Denes Ban
Israeli tech entrepreneur-turned-investor on the weekly parshah

The “Triple Bottom Line” and what I learned from impact investing

As I am writing this, I am in the great city of Tokyo where I just spoke at the G1 Globis conference on the topic of impact investments. For those who are new to this definition: impact investments are investments made into companies and funds with the intention of generating social and environmental impact alongside financial return. In some investor circles it is referred to as the “Triple Bottom Line”, or 3Ps People, Planet, and Profit.

In my speech I aimed to highlight two points:

(1) how venture capital in general plays a major role in increasing sustainability as technological innovations boost productivity, cut costs, and keep both the “big boys” and the market competitive. As well as simultaneously (and uniquely) allowing investors to check in on the founder’s/CEO’s real agendas and influence or even require them to commit to improved practices.

(2) how specifically, Israel is at the forefront of sustainable innovation due to its unique position surrounded geographically by less than friendly “cousins” paired with its highly limited natural resources.  These challenges created a great necessity in Israel to mother great inventions. Long known as a Start-Up Nation, Israel is also becoming an Impact Nation – highly specializing in agro-, water-, clean-, med tech, etc.

And yet, although more and more investors are searching, not just for profit but for “triple bottom lines”, many challenges that have arisen to disturb these high goals. Here is a little background:

The SDGs

In 2015 the United Nations General Assembly standardized Sustainable Development Goals. Also known as the SDGs, they are comprised of 17 global goals, much more than just climate change. They include things like reducing poverty, hunger, quality education, gender equality, etc. So, that’s the good news – potentially, great news.

The bad news is that because these goals were perhaps set too broadly and without any real homogeneously accepted measurements (or what we call in the business world KPIs: Key Performance Indicators), it is all too easy to misuse the system. So much so, that this inauthenticity has even garnered its own name among insiders, known as “Green Washing” or impact washing, meaning: companies can easily just dress up like participants in the SDGs; they look like it, they smell like it, they feel like it, however, they are not actually doing anything real to increase sustainability on any level.

With this in mind, as I was preparing for my speech and on my way to shul in Tokyo, it struck me that there are real parallels between this struggle for authenticity in corporate change and my own personal preparation for Elul, the foundational month leading up to the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur – the month of so called “Teshuva” (repentance).

The Jewish SSDGs, aka our Spiritually Sustainable Development Goals

Elul has been somewhat new to me. As I am a Baal Teshuvah, someone who did not grow up with an observant Jewish education or, in my case, exposure to anything Jewish nor religious at all, the whole concept of “Teshuva” (repentance) being done for a month or so each year is rather “innovative”. I was extremely impressed by a whole nation’s systematic approach to self work and improvement for such a set amount of time.

However, slowly as I learned more (and tried to practice myself), I saw that there was also a lot of what I now dub as “Teshuvah Washing”. It looks like Teshuvah, it smells like Teshuvah, it may even feel like Teshuvah but alas, it is not Teshuvah. Just as the UN identified the SDG’s 17 guideposts, our Sages have identified 24 guideposts to Teshuvah (=Viduy). But it is easy to fake it. I am pretty sure you know what I mean. Somehow, even with a whole month preparing, listening to Torah classes, maybe even giving them, beating our hearts, and running through the 24 expressions in a 45 second sprint, one can wonder if we were actually impacted by any of it?

When most companies have to deal with their SDGs, although considered “a good thing”, deep inside they are not happy about it. SDGs take a lot of time and energy and often hurt the companies’ bottom lines (aka profits). In fact, many admit behind closed doors that they actually hate them. In truth they don’t actually want to “change”. Why is our own genuine change still so very elusive? Maybe, because even with all the prep and the hype, deep deep down we don’t actually want to…

Your “Triple Bottom Line”

In last week’s Torah thought I wrote about how real and lasting change can often be sourced back to one major moment, usually something scary or dramatic (like a serious illness or the death of someone close – G!d Forbid), or an identity shift (such as getting married, becoming a parent, getting a new job or position etc) which sparks us to deeply evaluate our lives and know what is truly important. But what does knowing something really mean? How can we achieve this “knowing” without dramatic life shifts?

Eskimos are said to have over 10 words for snow, as snow is clearly a vital factor in their lives. The difference between snow A and snow B can mean life and death for the eskimos. In Hebrew there are few words for snow. However, we have 10 different words for knowledge. Why? Because knowledge has been the consistent vital factor maintaining Jewish life and the small difference between knowledge A and B could mean life and death.

The three main usages of “knowledge” in Hebrew are:

1. Chochma: pure intellectual theoretical knowledge, connected to the head.
2. Binah: emotional understanding, connected to the heart.
3. Daat: when the intellectual and emotional knowledge is connected through your actions.

The difference between the three “knowings” is most beautifully expressed by an example on quitting smoking attributed to Rabbi Dessler:

  1. Chochma: 10 strong reasons on why to quit smoking are explained to you intellectually and theoretically.
  2. Binah: You see people dying in the hospital or on National Geographic as a result of smoking, and have an emotional reaction to the photos, but you brush it off, distract yourself, and still no action is taken.
  3. Daat: You internalise the rational facts with the emotional response and it goes into the level of action. Unfortunately, this usually happens when a close relative dies of lung cancer, or you yourself receive a prognosis with cancer (G!d forbid) and now you think about it so much until it seeps into your bones and when you put the cigarette into your mouth, you feel like you are going to be sick. Daat is when you connect the intellectual and emotional knowledge to your body, physically feeling a shift in the body and its actions.

Through each of our veins, we need to integrate both our intellectual and emotional knowledge until it influences our entire (physical) body. Our actions will follow suit and this is when real change can happen. 

About the Author
Denes Ban is the Managing Partner of OurCrowd, Israel’s leading venture capital fund. A serial entrepreneur turned serial investor, he founded and sold an HR company and co-founded PocketGuide, one of the world’s leading travel apps. Denes has lectured at Harvard, Kellogg, and INSEAD and trained thousands of CEOs and entrepreneurs around the world. After growing up without knowing he was Jewish, Denes found his way to a Yeshiva in Jerusalem and learned Torah for two consecutive years before returning to the business world. Now he uses his experiences representing Israel in Asia to share examples of what it can mean to be a Jew in the 21st c and writes a weekly blog that has spread to countless subscribers, combining the world of business, technology, philosophy, and psychology with his insights into Judaism and Zionism.
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