Cynthia Muller is the Director of Mission Investment at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation based out of Battle Creek, Michigan.
Described as a “thought leader of the impact investing ecosystem and a trailblazer in the field,” Cynthia has been at Kellogg since 2016, first serving as a program officer with their Mission Driven Investments division, then as its director. Previously, she developed and managed the impact investment practice at Arabella Advisors, which involved deal sourcing and structuring of investments in health, education, micro-finance, housing and green technology – domestically and abroad.
At Kellogg, the team she works with does grant-making and makes investments (in both nonprofit and for-profit organizations). Their core mission is to “improve the lives of children, their families and their communities, with an emphasis on investments that help to dismantle the root causes of racial inequity.” Since Kellogg’s Mission Driven Investments was created in 2007, they have put $100 million towards market-rate investments, and $50 million strategically towards below market-rate program-related investments.
Cynthia also served for seven years as the director of strategic investments for Capital Impact Partners where her work on impact investments targeted health, food, education, energy efficiency and economic development. And she serves on the boards of Groundswell and Enterprise Community Loan Fund. She holds a Master of Business Administration from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington and a bachelors degree in psychology from Stanford University.
Insights and Inspirations
- Every time there has been opportunity for black and brown people to build an asset, to build wealth, it has been taken away from them.
- Who do we consider deal worthy?
- Their family bought land one generation after slavery. The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave It.
- Cynthia thinks power mapping is the go-to community engagement tool.
Information and Links
- Cynthia is a staunch advocate of local investment through Community Financial Development Institutions (CDFIs), having done her first community development deal early in her career in her home state of Alaska.
- She’s particularly proud of the Kellogg Foundation’s commitment to investing in fund managers and entrepreneurs of color, including organizations like Blavity, Impact America Fund and Rethink Impact.
- At this critical moment, she’s re-reading Jennifer Eberhardt’s book Biased, and the Business Case for Racial Equity.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:15] Hi there, thanks so much for joining me today for the latest episode of Impact Real Estate Investing.
Eve: [00:00:22] My guest today is Cynthia Muller. She’s the director of Mission Driven Investment at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Cynthia doesn’t see herself as a leader, but she is. She’s been described as a thought leader of the impact investing ecosystem and a trailblazer in the field. Cynthia has been at Kellogg since 2016, first serving as a program officer with their mission driven investment division, then as its director. There she is wholly focused on their core mission to deploy investments that help to dismantle the root causes of racial inequity. She’s taking action.
Eve: [00:01:18] Be sure to go to rethinkrealestateforgood.co to find out more about Cynthia 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: [00:01:41] Hi, Cynthia. I’m just really delighted to have this opportunity to talk to you.
Cynthia Muller: [00:01:47] Me too, Eve. It’s been great, it’s great to connect and I’ve been a huge fan of the podcast and I’m really excited for our conversation today.
Eve: [00:01:54] Oh, that’s lovely to hear. OK, so I like having fans. So tell me, just to set the scene, what’s your background and how did you become a leader in impact investing?
Cynthia: [00:02:11] I honestly, I didn’t set out, by any reason, I certainly don’t think of myself as one now. I’m really just a practitioner and I have the fortune to work for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, where I lead our Mission Driven Investment program, which is about 13 years old, focused on impact investment. We do both MTRIs, our mission really did invest in market rate investments, as well as concessionary investments known at the foundation as program-related investment. And it’s a small 450 million but it’s really exciting because that pool has really been a tool for us at the foundation to learn how do we invest with a more equitable lend? How do we invest understanding that not only are we achieving a financial return, but we are also targeting demonstratable, tangible social impact?
Cynthia Muller: [00:03:02] And so, 13 years ago when our board approved this, they also declared us an anti-racist organization. In that same year in 2007, our predecessor, previous president of our foundation, as well as board members who are currently and of the past, had, knew that there were opportunities for us to think about how do we use tools differently, how do we think about systems differently? And so, 13 years later, it’s all culminating now this intersection between understand that there would be systems that people operate in and even though these systems are built for everyone, they don’t work for everyone. And I think what I’m heartened, despite this is a terribly difficult time to see what all of the loss of life, as well as the challenges that many folks are facing, and in particular, the poor Black, native and other marginalized groups that were already systematically left behind who now, yet have a double whammy to try and catch up.
Cynthia: [00:04:08] But that is also an incredible opportunity for groups that we fund and that we partner with. These are groups that are in communities. These are groups that, through their advocacy, lived experience and continued representation of the communities, know exactly what tools, what resources they need in order to build the community that will work truly for everyone. So, I’m so excited about that, this work and about the ways in which we can think about these systems, right? Because we’re in such a period of inflection. We, in philanthropy, you know, obviously we, like a lot of other industries, are going through our own reckoning and how we navigate the non-profit sector and social impact and even how we navigate being complicit in some of these practices of white supremacy in these systems. So, for me, it’s really helping to figure out how to use these tools to unlock and really help to support our folks in developing resources, tools and funds, models that truly could be resonant and sustainable for communities in the long term.
Eve: [00:05:12] I read somewhere that you said, you talked about approaching racial equity, not with guilt, but with an impact lens, which I love. I think that’s a really meaningful shift in understanding for me, I suppose. And I wanted to start talking about, like, this is a really huge subject we all know but I’m in the little real estate industry section of it and I wanted to start talking about, you know, how the real estate industry fails people of color and what you think are some of the key things going wrong.
Cynthia: [00:05:47] Sure. And, I want to couch my remarks carefully, because, again to the point, I don’t want to guilt, you know, folks in these conversations. These conversations are really to help illuminate, right? Illuminate how people actually experience working in these systems. And I think, in real estate industry in particular, I think is interesting, obviously built off our understanding of what it means to own land. Our, I should say, Western understanding of what it means to own land. And that’s derived from obviously the theft of land from Native Americans several hundred years ago.
Cynthia: [00:06:25] And so, the start was there. The start with our fundamental understanding of what it means to land. And so, when you have a society that has been built on taking land from folks already there and then re-giving it out, well of course you’re going to have flaws in the system several hundreds of years later because it perpetuates this idea of who owns the land and who has the right to decide on it. But that’s not to say that for 2020, I think in the ways that real estate has left Black communities behind, I think it’s similar to how the finance industry or even the entertainment industry has left Black communities behind. They leverage the work, the creativity of folks in use of their land. And it really started with slavery, with the renaming of the 40 acres and a mule. And so, folks who had nothing coming out of reconstruction where they were promised this land and they had it for a couple of years before it was unfortunately taken back and given to other folks, and in that case, those who have resources. And so, I think compound that over generations. Right? Every time there was an opportunity for black and brown people to build an asset, to build wealth, unfortunately and systematically, it was taken away through, either through force like we saw in, you know, in many examples that we’ve been learning about, but we also learned through other means, through legal means, right?
Cynthia: [00:07:53] And for me in my own journey, in understanding how these systems work, and even myself being complicit and working in organizations that didn’t know, or to understand how, you know, we continue to perpetuate this divide through our financing structures, through how we even underwrite our deals, who we consider deal-worthy, even by zip code. And so I think all of that’s to say that we all operate in this environment of a real estate where we understand who owns things based on who it’s passed down to, the legal structures, but as we have learned through great reporting like The Atlantic and The New York Times and others, there have been generations of folks who’ve been losing their land. And one of the greatest examples right now is the great Black land theft. There’s a great, great piece in ProPublica on just that. Basically, the systematic theft of Black land that’s been left to families through generations. And unfortunately, the families that they gifted this land are unable to, for a variety of reasons, maybe they don’t have the assets to find a lawyer or understand how to reach the appropriate folks to document ownership. And so, this creates more vulnerability and predatory behavior by others who see it as an opportunity.
[00:09:11] And so, I think that’s all to say that’s how the system works. We see how the money comes in. We see who is getting financed, how these big real estate funds are able to amass all this property through systematic purchasing. And we see how this plays out in local communities where there are a handful of individuals or families that own the real estate, right? And so, unfortunately, for folks who, like myself, my father was in Vietnam, came back from the war, settled in Alaska and worked as a civilian on the Air Force base for many years and was ultimately able to buy his own property. But that was after a lot of handwringing. He had to jump through a lot of different hoops, thinking about financing in different ways because traditional banks were going to put him through extra steps that he wasn’t willing to go through. So, every time we talk about creating wealth for people, that’s great. But it’s not that everybody has the same access and opportunity to create that wealth. I think that’s, quite frankly, how real estate fails black and brown communities. That lack of recognition is very much obviously focused on the bottom line and that exchange of the assets and who owns and how much revenue we can glean from it but we never systematically just sit down and think about who actually is benefiting from this and who is it benefiting from this?
Eve: [00:10:37] I mean, that’s just a huge problem. And, you know, and the predatory behavior is continuing today in different ways. So, it isn’t like it’s stopped. So, what would it take to correct this? We’re talking about banks that won’t lend to certain groups of people. We’re talking about people who go into poor neighborhoods and purchase homes for less than market value. We’re talking about all sorts of, kind of, failings that ultimately impact people who don’t have the resources to deal with it, right?
Cynthia: [00:11:13] Mm hmm, that’s right. So how do we, how do we help them, right?
Eve: [00:11:16] How do we start, right?
Cynthia: [00:11:20] So now that we’ve painted this dire… What’s out there? There are some incredible areas of opportunity and great work. One of those is really around community development finance. This is an industry that’s been around for 40-something years. This really came out of church groups, non-profits creating loan funds all over the country to do justice, to be that bridge finance or for, in those places and those communities, for those people who are being overlooked. And so, there are several thousand CDFIs across the country, they’re all kinds of shapes and sizes. Some of them are national, some of them are in places, some of them are thematically structured, but they’re all in the service of deploying capital. And a lot of them are very much active in the real estate market because a lot of great programs in the 80s and 90s and then the aughts have really allowed the industry to flourish. New market tax credits to various CDFI fund programs, healthy food financing.
Cynthia: [00:12:24] I do think the CDFI space has done a tremendous job. We’ve got a great history and track record of these transactions. I think the challenge is that the industry is a little dispersed. Obviously, it’s all over the country and each CDFI has its own individual strategy. And I think further, the CDFI industry has been really, really thoughtful about scaling up and figuring out how do we start to do larger deals so we can be a more significant player with the larger banks. And I think we’ve proven that case. I think, unfortunately, though, we have veered a little bit away from providing capital to the folks in the most need.
Cynthia: [00:13:05] And I say this because when we, as we have been trying to marry this impact and finance, I think this field is borne out of a number of different things and I think the folks that have come to it have brought all of this incredible insight and talent and resources from a lot of the institutional finance investment. Some of those folks came from banks, they came from investment banking, they came from equity, venture capital, the whole industry. Now if you think about it, what are those industries lacking? A lens into these communities, a connection into these communities. And unfortunately, I think that it still comes out in different ways. And so, I’ll say that while we have incredible groups that are providing capital to low-income communities, we’re still not hitting the most marginalized. We’re hitting cities, we’re hitting gentrifying areas. And so, if you actually look at some of the loans across the country, we are, we’re actually, we’re doing work but we’re hitting the wrong areas.
[00:14:02] And so for me, it’s really helping to illuminate what these other opportunities look like and that CDFIs and others have the opportunity to really bring their lens and this 40 years of working in low income communities to the space, and to provide that capital. That quite frankly, and it’s already happening in so many ways. In the news recently, we’re hearing about groups like Netflix and PayPal who are deploying tens of millions of dollars into CDFIs and community banks to help folks address these needs. And PPP, the subsequent round after the first round, they made sure to include CDFIs because, obviously, they realized really quickly that there was a whole flock of folks that were being left behind. I think CDFIs aren’t the panacea, but I do think they are a huge partner, along with other asset holders that help to influence how we structure the practice.
Eve: [00:14:55] Yes. I think developers., OK let’s talk about developers. They’re often, you know, that’s often considered a bad word in underserved neighborhoods, while there are, I think, quite a few developers who really want to do the right thing. So how we train developers to fully understand the consequences of their projects? And can we do that? Can we really, like, look ahead 20 years and understand what might happen in a neighborhood?
Cynthia: [00:15:27] Yeah, I think we can. I think we got a little bit of a lesson with Opportunity Zones. While…. hold out with me here. Opportunity Zones obviously a lot of challenges. I personally have a lot of challenges with them in the way that the program is structured, and I think folks have talked about this in detail. So, I don’t think I have anything else to add. But I do think there were a number of my peers who were really trying to figure out just that. How do they help to show, demonstrate, the practice of making these investments in communities with that land? Right? Because that was the general intent that I think that a lot of folks had expected and unfortunately the program did not have enough accountability metrics to really allow for that to really play out.
Cynthia: [00:16:15] And so we’ve gotten what we’ve gotten, you know, a lot of deals that didn’t go into high need communities. However, the work that Kresge Foundation funded really around, how do we look at these transactions with that lens? I think that was the most valuable piece of what we learned from Opportunity Funds so far, is that we can go in with a good intent, right? We know that the idea was to bring in new money, right? But we also realized that, unfortunately, capital markets need some accountability, you know. And I know that there’s varying degrees of how we can play that. But it’s clear to me that had we been clear about when you’re going into these communities, here are kind of the criteria. How are you engaging with the community? What’s the community’s voice? Does the community have an actual equity stake in this development? If so, how? Right? So how do we get past this rubber stamp where people hold community meetings to say they did it and say the community’s involved, right? How do we actually push for meaningful?
Cynthia: [00:17:18] I think the answer is pretty simple. I think the answer is that communities have a voice. And a voice that I think that people have been so surprised and shocked by. And it’s been social media. Think about what we are able to see now right outside of the news. When I was growing up, you saw the news and that was your world view, right? And whatever news you’ve watched? And now your world view is not just the news you watch, it’s the social media system and the people you connect with. And so, think about communities you see all over the country right now with, you know, Municipal Boards and cities debating and hearing the community talk about how they’re being failed. And that is raising the visibility around a lot of the gaps. And I think that’s really where the opportunity is. Because when you have a community that engaged, that community is willing to be involved and willing to go with you on that journey. And also, it means that there is an accountability there, that you can’t just come into that community and say you’re going to do one thing and not follow up.
Cynthia: [00:18:19] And I think that, quite frankly, developers, unfortunately, have a reputation. And I think this is an opportunity for them to work in a meaningful way, because I think in the long term that actually benefits them. If they have a community that’s bought into, right? It’s going to compound the prosperity of that asset, of that community and the longevity of that community, right? And bring in more folks. And so, you want that compounding effect, but you have to spend the time to do it. And unfortunately, underwriting, due diligence, structuring doesn’t allow for that. So how do you do that in a meaningful way that still allows folks to get their deals done to set up these projects to house, provide services to folks without going through a two-year journey of learning this community? And I think the answer, quite frankly, is that the community has to be involved in the development, right? It means that we have to think about their engagement differently. And it’s not just the developer who’s developing, it’s the community who’s developing their own community. It’s a very deep philosophical shift, but it’s one where I think where it’s the time for us to be having a conversation.
Eve: [00:19:23] Yeah, no, I agree. But I think, you know, it’s a very different conversation when it’s a small developer versus a large one. It’s about resources and what’s possible and it’s a huge industry doing a lot of different things. It’s difficult.
Cynthia: [00:19:40] When you talk about small, like, the small developer, and I’m thinking about, you know, obviously there’s the developers in New York and L.A. and then you’ve got developers in the Midwest and in these smaller cities. And there are different dynamics there, right? There’s a little bit more, obviously, insular, you know. It obviously depends on who owns what assets, the political leanings of folks in power and whatnot. But I do think, given Covid, given the Black Lives Matter uprisings, we’re in a place in time where that’s our leverage. Right? Because we all want to build stronger communities. We all want to live in safe, strong communities. And I think that’s the message for us, right? Where we’ve been living in the last four months in Covid and all of this. And there’s so much fear and people just want to get to their communities. And so, it just feels like, if there were a call-out to developers, it would be now. You have an opportunity to rewrite how you show up in communities, how you develop communities, who you develop communities with.
Eve: [00:20:50] So, I want to go up the food chain just a little bit more because it isn’t just developers. When developers look for equity, which, you know, over the last 15 years they have needed more and more of as banks have retracted the amount they will lend. You know, when you need to find 35 or 40 percent of the development cost as equity, you have to pay for that. Now we’re in the market where there’s investors who are seeking a return for the risk they’re taking. And I think, more than anything, that return drives what goes on, right?
Cynthia: [00:21:26] It does.
Eve: [00:21:27] And I think there are expectations of return in real estate that I’ve heard, you know, are 25 percent internal rate of return. How can you ever build anything affordable for a community when that’s the equity that you have access to? You know I have Small Change and I’ve been trying to raise money for meaningful projects, and this is this is the question I always get from developers. How much return do I have to give to investors to raise the money? And I don’t really know the answer because I think there is kind of the level of greed and I wish that were kind of reduced right now, but I don’t know the answer. I don’t know if you have thoughts about that.
Cynthia: [00:22:12] While impact investing or social mission investing or whatever folks call it, I think we’re in a moment. There’s enough of us now, we’re in major investment banks, we have our own celebrities now and I think our practice out there. Listen, like Netflix dedicating 100 million to Black banks all over the US didn’t happen overnight, right? These funds that are 200-million-dollar impact funds didn’t happen overnight. There are investors who understand how to manage risk and how to manage impact. I think the challenge is in creating a better flow between those investors and to folks that are raising those dollars. And that’s the piece that I think we constantly run up against. What’s nice is, through the global impact investment networks, through groups like SOCAP and Confluence and others, we have these great anchor organizations within our field that are really able to connect folks to the deal. So, for instance, at Confluence I just think they do a fantastic job, really kind of digging in in specific things and bringing their investors together. So, like any investor that has an interest in an area can go in. And in with other folks that have been looking at similar deals and to engage. I think it’s really creating more visibility and awareness around that practice.
Cynthia: [00:23:36] And one of the things I think that it’s already being seeded, it’s been seeded, is that we are in so many business schools right now, there’s so much impact investing being baked in into MBA programs, into graduate programs all over the country. We are also, we have a dearth of folks who are interested in the space and not enough jobs. And so, I think that I would put it out to developers to really start to look at that. There’s a whole dearth of folks that are coming into the industry with this orientation. Hire them, engage them, especially if they’re from these communities. Because what I have found is that a lot of these students and the young folks, the way that they’re coming up in the world is not in these silos, the way that the world is so much more fluid. And so, it makes so much more sense, the why. For them this is, this integration, is much more, is a no-brainer. Unfortunately, we’re on the other side of it or trying to reorient our infrastructure, our approach, our lens into that. And so, I would say for investors and for folks, for developers, smaller developers, looking for this type of investor, I that that with the impact field in the regard that we have community foundations in every major city in this country, we’ve got family foundations, we’ve got private foundations, and we’ve got a lot of individuals, like a lot of your listenership and your partners, right? And so, we have to start to message that and get that out more. And I think it’s starting to take root. It’s just, it’s a lot. It’s a lot in this environment, right? To introduce in a completely new framing.
Eve: [00:25:12] It is. Yeah. And then, you know, there’s also redlining, which was supposed to be gone, right?
Cynthia: [00:25:21] No, yeah, no it never went away, never went away.
Eve: [00:25:24] It never went away. So how does that get eradicated? How will that go away?
Cynthia: [00:25:31] So familiar. You know, there are recent reports of some of the cases, and current cases of redlining are still there. And so, I think this is also a finer point, right? So, while we are being aspirational, working in this new normal, we still have to recognize we have vestiges of this old practice. And I think that for many groups that are wanting to engage, and what do I do now, it’s really continued to let up and figuring out how do we support those communities. Look at the communities that haven’t been, who haven’t had any investment. And it’s not easy, it’s not hard to find them, right. And you can see exactly who has been flown over and the bank does, or what have you. Start looking at them.
Cynthia: [00:26:16] So, whenever folks come to us and they’re like, oh, my gosh, we got we’ve got 50-million-dollars, which we do. All right. So, I ask them to look at their issue areas, look at and think about who’s benefiting and who isn’t, and then really focus on who isn’t. And that’s your baseline. And then you build from there you look at, all right, so if this community does not have access to housing, we’re like, well, OK, well what other alternatives, right? Is a smaller housing unit? Is it partnerships with other groups? It’s really helping them to reframe their lens instead of how the deals fit within the future is, to look at what the actual deal is and how you look for the opportunity.
Cynthia: [00:26:56] And I think that given that this recession will hit us very much in places different than the last recession and in a sense, because, look how Covid is hitting us now. The wave will be similar. So, I think the developers in those places that will be in a tremendous amount of opportunity and need for creativity.
Eve: [00:27:22] Yes.
Cynthia: [00:27:22] To help to buy up some of these properties, to help them ensure that they maintain affordability, that they are owned by Black and brown community. And so that’s where I would go. I would look at that and start to think about how do we, how do we help reinforce these communities.
Eve: [00:27:38] Right. Oh, OK.
Cynthia: [00:27:43] Sorry, we said we’d go heavy and deep.
Eve: [00:27:48] I know, it’s hard work, isn’t it? Just shifting gears, a little bit, how much money is being deployed in impact investing at the moment and how much you expect that to grow?
Cynthia: [00:28:01] Yes so impact investing has, over the last few years, has grown a tremendous amount. And so, in the most recent global impact investment report, I believe that the size, and they, every year, they do a survey of self-identified impact investing and impact investors, that every year it’s been going up. And so, this year, I think we’re up into several trillion. And what’s really exciting is if you actually look at the impact investing, if you look at that survey, do it every year, you can see, year over year, exponential growth of the folks that are identifying in this space. And even more so, if you look here in the US, you can see more and more folks that have, who have investable assets, who are very much interested. So, the signs show that there is interest.
Cynthia: [00:28:44] I think the challenge is like, OK, what is that interest, right? And how do we translate that interest into capital and into these deals? And I think that’s the piece that, what we do in our grant-making and with our peers in the impact investing field, it’s where, how are we creating new vehicles, whether they’re investment vehicles and organizations or even thinking about the fintech infrastructure, right? So, there’s a lot of conversations around that. And how do we attract investors to participate in, kind of, this fintech revolution or should we in some cases? And I think that’s all to say, that there’s a momentum and it’s just connecting that momentum with folks who have capital. And the folks who have capital are very much interested in that. A least based on my schedule calls.
Eve: [00:29:34] You said the folks that have capital and that that’s actually what interests me most because everyone has a little bit of capital. I think about how everyone could be involved. And, you know, when you build a new project in a neighborhood that is funded through foundation funds or government funds or new market tax credits or however, you basically increasing, eventually, the asset value of that neighborhood. And then there are people who are left behind. We call that gentrification. I think there’s probably some good things about gentrification. You can’t, you know, not leaving neighborhoods in deplorable states is one of them. I think investments have to be made. But how do you make sure that the little people also get to be part of this, maybe even get to invest?
Cynthia: [00:30:27] Yeah, and I think the more that we can democratize investing, I think the better. The same way think about social media, the way that we’ve democratized people’s voices. Some would argue there’s a downside, and there definitely is…
Eve: [00:30:42] Yeah, there definitely is.
Cynthia: [00:30:44] I will not deny that. But think about it. Think of the voices we’ve been able to hear; think of the things that we’ve been able to see.
Eve: [00:30:52] Yes.
Cynthia: [00:30:52] Think about the deals. Now translate that to investment. Think about the deals we’ll be able to do as a result of people’s voices and perspectives who outside of our industry. And I think there’ll be a reckoning for us around what does risk actually mean? When you think about the risk of National Guardsmen coming into your city and bringing, and all of the chaos that could come with that, right, because some of these protests? And so, I think risk is really what’s on the table, is like, how do we, a free market, define risk? And that’s what’s really happening, because it’s clear that people have defined risk in ways that have been self-serving to one group or groups over others, right?
Eve: [00:31:36] Yes.
Cynthia: [00:31:36] And so, and that’s where we’re at. That’s where we’re at. But wait a minute, you didn’t have, you know, how many folks were like, wait a minute, you know, why couldn’t you waive our rent? These are all issues that are based on the system, but we can dictate the system based on what the need is in this given moment. And I think that that’s really caused a lot of consternation in folks, and particularly those folks that are coming, that are growing up, progressing in their careers and realizing they’re not going to have the same opportunities as the parents.
Eve: [00:32:11] Right.
Cynthia: [00:32:12] Or the grandparents. Are you even remotely, you know.
Eve: [00:32:17] So, a completely different question again. What community engagement tools have you seen that have really worked?
Cynthia: [00:32:26] Power mapping. It’s probably one of my, the best tools in the sense of really, if you are an investor who wants to, you want to make sure that you’re engaging in community in a sufficient and a meaningful way and, be real, like the Black community, right? And often folks especially, say a white developer, or white-led organizations don’t know how to navigate that. So, I would encourage folks to look at things like power mapping and helping them to understand why some communities will be so resistant to developers. This takes reflection and really understanding around the barrage of issues that these communities are facing. And obviously, place is paramount, but now on top of that, access to health care, access to jobs. And so, when you think about that and you have developers that are coming in, we’re going to fix your lives with this new development and then not deliver. And then rinse and repeat. That bears out, that really shows up in the community. I encourage folks to always go into understanding power. How has it been stripped from this community? You know, in the past, how has it enabled the community? You learn about the history, right? It really helps you to understand, how do you find a project, or structure a project, that will get through and be meaningful and beneficial to the community. So, I always start with power mapping.
Cynthia: [00:33:48] I also start with, you know, there are a lot of really great local data and analytics there. Folks who are just totally crunching the data for the communities, right? And really using that to program. Look at them. A lot of folks like to bring in national groups and they’re great, too but I think these local groups have access to data, they have the nuance of this data, that I think is far more powerful and insightful to folks who are thinking about a comprehensive project. That’s the data that helps to tell the story of that community. And so, so many stories of communities have been forgotten or reframed. And so, I would also think about them, making sure you’re getting an understanding of that community, not the, you know, not the one that’s told you by folks who are selling it, but really the community. Right? And so, you know, when you’re going in, you know what you experience with blockers in that development.
Eve: [00:34:46] That’s really, that’s really fascinating. OK, so, where do you think the future of real estate impact investing lies, like 10 years from now? What does this all look like?
Cynthia: [00:34:57] Gosh. Hopefully, it means we see more community making decisions about what businesses are there and more deep engagement, right? I think we’ve seen a lot of national chains that go into various communities and doing a lot of extractive practices, unfortunately. And so, I’m hopeful that we see a little bit of a rightsizing of that, right? And I think where we see much more meaningful and thoughtful engagement from a lot of our national corporates who are a critical partner to community development all over this country. I also hope that we have better models for underwriting these projects and ensuring that we’re thinking about risk in the proper way. And then we are also, we’re comfortable with a different form of return from some of these projects we’ll take. We all, many of us, are long-term investors, right? But we all, we say we’re long term investors, but that’s not how we act. And so, I think that’ll be an interesting piece, I hope that it helps us to shake out a new framing around that.
Eve: [00:36:05] And so what’s next for you? What are you working on?
Cynthia: [00:36:10] A couple of things. Something that I’m really excited about, well as much as you can be excited about trying to systematically eradicate racial injustice in the capital markets, is really some of this ecosystem building. So, for instance, like I said, you know, this recession is going to be so localized and so for, in my mind, that it creates a lot of opportunities with a lot of our local leaders and a lot of folks are about to become local leaders. And so, there’s the conversations that are happening in some of these cities around that and thinking about innovative financing structure. So, I’m really excited about that, Eve. I’m also excited about getting a little more visibility to many of our under-banked and under-financed regions, most notably in the US south. The US south are going to have like 45 percent of our population, is probably the most impoverished counties and cities across the country. And yet we barely have banked them. We barely have community banks and other resources to help these communities, kind of figure out the tools and structures that would work for them and so, for me, it’s really connecting those dots and really helping them build those eco systems and driving more capital and connecting investors to those burgeoning opportunities and businesses and funds.
Eve: [00:37:36] Well, I think you’ll have your hands full, in fact, I think we’re all going to have our hands full, but it is, as you said, an opportunity. Thank you so much for talking to me today. I really enjoyed our conversation. Hope we continue it.
Cynthia: [00:37:55] Likewise, Eve.
Eve: [00:37:55] That was Cynthia. Every time there has been an opportunity for black and brown people to build an asset, to build wealth, says Cynthia, it’s been taken away from them. Who do we consider deal-worthy? Cynthia thinks we are in a moment and so do I. This may just be the moment where we should all sit our guilt aside and just take action.
Eve: [00:38:22] You can find out more about impact real estate investing and access the show notes for today’s episode at my website rethinkrealestateforgood.co. 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.
Eve: [00:38:39] Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. And thank you, Cynthia, for sharing your thoughts. We’ll talk again soon but, for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Cynthia Muller