Rooted in Impact: Jessica Lee’s Take on the Value of Agricultural Investments

by Connor Schoen

“Pretty much from college onwards, I’ve been in the social impact space. I’ve now found my sweet spot: working alongside social entrepreneurs to make sure they have the resources they need to succeed.”

Jessica Lee works as the Manager of Individual Giving at Root Capital, a nonprofit impact investor that provides loans and training to  agricultural enterprises in Africa, Latin America, and Indonesia to help them grow, and transform their local communities. Specifically, she manages the major gifts strategy and individual giving for Root Capital, working to “foster long-term, high impact relationships” with donors.

In an interview with the Harvard College Impact investing Group, Jessica stressed how tremendously transformative and powerful agriculture is as a tool for social change: “Lending to agricultural businesses may not be the most lucrative, but it can bring about incredible positive change in regards to poverty, gender inequality, food insecurity, etc.” Essentially, by investing in agricultural enterprises, impact investing firms can create jobs in rural communities and raise the incomes of smallholder farmers.

While she acknowledges that “not everyone who is working in agriculture is going to stay in that industry” given climate change and economic realities, bringing technology/knowledge and investment to these businesses to improve their productivity represents an extremely valuable impact investment opportunity.

Jessica also stresses the value of blended finance as an approach to these types of investments: “it’s the idea of coupling the engine of returnable capital with the precious, limited resource of philanthropy to bridge that last mile and get us to the impact we want.” She describes the major capacity gap that agricultural businesses too often face, and she explains how Root Capital ultimately alleviates this issue through pairing credit access with capacity-building for these smal to medium-sized firms.

Overall, Root Capital is a leading example of the new, powerful wave of impact investors who are flipping traditional finance on its head. For her part, Jessica has “been interested in how to leverage all possible forms of capital towards social change,” and she now does this by aiding Root Capital’s mission. As they assist their clients in getting to 20-25% annual growth rates, Root Capital also significantly transforms the sustainability and standard of living of the communities they work with.

Come see Jessica speak at our Social Enterprise Panel on Thursday, March 29, 2018 from 5-6:30pm in Emerson 210. She’ll be speaking more about her work and answer audience questions at this event!