Article By

Sertac Yeltekin
Sertac Yeltekin
Sertac Yeltekin is the co-founder and General Partner of Purpose Venture Capital, Singapore and also the Founder and Managing Director of Zingforce Ventures, ( a firm specialized in venture building and advisory. He is also Deputy Chair of Turkish advisory platform Previously he held senior roles at Unicredit Group, and worked as a management consultant at Bain & Co.

In the summer of 2017, after 25 years in the corporate world, I embarked on a new personal and professional journey that helped me discover a purposeful job, a new continent – Asia, an entrepreneurial spirit concealed in me that I was not previously aware of, and a new way of working that came to be known as the future of work, where remotely connected professionals sharing a vision and mission collaborate. That is a lot to tell so I will unpack the main steps in this journey, shed some light on my key challenges and dilemmas, and reveal the emotional story behind my passage from the corporate world to the entrepreneurship of impact investing.

I hope my story is helpful for those seeking to jump from the corporate world to a new work experience underscored by self-application, self-motivation, and alignment of purpose in an uncharted territory of new knowledge and previously unexplored geography.

How to Let Go and Unlearn

I had spent more than two decades of my working life in financial services and management consulting helping large companies – local, regional and global – create value for their shareholders in Europe. I had learned the art of navigating the organizational structures of large companies by building alliances with colleagues and creating the buy-in to help to push an agenda while managing the expectations of bosses, peers and collaborators. In return I relied on a paycheck, generous benefits and bonuses . I was the product of my generation that graduated in the 1980s and 90s when management consulting and finance were the main two alternatives to succeed in the work environment. Entrepreneurship, let alone aligning purpose with profit, was less of a choice until later stages in one’s life. The world that I was accustomed to was that of corporations with their own rules and regulations mostly insulated from the dilemmas and challenges of early-stage companies.

There was much to let go of from my previous world and unlearn many habits. I could no longer rely on a corporate structure. I could not stay within the comfort zone

In the summer of 2017, I got a call from an old friend from my consulting years to join an impact investing fund in Southeast Asia that she had founded – when I heard the proposal it was as if neurons in my brain were lit up. I felt a strong sense of excitement and energy, in order of relevance: the location of this new job – Southeast Asia, a region that I had never lived in; a job I had never done before – venture capital focused on Entrepreneurship, let alone aligning purpose with profit, was less of a choice until later stages in one’s life impact investing; and a sense of purpose that came along with the job. The fund invested in early-stage companies that offered services and products to underserved populations, mostly at the bottom of the social pyramid with very limited access to affordable healthcare, education, energy, essential goods & services and financial services. I also felt a sense of fear, again, in order of relevance: letting go of the habits of the working life in large corporations, finding myself in a cultural environment different from that which I was used to in Europe and working with early-stage companies that did not necessarily need my skills.

What was impact investing, anyhow? Impact investing was coined as the new form investment to tackle the malaise of underdevelopment. The investment scheme that impact investing proposed was no longer through the transfer of funds and knowledge from international agencies such IMF, World Bank or IFC to governments of the developing world that had underpinned the world of development economics for the previous 60 years. Impact investment focused on sustaining and supporting private entrepreneurs who in turn tackle social and environmental issues by establishing enterprises that have a balanced view of impact and profit. The term was introduced by the Rockefeller Foundation in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis to deal with the excesses of capitalism that had focused on financial profits at the expense of society and environment.

I had a somewhat vague notion of impact investing, I knew how to set up and manage mutual funds but possessed very limited knowledge in a closed-end venture fund. There was much to let go of from my previous world and unlearn many habits. I could no longer rely on a corporate structure – our fund was small, and its resources were limited. I could not stay within the comfort zone of my accustomed world of finance and organizations, could no longer count on my knowledge of European organizational and work culture. I had to deal with fragile early-stage companies and its heroic founders who may or may not need the knowledge and skills that I had honed over the years.

How to Blend In

Balancing social and environmental impact with sustainable profits seemed like a reasonable thing to do but it has never been the impulse with which investment decisions were made in the past by private investors. It was a novel development to scrutinize and analyze the value of companies based on the purpose they had manifested in the social and environmental sphere and discover if they could also churn financial profits.

In the past if a private individual or institution wanted to do good, it would set up a philanthropy arm and for investments they would seek companies doing what they did for centuries – churn out financial profits. There was nothing in between.

Impact investment tried to introduce a healthy dose of purpose to why people made investments: to ensure that our world remained on a course of sustainable growth so that neither long-term financial profits nor the world’s delicate balance in society and environment are put at risk. If this was the sensible thing to do, why was it not on the map? First of all, social and environmental impact measurement techniques were either not developed or not sought for as criteria. Second, there was a net separation between society and environment on one end and profits on the other end. The two worlds never met. Social and environment justice that cut across intersectional lines – the North-South axis of economic development, gender, class, ethnicity – were never accounted for. Third, the social inequalities revealed by the 2008 financial crisis and the environmental mayhem with animals on the brink of extinction coupled with rising temperatures due to excessive extraction of the world’s resources put the world as we know it at a risk not seen since the extinction of dinosaurs. Many new ways and initiatives were developed to bridge the gap between purpose and profit: the triple bottom line accounting of People, Planet, Profit, became a manifesto via conducting social and environmental accounting on par with financial accounting; the B-Corp movement certified companies on their adherence to “beneficial company status; the large international organizations such as the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) became the crossroads organization for the dialogue between the private and public sector as well as between the investor and the investee.

The two worlds never met. Social and environment justice that cut across intersectional lines – the
North-South axis of economic development, gender, class, ethnicity – were never accounted for.

This new emerging world of impact investing was on the map even before the ESG investments were being increasingly adopted since 2018 by the finance mainstream as a solution to scale up impact. ESG, Environment, Social and Governance, is a blend of universal criteria that set the stage to assess whether a company is preventing harm in these three key areas while conducting its own business. Unlike ESG norms that stop at preventing harm, impact investment is instead focused on the intentionality of doing good. That intentionality of engaging in activities that generate good is at the core of impact investing and distinguishes it from the ESG movement.

When I started to work in the impact investing sector in 2017, these concepts were hardly known by the public or by mainstream finance. In a matter of five years, accelerated by the pandemic that revealed the fragility of the human experience, these concepts grew to become multi-trillion-dollar industries with dark and light sides that I will try to illustrate in the next sections. My moment of epiphany happened when a lawyer whose services in Singapore that I sought for an acquisition in Myanmar told me that he thought I was a tree-hugging hippie before I met him. The comment made me laugh and think at the same time. In the late 60s hippies were considered as dropouts from society and became the laughing-stock of the conservatives. A few years later they came to define an era.

How to navigate troubled waters: sustainability, its joys and discontents

By late 2018 I was quite settled in the world of impact investing, trying to understand what could be done better and differently. The light side of impact investment was that investors deployed capital to nascent entrepreneurial initiatives that tackled social and environmental issues through a for-profit enterprise – the quest for both impact and profit firmly anchored. This new breed of investors was patient, long-term oriented and largely unmoved by the whims of the market and expected a return on investment that balanced profits and purpose. Companies supported by these investors continued to create miracles despite insurmountable difficulties in South and Southeast Asia – to name a few, an Indian company that offers affordable cataract operations to the poor who otherwise would fall prey to loan sharks and remain indebted for generations; a Myanmar company that extends loans as little as $5 to the poor to build their own economic activities – against conventional wisdom, the customers of this company rarely default on their loans where the average delinquency rate was less that 1% of total customers; a coffeehouse chain present in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos that employ victims of human trafficking; an off-grid energy company in India that offer affordable energy to the poor. Around the globe, impact investors were also active in extending trillion dollars of debt facilities to prop up affordable real estate, sustainable infrastructure, green energy, and accessible financial services to support financial inclusion.

While public or semi-public Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) such as sovereign funds from developed countries dedicated themselves to international development, progressive foundations and family offices from the West focused on investments with low financial return/high impact. Asian investors were predominantly sidelined as they preferred to treat philanthropy rather than impact investment as a solution. Many impact investment projects were subscale, had thin margins and remained dependent on the support of impact investors throughout their life cycle. There was a need to broaden the definition of impact. It was not sufficient to confine the term to the bottom of the pyramid. Impact investment had to go mainstream to attract more funds from mainstream financial institutions, local High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) and retail investors.

The flip side of the coin was that ESG funds, often derogatorily called “impact investing on steroids”, were presented by mainstream finance as a solution to the problem of scalability of impact investment. The ESG funds are based on the premise that rating publicly traded companies in terms of adherence to ESG criteria, yielded better outcomes. By adopting the ESG criteria, the mutual funds sector would create a virtuous cycle – the “good” ESG-abiding companies would have access to more capital, in turn more companies would adopt best practices in ESG. This utopian vision of ESG soon clashed with the reality of “greenwashing” – companies abiding by the set of ESG criteria to prevent harm in certain areas were engaging other activities that harm the nature or society, only to be “greenwashed” by the spin machine of Corporate Social Responsibility or Investor Relations projecting an ESG-friendly company.

By 2022, greenwashing became such a burning issue that both the European Union and the USA exchanges reacted by cancelling many funds from the ESG compliant list. The tarnished image of the ESG compliance revealed the limits of scaling-up impact. How can we scale-up impact investing and at the same time become loyal to its core tenets and values? I came to believe that two new aspects had to be incorporated firmly in the impact investment world: the better use of technology as a force for the scalability of impact and rigorous measurement of social and environmental impact. That led to the next stage of my journey that characterized the last three years since 2019: the set up of the venture building firm Zingforce Ventures, the venture capital firm Purpose Venture Capital and the impact ecosystem builder – Turkey’s first impact investing advocacy platform Etkiyap.

How to contribute to the world of purposeful investments?

One of the surprising elements of a journey is the seemingly unexpected turn of events. The occurrence of the coincidence per se does not determine the outcome of our journey – it is how we react to a coincidence when the coincidence presents itself and we make decisions based on how ready we are to embrace what the coincidence offers.

Since leaving Insitor Partners in mid-2020 I have participated in creating three new businesses. A venture-building and advisory firm, Zingforce Ventures. A venture capital company, Purpose Venture Capital. And a Turkish advocacy platform, Etkiyap, which literally means ‘create impact’.

In the same way that my invitation to join Insitor manifested itself, all three occurred through grasping opportunities when they appeared. Zingforce grew out of a request from a start-up to help them raise funds. We have since worked with an eco-friendly aquaculture firm in Korea, a supply chain platform for mom & pop stores in the Philippines, an electrification kit producer to convert scooter combustion engines into electric ones in Italy. The new VC business by teaming up with two remarkable professionals, Sharon Sim and Von Leong, who shared my vision on tapping HNWIs and Family Offices for the purpose capital market and, Etkiyap from a conversation with Safak Muderrisgil, at the Global Impact Investing Network Conference in Amsterdam in 2019 that has now evolved into a pioneering Turkish impact investing platform.

How to Embrace Change and Learn from Lessons

My journey is full of lessons learned. My key learnings will hopefully help those who would embark on a similar journey.

  • Unlearn. Jumping from the corporate world into entrepreneurship requires a lot more unlearning than learning. You need to have the right attitude to shed past habits, learnings and points of view and adopt a growth-minded, flexible, and agile mindset.
  • Seek partners who share your vision and values. It is hard to find like-minded partners but once you get hold of them, build long-term alliances based on mutual trust and respect.
  • Define your purpose early. Entrepreneurs, investors, or partners may have a difficult time articulating their purpose. Try to address the purpose as early as possible,
  • Invest in people, not excel sheets. The likelihood of success of a venture is correlated to the strength of the team behind the initiative.
  • Be patient. Building ventures with sustainability at their core is a vocation that requires a lot of patience and a lot of dedication. There are no shortcuts – you must be equipped for the long run.

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