Big ideas, solid foundations
To get her new business, ImpactVest, launch-ready, Aisha Williams enrolled in the online MSc in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at HEC Paris Executive Education, run in partnership with Coursera. For a first-time entrepreneur with big ambitions (ImpactVest uses the latest tech to provide insight into real-world sustainability impacts for investors), Aisha says that the course was instrumental in helping her to build rock-solid business foundations, and also accelerated her launch timetable. Here, she shares her thoughts on life as a new entrepreneur.
What did you do before you launched ImpactVest?
I'm originally from Chicago, and my early career was with the Foreign Service – I was posted throughout South America and Africa and the Middle East for eight years. After that, I went to China for a-year-and-a-half, and then moved to Europe, where I became certified in sustainable investment in Zurich. I am an advisor alumna of the University of Zurich Center for Sustainable Finance and Private Wealth, and ran a boutique impact advisory firm before launching ImpactVest – in fact, I continue to run my practice to be a hands-on practitioner in impact investment. I am also the guest faculty for the GARP climate finance certificate.
What kind of work did you do with the Foreign Service?
It was on-the-ground work in places like the favelas of Brazil, so lots of outreach educational programs helping children in all kinds of precarious situations and also helping women to return to work. A lot of my humanitarian interest comes from there, because I was also involved with public-private sector deals, and I saw first-hand the power of private equity. When I finished my service term, I became interested in the private equity side of sustainability and then at the Centre of Sustainable Finance in Switzerland I learned about the current focus on measurable outcomes of an investment. It was through my sustainable wealth manager training at the University of Zurich Center for Sustainable Finance and Private Wealth that I solidified the sustainable impact methodology that would later form the theoretical framework for ImpactVest. This framework focuses on the real outcomes of an investment and stakeholder engagement – because every investment has an impact.
It sounds like ImpactVest was a logical next step for you?
Yes, I wanted to create a company that addresses all of the challenges that are currently impeding the progress of impact investing. So, we seek to find ways to optimize capital, to make it more efficient and to integrate sustainability into the financial system. I actually built the company as a holding company, like Berkshire Hathaway, and all of the different initiatives within that are subsidiaries that I can easily exit and then go on to the next challenge in impact investing. It's a fascinating industry with many challenges, and my company was created to be at the intersection of sustainability, impact, blockchain, AI and DeFi – because I'm a big fan of decentralized finance.
Why did you enroll on the MSc in Innovation and Entrepreneurship?
I had already had the idea for ImpactVest before enrolling, but I had never launched a business. I needed an entrepreneurial background, and that's what the MSc in Innovation and Entrepreneurship was really useful for. It showed me structural ways to go about forming a business – if you have a vision and it's not structured, it's not going to go anywhere – and it also helped to bring lots of people together from different sectors and backgrounds to work on ImpactVest with me. Three of my former classmates currently work with me.
How was the program?
I think it was really incredible in that all of us were really passionate about building something. So we all had an idea, we had an initiative, and even though we were all coming from different areas, we wanted to build our vision. By the time I graduated in June, I had a fully formed company, so it definitely accelerated the process.
Did doing the program online, mid-pandemic, help or hinder the learning process?
I actually think it brought us closer together as a cohort. We all learned, within very tough circumstances, how to launch a business. We all had to go through it, and we all encouraged each other to finish and helped each other on assignments.
Do you recall a specific moment where the program really pushed you to think differently?
Yes – during one of the very first courses in creativity there was something that our professor, Anne-Laure Sellier, said that really struck me. She said that constraints can make you more creative. I think about that course a lot, because in real life I have so many more limits on my time than I realized – and so there are constraints. And in some ways that does make me more creative. That insight helped me to see that I have to find that creativity within the limits of my time. But the whole program was great – especially the lessons about Intellectual Property.
What have you learned about being an entrepreneur?
I would say that it is very tough in the beginning because you have to get everything off the ground and then you have to build a team that believes in your vision. I don't know if you have a single easy day, because you have to lead your team, you have to lead the vision and you always have to be anticipating what is next, because if you don't, then you might miss an opportunity. But you do have to truly believe in what you're doing – and, of course, it has to be bigger than you. I have been passionate about this since I was in the Foreign Service – I'm just approaching it in a different way. I want to enact real global change on a large scale and it's only through private equity capital that we can do that.
Where do you hope to be with ImpactVest in three years' time?
I would definitely like to scale up and add companies under our parent company. We are working on a yearly conference that we want to be the one with the most innovative ideas in impact and that really focuses on implementing global change. We're always interested in real problems, and the main question is: 'What are the impacts of our investment activities, and how do we measure them to enact real global change?'.