Norm Bontje is one of the founding investors in Unitus Ventures (formerly Unitus Seed Fund), our new seed-stage venture fund investing in BoP Startups primarily in India.
Norm Bontje is a graduate of the University of Washington and worked in the finance and investment community for 20 years, most recently serving as the Chief Operating Officer of BlackRock’s alternative investments group. Today, he consults with several local businesses, oversees a family office, and volunteers in the Seattle philanthropic and youth sports community.
We caught up with Norm to ask him a few questions about why he invested in Unitus Ventures (formerly Unitus Seed Fund).
USF: What drives you to invest in new funds like USF?
USF and funds of similar vein are pioneering a social and investment landscape that is “virtually untapped.” The potential to address the obvious and significant demands of the BoP market, potentially disintermediate and redirect the energies and resources of NGO’s, provide societal benefit and contribute to developing a nascent capital market are all very exciting prospects.
USF: How do you balance your expectations of financial return vs. social impact?
In today’s market, I think the express inclusion of social impact in an investment decision increases the potential risk of the investment, but not necessarily the expected return. Thus, allocations to such investments simply come from/should be allocated to different segments in an overall asset allocation.
USF: Why is investing in a BoP Startup better than making a grant to a good NGO?
An investment decision and a grant decision should be separate. Investment capital should be allocated to those entities that have the potential to sustainably solve issues facing the BoP population. However, in the myriad issues facing the BoP population, there many that are structurally unlikely to be addressed by a BoP startup. In these instances, the role of a good NGO is important.
USF: What sectors do you think are most promising (education, ag, energy, etc)?
I would love to think that the most financially rewarding sector would be education, since education is the precursor to social mobility generally, and would assume it to apply to the BoP as well. And maybe it can be in the long-term. However, I think that in the target markets the need for basic necessities and the income to acquire these necessities will drive the “livelihood” and “food/housing/water” sectors first. Think Maslow’s hierarchy.
USF: 10 years ago, very few people or institutions were investing in microfinance. Today they attract billions in private and public capital. Do you think the same will happen with BoP startups?
That’s the theory right? Let’s go make it happen!