Kesha Cash Finds Scalable, High-Growth Opportunities Through Underserved-Community Investment

Impact America Fund Is Using Tech Solutions for Low-Income Communities to Redefine Impact Investing

In two years, Kesha Cash closed her Impact America Fund with $10 million in assets under management and a focus on scaling tech solutions and uplifting underserved communities. Photo by John Montre

In two years, Kesha Cash closed her Impact America Fund with $10 million in assets under management and a focus on scaling tech solutions and uplifting underserved communities.
Photo by John Montre

While she was majoring in math at the University of California, Berkeley, Kesha Cash discovered a program that matched minority students with opportunities on Wall Street. “As a first-generation college student with limited exposure to the world of finance, I kept thinking, ‘Wow, how much money can I make?’” Cash recalls. Even so, shaped by her family’s experiences, she knew she eventually wanted to use her skills to lift others economically. When Cash was a child, her family lived in low-income housing and relied on food stamps. She became the first in her family to graduate from college.

After working on Wall Street and consulting for minority-owned businesses in Los Angeles, Cash developed dual ambitions: invest in underserved communities and make lots of money. Cash’s personal goals are at the heart of Impact America Fund, which she launched in 2014. “I’ve always been the person in the room who, once I get in a door, I work like hell to get more people through that door,” she says.

In June 2016, Cash’s fund closed with $10 million in assets under management. Its backers include Serious Change, New Island Capital, Surdna Foundation and Prudential Financial. In 2015, Cash’s fund qualified as a GIIRS-rated fund, making it one of B Magazine’s 2016 Best for the World Funds. The fund’s seven portfolio companies — more than half of which are led by African-American or Latino founders — have raised a combined $25 million of additional capital to fund their growth. They include Schoolzilla, an Oakland, California, software company that organizes data to help teachers and administrators, and PawnGuru, a Detroit company bringing efficiency and price information to the pawnshop industry.

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Tracing the path from her first gig handling mergers and acquisitions at Merrill Lynch to operating her new fund, Cash cites a handful of key experiences. During a conversation with her Merrill Lynch colleagues after a meeting about a manufacturing company’s merger, Cash realized that a lot of people would be losing their jobs. “I remember being at an executive meeting with a CEO who wasn’t happy about the synergies created in a merger that would require him to close factories and let workers go. I had a realization at this point that synergies weren’t always a good thing as we think about job loss,” she says.

A few years later, while working toward her MBA at Columbia University, she discovered impact investing and had the opportunity to explore the field while interning at Bridges Ventures, an impact-investment fund in London. “A little light of consciousness started coming in,” she says. As she learned more about the landscape, she saw how few women and minorities were part of it. “There was still so much more that needed to be done,” she says.

Back in New York, Cash met Josh Mailman, managing director of Serious Change, a $50 million portfolio of social enterprises. Mailman hired Cash after her graduation to run Jalia Ventures, a project under Serious Change’s umbrella where she built a demonstration portfolio of scalable, mission-focused, minority-owned businesses. At Jalia, Cash sharpened her skills in sourcing and vetting deals and bolstered her network. Three years later, she left to launch Impact America Fund, or IAF.

A Wide-Lens Approach: Underserved Community Investing as Impact Investing

Cash soon learned that doing deals within an established investment structure and raising a new fund are entirely different tasks. Though most funds start with millions in assets, she moved forward with only about $85,000 behind her. It was enough to set up the fund and cover fundraising activities to reach a preliminary close of $5 million. As soon as capital was in the bank, IAF invested in three companies it had been tracking. It continued to deploy capital while Cash courted new limited partners to invest in the fund. “Closing a fund is not easy,” she says. “I don’t think I knew what to expect.”

Kesha Cash speech

Kesha Cash shares her journey from MBA to fund manager at the 2015 #StartupColumbia Festival at Columbia University.
Photo courtesy Impact America Fund

The fund was small, but Cash’s strategy was to focus on big ideas. She decided to zero in on scalable, technology-driven companies that enhance the lives of people in low- and moderate-income communities. Companies developing tech tools that help small businesses grow are also in IAF’s investment sweet spot. “A lot of money is made off the backs of low-income communities, because people don’t have transparency into pricing or markets, or because the entrepreneurs and investors aren’t thinking about the people who live there,” she says.

“We are often confused with funds that focus on mom-and-pop businesses, that might support a hair salon or a restaurant,” Cash says. “Those are important community anchors that need access to capital, but we look at scalable tech solutions that can improve the economic viability of these anchors and create new market opportunities.”

IAF’s investment in Mayvenn is a case in point. The Oakland, California, company is an e-commerce platform through which hairstylists earn commissions on products they sell to customers, such as hair extensions, without needing to stock the products themselves. “We are not investing in the single hair salon but in technology that will maximize potential in salons, such as determining what products and services can be sold through the stylists,” Cash says. Those sales mean more money in the stylists’ pockets every week. Hairstylists in the United States generate an average income of $25,000 per year.

Mayvenn hair extensions

Stylist AmoreLove uses hair extensions from Mayvenn, and Impact America Fund portfolio company. Independent hair stylists earn commissions on products they sell through Mayvenn’s e-commerce platform.
Photo by Tyler Yin/Mayvenn

Stefanie Thomas, senior investment associate at IAF, describes Cash as a pioneer in an interview with LIFT Economy. “She is really reimagining what social impact looks like, particularly impact investing,” says Thomas, who adds that Cash is broadening the conversation around impact investing to include business models that address the needs of low- and moderate-income communities.

Shawn Escoffery, a Surdna program director who is focused on sustainable communities, agrees that Cash’s ideas are compelling. “Mayvenn, for instance, is not what I normally think of as impact investing. But you can see how the company can create new avenues of revenue generation for businesses and workers in the hair-care industry, and that is important,” he says.

Despite Cash’s reputation, Escoffery says the IAF investment wasn’t a slam-dunk for Surdna’s investment committee. The foundation had never made an equity investment using program-related investment resources, and it typically does not support early-stage founders. Moreover, some IAF companies generated “a lot of discussions on the investment committee,” he says. The fact that other investors, including Prudential, were on board helped, as did the sense that IAF’s early moves were just that: early.

Surdna had recently launched a program, called PRI, to provide investment capital to funds supporting market-based approaches to build just and sustainable communities. “Foundations prefer seasoned investors, but how do you become seasoned without someone taking a chance on you?” Escoffery asks. “We think of PRI dollars as catalytic dollars that we can use if we find a rock star to back.” Cash fit that bill, and PRI invested $1 million in IAF in 2016.

Building a Social Impact Fund With a Solid Network

Cash concedes that people may at first miss the impact some of the companies are making. ConnXus makes software that large companies use to identify small minority- and women-owned businesses to expand their supplier base. The data collected can help make the case that diversity improves a company’s financial performance — proven by a growing body of research. “In addition to the company providing software, it changes the conversation to the importance of having diversity not simply to win the contract, but to create a world-class supply chain,” Cash says. And PawnGuru brings more efficiency and fairness to the pawnshop industry, which is a mainstay of many low-income communities. The loans the shops provide are “a kind of microfinancing,” she says, that can keep people afloat in difficult times.

IAF’s focus on early-stage ventures is crucial to the impact-investing ecosystem, says Lynzi Ziegenhagen, CEO of Schoolzilla. “In order to invest in an early-stage impact-driven company in education, you have to have a high tolerance for risk and a long-term view,” she says. Foundations tend to have the view but not the tolerance, and the opposite holds true for many funds.

“For most investment managers, it doesn’t matter how much they personally care about education. They have to be accountable to their own investors,” Ziegenhagen says. “They don’t tend to want to wait 10 years or more for a return.” Creating investment funds that have “a structural reason to care about impact” is important in supporting the growth of social enterprises, she says. “We would not be reaching 1.5 million students now without them.”

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Cash’s ability to build a strong, broad network in a short time has been crucial to her fund’s launch. It benefits the entrepreneurs she works with as well. Ziegenhagen says Cash helped Schoolzilla connect with a variety of experts who have aided the company in securing a line of credit and hiring executive leadership. Even better, she can talk with Cash about her vision. “She is the type of investor who is always on your side,” Ziegenhagen says. “She communicates clearly and asks the hard questions while being supportive.”

Cash says she is lucky to have an “amazing network” of advisers, investors and others she can reach out to for feedback. But balancing her time between working with CEOs and running the nuts-and-bolts of the fund is her biggest challenge. She is a board observer at ConnXus but has less formal arrangements with the other portfolio companies. “I love working with entrepreneurs but also have to run the fund. It is a level of juggling I never experienced before,” she says. “I have to figure out how to prioritize more than ever.”

Though Cash and Thomas are IAF’s only full-time employees, the fund hires several interns for short stints with the goal of exposing more women and minorities to the investing and fund-management sectors.
Thomas notes that more women of color are starting companies, but getting them on investors’ radars is harder. “If we want to increase the flow of capital, then we have to increase representation,” she says. “I would bet a black female VC is more likely to fund a black female founder.”

The Impact America Fund Portfolio Companies

Kesha Cash, founder of Impact America Fund, focuses on technology-driven companies that improve the products and services available in low-income communities and expand opportunities for diverse populations. The fund uses a third-party assessment, administered by the nonprofit B Lab, to measure the impact of each of its portfolio companies and to qualify as a GIIRS-rated fund.

The fund favors companies in education, health and wellness, and in emerging marketplaces. It is backed by investors including Serious Change, New Island Capital, Prudential Financial, Pi Investments, Nia Community, Surdna Foundation, Libra Foundation, Laughing Gull Foundation, Samantha and Scott Zinober, Richard Witten and Larry Schwartz.

These seven companies make up the fund’s current portfolio:

ConnXus
Mason, Ohio
Software for large companies, including Cummins and McDonald’s, to better manage and expand supplier-diversity programs.*

Mayvenn
Richmond, California
An e-commerce platform allowing independent hairstylists to sell products through online storefronts.

Schoolzilla
Oakland, California
Software that organizes instructional and managerial data to help teachers and school leaders save time and operate more efficiently.

PawnGuru
Detroit
A platform that improves pawnshop owners’ efficiency while providing customers with pricing information to help them make better financial decisions.

HandUp
San Francisco
A platform that manages and distributes charitable funds to support low-income and homeless individuals.

Roho
New York City
A platform that offers on-demand sermons and other religious content.

Camino Financial
Los Angeles
An online lender for Latino small-business owners.

* This information has been updated since it was originally published.


Case FoundationThis article was made possible through the funding of the Case Foundation, which invests in bold changemakers and transformative ideas that harness the best impulses of social innovation. For more information, please go to casefoundation.org.

B the Change Media produces some content, including this underwritten article, with funding from outside sources. This content and its funder are always clearly labeled. Full definitions for the types of content that outside sources help make possible are available at bthechange.com/advertise.


Best for the World Funds 2016 logo

For more on GIIRS funds, review the full 2016 Best for the World Funds list.

 


This article was originally published in the Winter 2016/2017 issue of B Magazine as part of the issue’s Impact Investing Special Section. For more, read the issue’s history of impact investing, which includes links to the rest of that special section’s coverage.

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