15 to 20 percent return on a project that will only move forward if there’s tons of subsidy. Kind of wrong.
Janine: [00:29:37] I’m not sure it is because, look at the alternative. The alternative, and this is kind of what happened in the microfinance world. So, in microfinance, it was reaching 100 million people. It definitely was shown to help bring people out of poverty. It was completely driven by grants. And there was, when I got involved in it in 2002, there was this huge battle going on between proponents of, like, the Grameen Bank, of keeping it completely the way it had always been and fully driven by grants, and a new group of players who were saying, yes, but we can actually commercialize these microfinance institutions and turn them into commercially viable institutions. And there was this huge battle between those two. They hated each other, actually. And what ended up happening is the commercial play actually got proven out. It was shown that you can, in fact, commercialize microfinance and you can reach a lot more, and the whole technology piece that I talked about came out of that as well. And now you’ve got, from the time I got started, so that two and a half, in a basically a 10 year span in that two and a half billion people who were previously unbanked. It’s now gone below two billion. So, by bringing capital that was seeking a return into the mix, that whole thing was able to scale in a way that it would never have scaled just on grants. Right?
Eve: [00:31:18] But I think when I’m talking about is, we had an offering on Small Change that was an homeless housing project in L.A., just a small offering. But the developers were determined to open it up to the community. And the funds they get, the rent they get is actually from the government. So, it’s going to be affordable housing in perpetuity. It’s not going to, you know, increase in value and be sold at a profit. So …
Janine: [00:31:48] Right.
Eve: [00:31:49] … was a fixed return, OK, return over years, which was a nine percent return, which I thought was pretty generous. And that offering actually filled up faster than any we’ve had.
Janine: [00:32:01] Yeah. I’m not surprised.
Eve: [00:32:03] So that question to me was, do you think we could offer a little less and still raise money, because that’s hard, to add in a nine percent return to a project like that? And I don’t know the answer.
Janine: [00:32:14] Well, you try. I mean, I’m … I think the thing is, you know, people are going to look at this like anything else. They’re going to look at it from a risk returns scenario. So in my own personal portfolio, I have money in bonds that are returning me three or four percent. Right. So that’s OK, because I know that those are pretty secure and chances are I’m not going to lose my principal.
Eve: [00:32:42] Right.
Janine: [00:32:42] So getting three or four percent is OK. But if I’m going to put money into a private business where in five years, 50 percent of private businesses will be out of business, then my risk is a lot higher because I don’t know that that business is actually going to succeed and I could lose everything. Right? So I’m looking for a better return in a three to four percent. The same thing is going to be true in a real estate deal. I mean, if you’re asking me to invest in something and I’m going to get a five percent return on it, then I’m going to need to feel pretty dang confident that I’m going to get that five percent return and I’m going to get my principal back. And that’s not always possible in a real estate deal.
Eve: [00:33:27] And you get to feel good because you’ll be housing most people, right?
Janine: [00:33:34] Yes. Yes, I get that. And I also get that people need to make enough return on their money to be able to retire and have the things that they want, too. And they’re not going to put that at risk. So, I think there’s a, but I, you know, I talked to a woman yesterday who’s on the other side of this discussion, and I really liked her a ton. She was great. She’s very committed. She is very, you know, in integrity with herself. And she really believes that people should be willing to make investments and get no return if they’re doing good stuff in the world. And that that is the way the world should go and that we should stop even thinking about return at all. So, she’s got a very different perspective on it.
Eve: [00:34:19] I think if you have enough wealth that you can do that with some of your money, that’s fantastic. But you’re right, most people can’t,.
Janine: [00:34:26] No, they can’t.
Eve: [00:34:27] They need to live, too.
Janine: [00:34:29] So, yeah, in fact, in doing the research on this book, I found that in the United States, there are 14 million people who are millionaires, about 14, 15 million people. Right? Five percent of this, five, six percent of the country. So, if that’s true and if 95 percent of us aren’t millionaires, then, you know, asking people to not get a return on their money is a pretty big ask.
Janine: [00:35:03] Yeah. An I don’t think, and I don’t think that one percent of us who really have wealth are sufficient to solve this problem.
Eve: [00:35:15] Yes.
Janine: [00:35:17] So, we have to find ways that the majority of us can participate in solving this problem. And that means that we need to do this in a way that they can feel comfortable with the return they’re getting. And I think subsidizing to help them do that is not necessarily a bad thing. And I actually think that’s where the really rich people could come in, is that they could provide some of those subsidies, so they can take lower return to help other people’s money come in at a higher level of return.
Eve: [00:35:51] So do you think that these new crowdfunding rules, like my platform, Small Change, where we use regulation crowdfunding to let anyone invest? Do you think that is a path towards a solution?
Janine: [00:36:02] I think it’s one of them, and I think it’s, Yes, I do. I think it’s a really interesting path. And I think that people who are non-accredited, it’s been kind of fascinating to me as well how differently wealthy people invest than people who aren’t. And it’s not right that people who aren’t wealthy shouldn’t be allowed to invest in vehicles that can provide them with more direct opportunities to have impact with their money and to provide them with greater return. I mean, there is way more risk, for sure. And some people could make bad decisions. You need to do your homework with this. But there are a lot of really smart people out there who are non-accredited who would put in the time and effort to make the right decisions and they should be allowed to.
Eve: [00:36:56] No, you and I agree about that. And I also, I really don’t like the idea of classes of investors. So that, you know, I’ve had discussions with developers who think that accredited investors want more, deserve more, and I …
Janine: [00:37:14] Yeah.
Eve: [00:37:14] … can’t agree with that. I think money should be given the same opportunity. And unaccredited investors who had absolutely zero opportunity to get, you know, a half a percent return from your bank account if you’re lucky.
Janine: [00:37:26] Right.
Eve: [00:37:26] That’s just not OK. So …
Janine: [00:37:29] No, it’s not. And you know, the truth is, there’s a great book I read a long time ago by a guy named Nocera about sort of the evolution of money. And, you know, actually even before him, if you go back, San Francisco history. So, this is a story I absolutely adore. The Bank of America. Do you know the origin story of the Bank of America? It’s sort of incredible.
Eve: [00:37:53] No, I don’t.
Janine: [00:37:55] So, quick version. So, it started in before 1906. There was an Italian immigrant in the San Francisco, in San Francisco itself, actually, who decided that, at that time, the only people who could have bank accounts were extraordinarily wealthy people. J.P. Morgan, you know, that kind of ilk of person. And so he decided, you know what, I think the average man and woman should have bank accounts and be able to get loans. And so he started this bank. It was called the Bank of Italy. And nobody used him because nobody trusted banks. And so then came 1906, the famous earthquake of San Francisco. And he rushed to his bank. He took all the cash out of his safe. He put it in a wheelbarrow. He put, you know, fruit and vegetables over this thing that he had all his money in. And he carted it out of San Francisco. And then he met with the other bankers and they were talking about what they were going to do for the city. And the other bankers were saying, well, we’ve got to wait six months before we can open our banks. It’s too dangerous. You know, bad stuff is going to happen. And so this man, his name is A.P. Giannini. He took that cart or whatever he had of money and he brought it to Fisherman’s Wharf and he set up a little table using barrels and a log, and he started giving out money.
Eve: [00:39:30] Wow.
Janine: [00:39:30] People came to him and he gave them loans. And all he asked was their signature. He trusted them. And the people were so responsive to that, they had so much gratitude, that his bank grew and the Bank of Italy became the Bank of America.
Eve: [00:39:50] That’s a great story. Yeah.
Janine: [00:39:51] Right? So, and if you look at the history of money and you look at, what you find is that time and time again, there was some innovator like him who said, “You know what? This shouldn’t only be for the rich.” That’s how we got money, mutual funds, and that’s how we got invested in, that’s how anyone can invest in the stock market. It wasn’t always that way either. That was also just something for the rich. So, time and time again, we have seen these things come online for wealthy people. And then some innovator says, you know what? It doesn’t have to be this way.
Eve: [00:40:32] Yes.
Janine: [00:40:34] And then the rest of us can participate.
Eve: [00:40:35] Fascinating. So given all of that, what do you think the future of real estate impact investing lies?
Janine: [00:40:43] I’m going to take a step back first and say, where does the future of impact or values aligned investing lie first, and I believe it is going to become ubiquitous. I believe that ultimately this is the way people are going to invest writ large, that their values are going to matter to them as much as their return. And they’re going to realize they don’t have to give up both. And I think that the real estate piece of this, because it’s more complicated for people, is going to be a little longer to come online. But I think there will ultimately be a lot of really interesting opportunities, for all of us, to invest in real estate, too, because it is a great diversifier.
Eve: [00:41:23] Yes.
Janine: [00:41:25] And I’m a huge fan. When I was a young girl, my favorite movie of all time was Gone With the Wind. And, you know, I totally love that she always goes back to the land and she realizes that regardless of what’s happening around her, the land is something tangible and real. And it’s something that she can hold on to. And I think that’s still true today.
Eve: [00:41:49] Well, that was some really fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for joining me, Janine. I’m sure we’re going to be talking again soon.
Janine: [00:41:58] My pleasure. Thank you so much. I enjoyed it, too.
Eve: [00:42:03] That was Janine Firpo. Here are some of the things I learned during our fascinating conversation. First, not only can you expect financial return when you make a socially responsible investment, you can meet or even beat the market. Second, only five percent of the U.S. population is a millionaire. That means that 95 percent of the population does not have access to investment opportunities that are largely available for the wealthy. Finally, figuring out what impact means in real estate investing is difficult for someone starting out. It’s impossible to find consistent metrics. You can find out more about impact real estate investing, and access the show notes for today’s episode at my website, EvePicker.com. While you’re there, sign up for my newsletter to find out more about how to make money in real estate while building better cities. Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. And thank you, Janine, for sharing your thoughts with me. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Janine Firpo