January 28, 2023

Investing Real Funds for Real Impact: Experiential Learning with Portland State’s Master of Science in Finance.

Portland State University’s Master of Science in Finance (MSF) is designed around applied learning opportunities and values that go beyond the bottom line. Impact Ventures is a unique student-run and founded investing fund, which epitomizes the program’s commitment to both career and community outcomes.

Alexis Nelson is an MSF alum and one of the founders — along with Yelena Bean, Lisa Pitts and Brent Stark — who helped start Impact Ventures. They wanted to learn more about an investment framework that considers environmental and social performance alongside financial success and to explore the role capitalism plays in addressing our most pressing issues. They saw the chance to bring venture capital and social and environmental good together in the first student-led impact investing fund in the Pacific Northwest.

“I knew that this project could help me to satisfy my entrepreneurial drive, challenge myself in a new way and learn more about the venture capital and start-up landscape in Portland,” says Nelson.

Launching Impact Ventures

The launch process was invigorating and exhausting — working with a venture capital fund in graduate school, let alone starting one from scratch, is a rare opportunity. Over the course of 18 months, the founding students put in hundreds of hours of learning and effort.

“Yes, it was a lot of work with many challenges and obstacles, but that is why it was worth doing,” says Nelson. “We were on a mission to do our part to contribute to a better and more sustainable future, as well as have a positive impact on Portland State and our regional community. Having a greater sense of purpose is always more rewarding and dynamic.”

The students developed a network of professionals and organizations to support the fund. “Building strategic alliances and collaborations was a big part of my team’s work,” adds Nelson. They reached out to professionals across the country, PSU faculty, staff and alumni, and joined online forums and university groups. They attended industry events, read sustainable investing publications and benefited from support from PSU and national venture capital networks. Their tenacity paid off, and the fund launched early in the fall of 2019.

A year later, Impact Ventures is managed entirely by PSU MSF and MBA
students with collaboration from Oregon Venture Fund, Portland Seed Fund, and Keiretsu Forum Northwest, E8 and TiE Oregon. Students hear pitches and make real-world investments using money generated through philanthropy and private support.

The rigorous investment criteria evaluates each start-up’s commitment to environmental and social good and considers the Pacific Northwest’s most prominent industries and the greatest opportunities for disruption.

After 70 regional start-up pitches and months of research and consideration, the first deal closed in April of this year. Impact Ventures invested in Seattle-based optimize.health, a remote patient monitoring platform designed to meet the needs of outpatient medical practices. The timing could not have been more apt, as independent and group practices, national hospitals and health systems, and remote care partners all scrambled to meet the unprecedented demands of the coronavirus pandemic.

“As long as we have an investment in a company, we will help support them through their growth until there is an exit,” says Nelson. Impact Ventures students work across PSU’s 10 schools and colleges, to support founders with access to relevant research, hireable talent, student consulting, industry alumni, community investment partners and the consortium of other universities investing funds. “Especially amid a changing economic landscape, access to additional rounds of funding can be critical to a start-up’s longevity and success,” says Nelson.

Investing in Careers and Community

Investment returns from the fund go directly toward scholarships for future generations of business students.

“This program is addressing issues that have existed for far too long,” says Nelson. “Social justice and environmental issues are at the forefront of every discussion across industries because of the coronavirus pandemic and racial justice groundswell.”

As Nelson sees it, if one community isn’t prospering, none of us can. She hopes Impact Ventures will serve as a sustainable force for change, symbolizing the value beyond the bottom line: “A brighter future for all, a world we all want and can live in, and freedom to achieve your goals and contribute to the global economy in a meaningful way.”

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