Investing in Social Change in China Discussed at “First China Impact Investing Forum”

Ethical Markets SRI/ESG News, The Power of Yin

By Faith Brewitt, Beijing Correspondent, Ethical Markets Media
Nov. 5, 2012

Beijing played host to the First China Impact Investing Forum on 2 November at the St Regis Hotel. The forum, put on by Avantage Ventures, was titled “Creating Social Change Capital” and featured discussions around the fundamental challenges in China’s social change sector and what that means for businesses and our environment.

The one-day forum was highlighted by a wide ranging conversation about how impact investing, which actively seeks investments that yield both a financial and social return, is becoming an emerging asset class in China.  I was especially impressed how 90% of keynote speakers and attendees from the academic field, investors, social entrepreneurs, corporate business leaders and media were Chinese.

With 1.5 billion people by 2050, China’s ongoing pursuit of constant, rapid economic growth is at odds with the scarcity of clean water and energy sources; social change is one area where real movement seems to be happening.  Unlike many such forums, this one was worth the time and provided an opportunity to hear from some impressive and motivated people.

Growth and Social Change with Chinese Characteristics

Watching the rapid growth of China the past 20 years, I see how, while uplifting many, China’s economic growth it has still left many others behind.  Increasing levels of consumption threaten to push the region’s resources to the brink of disaster, and rapid development and construction has more often than not led to environmental devastation. These are issues that the Chinese government and public are beginning to take seriously, and conferences like this have the potential to spread good ideas.

Chandran Nair, chairman, co-founder and non-executive director of Avantage Ventures in Hong Kong, opened the conference with an interesting topic that l often think about – the dangers of overreaching technology.  Nair spoke about how we (that’s all of us) have aggressively invested in research and technologies that extract resources, but do not put back resources into the Earth.  Asia must find another business model and not simply follow the path that the West has gone down.

Attendees received a copy of Nair’s book, “Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet”, reviewed by Hazel Henderson at; I am already half way thought it and highly recommend it.  For those who are more of a “watching video” kind of crowd, check out Nair at a recent TEDx Talk in Southern China .

Women Leading Social Enterprises, Small Steps of Progress

While on the floor of the forum, I was particularly taken by two women who run their own social businesses. One, Anna Young, provides recycled products for children that have an educational bent to them about protecting the environment.  The other, Huang Lan Zi, runs China’s largest and most respected organization that supports children with dyslexia.  Both left careers where they earned a stable income and challenged themselves and their family’s attitudes about startups to give back to communities that matter to them.

Huang Lan Zi, founder and CEO of Beijing LangLang comes from a family of professors. Lan Zi is from Sichuan and migrated to Beijing for business after graduation.  She started LangLang in 2007 by first conducting research on dyslexia, then bringing experts based on her learnings to provide financial assistance and skills training to dyslexic students who cannot afford lessons.

I asked Lan Zi if she had a hard time getting funding for her business, to which she said “yes, always”. I then asked if she thought being a woman had anything to do with it, and she said “I don’t have the time to think about it”, which made me smile.  Her advice to women looking to fund their ventures – never underestimate the power of grants and always take the time to fill out the paperwork -sounds so simple but it’s easy to overlook the basics.

Anna Young is the founder of EcoFroggyland; she began her career working in multinational corporations like General Motors.  When her daughter was 13, Young noticed that after her daughter and friends gobbled up some juice drinks and carbonated beverages, they all were unwilling to touch the used boxes and cans to throw them away.  She got the idea to create a fun, pleasant, and cool way for young people to recycle.  Over the years, she has worked to find designers, suppliers and buyers of her recycled classroom notebooks.  Purposefully using 86% recycled paper based on research that shows this is the best brightness for young eyes, her books are in classrooms all over China.  She has big dreams for EcoFroggy to become a known educational entity like Big Bird; I’m confident she’ll make it.

FAITH BREWITT lives and works in Beijing, running a cause marketing consultancy that vets NGOS in China, helps them leverage existing corporate involvement and find new partners that match with the organization’s mission and activities.