April 15, 2021
Impact Investing KauffmanWomen

KauffmanWomen: Q&A with Dimple Sahni

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Dimple Sahni (Class 10) is a Managing Director of Impact Funds Portfolios at Anthos Fund and Asset Management, one of the largest single-family offices globally. She is responsible for originating investments, managing relationships and helping to execute strategies for the fund portfolios at Anthos—specifically, those dedicated to impact investing. 

In what she describes as a “defacto Mixed Asset Impact CIO role,” Dimple leads the firm’s strategy on impact portfolio construction and asset allocation. She holds various LP and advisory roles within her portfolio, and also serves on the Investment Committee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation in support of fully mission-aligned investing.

In this interview, Dimple describes topics ranging from changes in impact investing over the last 15 years, having the right perspective on a long-term exit strategy, and how her decision to move to Amsterdam for her current firm shaped her career. 

 

What is your current role? 

I’ve been working for a 100 year old single family office that is repositioning itself  into a boutique asset management firm focused on values-based investing. Six years after I joined, now all of a sudden, what I do in impact investing is becoming the flagship strategy and product. 

I thought I was already a generalist, in venture capital: covering multiple themes, multiple geographies, and a couple of different private asset classes, like debt and equity.

Today I’m even more of a generalist.  My role is even broader and includes investing in public equity, ,public debt, real assets and hedge funds; all through the lens of impact. I think of my role as a defacto impact-focused CIO.  It’s still a global footprint,  but I’m  just adapting those strategies for the listed space versus the private space.

 

Can impact investing make a sizable dent in social problems? Why or why not?

I got into impact investing at a time where it was contrarian given there were other types of investing that were already well proven and the misperception of risk and return in this new space. Many observers were asking, what does impact mean, how do you quantify it, and how can you tell if you’re really having impact? 

Over the last 15 years, we’ve come a long way. The industry has gotten a lot more professionalized, and we have a lot more evidence now on what that risk/return indexation  really looks like. My firm actually sponsored a white paper from Wharton on the misperception of risk and whether you can have commercial rate returns when you have an impact strategy. 

Essentially, at T equals zero, 15 years ago, we knew what the baseline status of the world was along healthcare, education, and climate change. The impact investing money that was put to work 15 years ago has moved the markets and we’ve been able to measure the outputs and the outcomes along those themes with certain KPIs.

Quantitatively, we’ve been capturing trend lines and looking at the magnitude of the impact and then applying statistical analysis and rigor to show how  meaningful this is, and it is really moving the needle. We also look at what impact means in a country like India, which is densely populated and has a very low purchasing power parity compared to a country like the U.S., which has a much more rich, and  wealthy population. The year 2020 leveled the playing field for every country in terms of the pandemic and climate change which  brought everyone down to their knees. So whether you’re in Texas dealing with a lack of infrastructure during a snowstorm, or California with wildfires, even though you’re a rich country, you’re not immune from the things that affect poorer countries. 

So can impact investing make a difference? Yes and now we have evidence that says it’s already working. 

 

What is the ideal exit strategy for a social enterprise trying to address a social problem?

Firstly, there’s no such thing as an ideal exit strategy. Every social enterprise has a different vision. Some CEOs don’t even want to exit, they want to just perpetually keep growing. No entrepreneur starts a company thinking they are going to exit the business in four years. They go into it as a long-term commitment; maybe the biggest commitment they’ll make in their life maybe outlasting marriages or other personal relationships. 

There are a lot of big private companies like Cargill, which are still private and that’s very deliberate. The family I work for, which is in the apparel industry, has had the same private company for over 200 years. Actually they’re social entrepreneurs because they’re promoting sustainable apparel.

In impact investing exits are best when you can align your exit with the party to which you are exiting. So for mission-aligned exits – whether that’s in the form of a trade sale, an acquisition, a secondary sale to a larger private equity firm, or of course, an IPO or today, a SPAC – it’s really up to you. You have to think about which liquidity channel is the most appropriate and your own timeline. If you misjudge the timing of your IPO, like many companies have, they pop on day one and then they flop on day two. 

You need to have a long-term perspective on the right exit strategy. The most important thing, as opposed to the specific channel, is having mission alignment, because you want to make sure who’s ever acquiring you, taking the company public or restructuring your company, maintains the social mission of why you started that social company.

 

What is the biggest fear you’ve overcome?

I’m an adventurer by nature. I like taking risks and that’s reflected in my personal and professional life. In my personal life, one of the biggest fears was skydiving, literally jumping out of a plane.

All your primal fears come to the surface as you’re standing in the doorway of the plane. Your every instinct is to get back into the plane. Once I took that (literal) leap of faith, it was so wonderful – that sense of free falling, being in the moment and enjoying the world from a higher perspective. I didn’t give into the fear. I took a risk and (thankfully) I had a successful landing.

From a professional perspective, it was the move I made to Europe six years ago. I’m a single professional who was somewhere between mid -senior in their career in my early forties. I moved to a country that I’d never lived in where people speak a language I don’t speak and whereI had no friends or family or professional network. Starting over in your early forties is hard anyway, at a new company, with a new team, in a new city, in your native country. Now apply all of those elements to an international move without a partner to do it with, or family that you can rely on.

As I was standing on that doorway of my professional career, I took a leap of faith and jumped. Then I completely immersed myself in it, I learned the language, I made great friends, I’ve done well professionally. I’ve gotten promoted twice and now I’m the most senior woman at the firm. I’m not fearful by nature, but I try to look my fear in the face and I address it. 

 

What woman leader inspires you the most?

There are so many different types of women leaders but one that comes to mind that I’ve always admired is Oprah Winfrey.

I’ve admired her throughout the arc of her career. She overcame so much and she went into communications and broadcasting at a time where there wasn’t a lot of diversity in front of the camera.  She catapulted herself into her own show. She’s used that platform to do so much , which is beyond just her iconic show. Her gravitas, the way she communicates and also empathizes with the human condition is really incredible. 

Oprah appeals to the impact investor in me because impact investing focuses on the human condition and makes it very relatable. You know exactly why you’re investing in something and (hopefully) what the social effects of that investment could be. 

I’ve also admired her personal choices and it’s a lot like my own. She’s never been married. She doesn’t have her own kids. And she doesn’t make any compromises around that. She hasn’t conformed to social norms. I’m still single, but even if I had a partner, I’m not sure if I would get married. Now living in Holland, where many people don’t get married, I realize having a companion who supports my career would be enough. Given I don’t have kids,  my friend’s kids and my sister’s kids are like my kids. I really admired that she made those non-traditional choices in a country like the U.S. which is very puritanical. Oprah is definitely one of my role models in my secret moments—that’s who I still want to be when I grow up. 

 

 

KauffmanWomen features insights from women investors, entrepreneurs, and executives within the Kauffman Fellows network. The series is edited by Ernestine Fu (Class 17) and Jessica Straus (Class 22), co-chairs of the Kauffman Women’s Group. Have ideas for future articles? Submit your ideas here

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