With racial equity at the top of the US social justice agenda since 2020, more private-market investors have become interested in using their investments to advance diversity, racial equity, and inclusion (referred to as DEI throughout this article). These impact investors have made explicit commitments—and in some cases actually begun—to invest in existing racial-equity-focused funds.
While The Bridgespan Group has seen significant interest in this topic, we’ve yet to see that interest translate into action at scale, perhaps because private-market investors in general—including philanthropists, high-net-worth individuals, and fund managers—lack deep experience with strategies for achieving DEI outcomes. Fortunately, there are a few frameworks and tools they can use,1 and these investors can have far more impact than they might realize.
One framework that caught our attention is provided by Mission Investors Exchange. Its approach to “disrupting unjust flows of capital” proposes three questions for examining investment strategy, allocation of capital, and results with regard to DEI goals:
- Who shapes investment strategy?
- Who receives investment capital?
- Who is affected?
These questions focus attention on critical points where capital changes hands and—crucially—how this affects people and communities of color. The same questions can serve as entry points for private-market investors who might be considering investing to advance DEI goals. As an advisor to impact investors since 2016, The Bridgespan Group has co-created impact strategies and tools for this purpose. In this article, we discuss why the three questions listed above are important and share examples of actions they have inspired investors to take.
Who Shapes Investment Strategy?
Who shapes investment strategy has critical implications. At the investment-team level, the question becomes, “How much do these teams represent the communities their investments serve?” A McKinsey & Company study has found that racial diversity among professional staff in North American private-equity firms decreases with rank—in 2020, for example, US investment-deal teams were only 1–2 percent Black, even though the Black population is 12 percent of the nation. As a result, investment decisions in private equity too often rest with individuals who may not be representative of the communities those investments will affect.
At the portfolio-company level, the question becomes, “How much do leadership teams represent the interests of employees and beneficiaries?” Private-equity investors have an outsized ability to influence the composition of boards and management teams in portfolio companies, especially in majority-stake direct investments. Racially diverse boards, in turn, are more likely to prioritize diversity within a company. Research has also found a correlation between a diverse board and improvements in financial performance and company governance.
In response to growing awareness of these issues, some private-market investors are thinking critically about representation in decision making and incorporating mechanisms for accountability to diversity goals at the team and portfolio-company level. Some examples of steps they are taking:
Making investment firms more diverse. At Ariel Investments—the first Black-owned mutual fund firm in the United States—38 percent of leadership (vice president and above) are people of color, 22 percent of them Black, while 50 percent of board members are Black. Vista Equity Partners, the largest Black-owned private equity firm globally, is building a pipeline of diverse talent: within the firm, 50 percent of employees are women, 35 percent are people of color, and 15 percent are from other underrepresented groups.
Making explicit commitments to creating accountability on DEI. TPG, KKR, and Palladium Equity Partners, all ILPA Diversity In Action signatories, have made a commitment to advance DEI in the private-equity industry by publicly communicating a strategy that addresses tracking hiring and promotion statistics by gender, race, and ethnicity; creating organizational goals for inclusive recruitment and retention; and making DEI demographic data available to investors or investees during fundraising. In addition, signatories can opt into tracking DEI statistics within portfolio companies.
Who Receives Investment Capital?
Racial disparities in asset management are stark. Firms owned by women or people of color manage only 1.4 percent of total assets under management (AUM)—even though there are no statistically significant differences in performance between such firms and their white- and/or male-owned counterparts.
The same disparities are present in the universe of investee companies. Black-founded start-ups, for example, raised only 1.2 percent of overall venture capital funding in the first half of 2022. Data released in 2020 by the Federal Reserve, meanwhile, showed that Black-owned businesses are twice as likely to be turned down for loans as white-owned businesses and less than 47 percent of their bank financing applications were fully funded. When it comes to the workers companies employ, not only are Black and Latinx employees paid less due to racial wage gaps, they’re also less likely to work for employers that offer retirement benefits—an important factor behind the sizeable racial wealth gap in the United States.
To help remedy these injustices, some investors are deploying capital to funds and companies in which leaders and employees come from historically underrepresented, marginalized identities, including communities of color. Here’s a sampling of the approaches they’re taking to these efforts.
Investing in companies founded and led by people of color
- BlackRock’s Impact Opportunities Fund has targeted $1 billion to “invest in businesses and projects owned, led by, or serving people of color, with a particular focus on Black, Latinx, and Native American communities.” An example of such a business is BRP Companies, a Black-owned and -operated real estate firm with which BlackRock partnered to invest in a 292-unit multifamily rental community on Long Island.
- Apis & Heritage Capital Partners is a Black-led private-equity fund. Its Legacy Fund I (which recently closed oversubscribed at $58.1 million) uses an “employee-led buyout” model to convert companies “with substantial Black and brown workforces into 100 percent employee-owned businesses.” The fund intends to buy at least eight businesses—converting over 500 workers into employee-owners in the next five years and enabling each to accrue $70,000–$120,000 in retirement savings.
Funding managers of color
- As part of the Ford Foundation’s Mission Investments strategy, as of September 2020, $99 million of Ford’s $191 million in mission-related investments had been placed with managers who are female or people of color.
- Because the financial industry’s existing approach to financial due diligence creates barriers for asset managers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color, the signatories to the Due Diligence 2.0 commitment seek to rethink track record and AUM as the major criteria limited partners use to assess general partners for capital allocation.
- The Expanding Black Business Credit network’s Black Vision Fund will make loans to six community development financial institutions with track records of expanding financing for Black-owned small businesses.
Who Is Affected?
This question focuses attention on differential outcomes by race across areas such as housing, healthcare, criminal justice, education, economic mobility, and the environment. For example, in public health, low-income people and communities of color are more likely than white communities to live near coal plants or other toxic sites or breathe polluted air. Homeowners in majority-Black and -Hispanic neighborhoods (using US Census Bureau designations) are also less likely to have rooftop solar installed. In education, the COVID-19 pandemic has likely reversed the gradual decline in racial achievement gaps in the United States.
Increasing awareness of such injustices is spurring some private-market investors to deploy capital to increase the power, agency, and wealth of people and communities of color over the long term—for example, by investing in products and services that disproportionately or differentially benefit communities of color:
- Powerhouse Ventures has invested in Solstice, a software firm with a product that predicts prospective customers’ future utility-bill-payment behavior to help expand solar access to low-income households (likely disproportionately people of color).
- BlackRock’s Impact Opportunities Fund, The Builders Fund, and A Street have invested in Acelero, an early childhood education provider focused on closing the achievement gap. Over 90 percent of the children in Acelero’s Head Start and Early Head Start programs who participated in fall 2020 data collection—and showed significant educational gains as a result of participating in these programs—identify as persons of color.
- Incubators such as Justice Capital and Common Future help launch initiatives for building power and influence in communities of color. An example is the Common Future Accelerator, which invests in organizations that are developing models for closing the racial wealth gap.
As the examples cited above show, there are many ways to go about investing with a DEI lens. There is also a range of meaningful outcomes for which investors can aim. While private-market investors approach DEI investing from differing vantage points, the spectrum of strategies and tactics illustrated in this article can help them choose the most suitable tools for where they are—keeping in mind that small steps can add up to meaningful impact over time.
Finally, no matter where they are with their DEI investing, all investors are encouraged to consider the three questions explored here—who is shaping strategy, who is receiving the capital, and who will be affected?—both for their investment policy, and for every individual investment.A version of this article first appeared in New Private Markets on May 25, 2023.