It was 2007, in Botswana, when Lauren Cochran had the epiphany that changed her life. She was working on the ground with William J. Clinton Foundation Health Access Initiative to help Sub-Saharan African nations fill the gaps in the diagnosis, care and treatment of children living with HIV.
“I was sitting with the AIDS coordinator there and I said, ‘OK, we can provide you two years of funding to support pediatric HIV, let’s figure out how many drugs you need.’ And he said, ‘What about after the two years?’”
Cochran was taken aback.
The philanthropy she was advancing was crucial, of course, but its impact was limited. “I had this realization: this is not sustainable,” she explains. “Investing money is more impactful than giving it away.”
That’s when Cochran, a graduate of Georgetown University and the London School of Economics, applied to The Wharton School for her MBA. With a background in finance, and previous experience as an investment banking analyst, she wanted something slightly different.
“I wanted to gain the skills to be more thoughtful about investing in frontier markets,” she says.
Thanks to a team of academic and professional advisors, Cochran’s two years of study at Wharton easily aligned with her interests in emerging and frontier markets, and how to help and invest in bottom-of-the-pyramid populations.
Dr. Howard Pack, a longtime professor of business economics and public policy, helped her create a personalized major in emerging market investing.
At the MBA Career Management Office, Cochran had an ally in Jennifer Savoie, a student advisor handling social impact, nonprofit, and public interest careers; Savoie helped Cochran effectively navigate the career transition process, and showed her how to link social impact and private equity in her new career.
Investing in Impact
Cochran soon learned about Imprint Capital, a relatively new San Francisco impact investment firm. The company’s clients were private foundations and large philanthropic institutions committed to investing in emerging and frontier markets, and in mission-driven ventures in education, technology, health care, and healthy food.
In her five years on the job — moving up the ranks from associate to vice president — one of Cochran’s most gratifying projects was helping develop M-KOPA Solar, a company which provides clean lighting to off-grid consumers in Kenya by providing a home solar lighting and phone charging system that can be paid with mobile money over time.
“The light costs $150 off the shelf, which most people can’t afford,” Cochran says. “M-KOPA allows them to pay 40 cents a day for a year and they own it.” The solar lighting replaces the use of kerosene, which is dirty, dangerous, and more expensive.
As Imprint Capital grew its clients began to include family offices, many of which were interested in impact investing — which intrigued Cochran.
“Impact investing enables high net worth individuals to be explicit about their shared values and to reflect them in their investment and wealth management decisions,” explains a recent World Economic Forum report. “An impact investing strategy aligned with family values can help to engage a younger generation in the leadership and management of a family office.”
Tackling that challenge was Cochran’s next career move: she was hired in fall of 2014 as director of private investments at Blue Haven Initiative, a family office created by a young couple who want to be responsible investors in every sense of the word.
“They want their inherited wealth invested in a way that preserves the capital and makes money for their heirs, but also has a social impact.”
Now she leads the office’s strategy and execution, focusing on high-performing financial investments with a social and environmental benefit. “They want me to make early stage investments in startups that deliver basic services in education, health care, financial services and energy,” Cochran says.
That includes an equity investment in M-KOPA, for example.
Cochran credits her MBA experience for encouraging and supporting the mission of pursuing profits while advancing social good.
“Wharton has the most impressive roster of people in impact investing,” she says. “I think we are building this industry.”
Written by Jill Porter for Wharton Social Impact Initiative.