Insights: Joel Solomon, RSF's Entrepreneur in Residence

Renewal's Joel Solomon shares his personal story of changing the way the world works with money in the recent RSF Social Finance newsletter.

Joel Solomon, RSF Social Finance Entrepreneur-in Residence
Interview with Marta Abel, Communications Program Assistant 

Joel Solomon, RSF’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, was born in Tennessee and as a young adult inherited “a significant but modest sum of money” from family wealth in the shopping mall industry. As a young man, he studied biodynamic gardening at the Farallones Institute in Northern California. These biodynamic principles affected him deeply and influenced his work with money.

Marta: How did you come to know and be involved with RSF?

Joel: I first knew of RSF because of my connection with Rudolf Steiner and biodynamics. As I got involved in the emerging movements around what’s now known as impact investing and strategic philanthropy, RSF increasingly became visible. Mark Finser and others kept showing up in the same networks with people who were open to these broader ideas about money and finance. As the field developed, RSF held its deep core values as the root of its work. That gained my attention because there’s a side of impact investing which says, “Okay, this is a new way to make money,” and unfortunately the values can become almost secondary.

Marta: What was your path from working in the field to working in finance?

Joel: One of the biggest lessons from biodynamics was whole systems thinking: that complexity, diversity, and lifelong attention to the soil as well as to larger energetic elements are essential for a healthy ecosystem. Initially, I inherited $50,000 and I learned, through a friend, about a couple of guys who had a rural farm institute in New Hampshire. They were attempting to prove that small family farms still mattered, and they had a test product for a nonprofit to start making yogurt in a super-healthy way, selling in their local community. Their names were Gary Hirshberg and Samuel Kaymen, the founders of Stonyfield Farm Yogurt. I thought it was a great idea, and with $25,000 I made my first investment. They decided that the non-profit sector was not going to be the place they could have the biggest impact with their yogurt business, and they asked me to consider converting the loan into an equity investment in their company. The rest is history as they say. I learned a lot from them and that small investment.

Marta: And you invested the other half of your inheritance in what is now known as Hollyhock. By investing all of your initial inheritance in ways that aligned with your values and vision, you were essentially pioneering whole portfolio activation. Can you say more about this?

Joel: The intention of whole portfolio activation is to look at your entire resource base, not just at your charitable money, not just at a little piece of risk money you’re going to call impact investing. Every check you write, every investment, can be looked at as an expression of your values.

Marta: What are you currently working on as RSF’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence?

Joel: More people are looking to ground their money in a natural systems approach, so this is an opportunity to introduce RSF, to let people know about the products that RSF offers, and the hightouch involvement and engagement they can have with their investments. Also, as RSF looks at developing its next era of products to reach a larger audience, and to move larger amounts of capital towards this very sophisticated and deeply meaningful long-term social impact, I can work with the team in the creation, design, and implementation of a robust set of products. The whole concept is to attract hundreds of millions of more dollars towards this very important set of principles about how money is used in the world, what its real meaning is, and what its relationship is to the holder of wealth and to the people that it impacts. It’s really about realigning with natural systems in a healthy way. And if we just use that principle, and we look to people like Rudolf Steiner and others to learn how to build out the human infrastructure part of that, then future generations have a chance to enjoy what we’re enjoying on the planet.

Click here to read the RSF newsletter with the original interview.