By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Sr. Staff Writer
Stuart Williams has a gift for finance, but his passion has always been the environment. The UK citizen made his career in Europe’s banking industry with a focus on what he calls, “effective, causative change,” regarding environmental conservation. He moved to Kiawah from New York 6 years ago, determined to duplicate the success of a program that evolved over time.
“In the mid-eighties, one of my longest standing friends, whose father was a billionaire, and I started doing large scale environmental conservation projects in Europe. After about 2 years of this, her father challenged us to really drive more human and social impact. The mandate to us; if we couldn’t do it, there wouldn’t be funding for our conservation efforts,” recounted Williams.
The duo met the challenge by embedding social change architecture, sustainability, and socially responsible investing with environmental conservation. While these technical terms may sound abstract, “it worked exponentially. My friend was speaking at a conference in Norway [about our efforts] in the late 80’s and an audience member said it was like ‘a whole systems approach,’” Williams said.
He opened Strategic Research Institute in 1991 and met Suzanne Davis. They realized the possibilities and developed a program called “Making a Profit While Making a Difference.” He ran with the idea, and began challenging global heads of state, the CEO’s of the world largest corporations, and owners/managers of world’s largest asset pools: “Make as much money as you want, but don’t do it at the expense of the environment. That’s step one. Once you’re there, we start looking ways to make a positive impact in segments of humanity. People thought I was completely crazy,” Williams said. However, the idea of ‘impact investing’ took shape despite Williams’ running, and then selling his business.
Free of the work-a-day world, Williams continued to travel with the mission of finding out what it was like to be really poor, and to find the choke points to improving conditions.
He met with the residents of disenfranchised communities, separating by age etc., and deliberately leaving community leaders out of initial meeting. The results were identical regardless of how interview subjects were combined; economic vibrancy is essential.
“What we realized is that outside help, throwing money at the problem, wouldn’t work. The cavalry was not coming, and that the people in the community had to do it. So we designed programs to help them develop their own economic vibrancy… The bottom line; we have to give them the education, tools, contacts and where appropriate, capitol to build their own ‘for profit’ businesses,” said Williams. His new Charleston based company does exactly that.
Impact Ecosystem Architects (IEA) builds organizations you can help with/ invest in, or they will facilitate your idea in exchange for a consulting fee and a fraction of any profits. They help “businesses, investors, impact entrepreneurs, students, families, not-forprofits, and municipalities make greater financial returns, while making greater social and environmental differences,” says their website.
Selecting the consulting route means 25% of their fees go directly to the College of Charleston (CofC), where Williams is an adjunct professor.
“I teach a ‘for credit’ class each semester to undergrads on how to make a difference [while making a profit] 2 days/ week at CofC. You have to apply for the class, and it’s very competitive so we get the best and the brightest. Every week one of the teams pitches an idea based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. At the end of the semester we have a ‘pitch off’ and the 3 best ideas split $10,000 to get their business started. It’s the most popular class at CofC right now,” Williams said.
The impact entrepreneurial spirit isn’t just limited to undergrads either.
Adults are welcome to attend and participate in any of several IEA events. The Impact Challenge, for example, is scheduled for Sept. 20 from 5:50–7 p.m. in Wells Fargo Auditorium located at 5 Liberty St. Impact Entrepreneurs will publicly pitch their ideas and the winners will receive cash prizes and exposure to impact investors to help move their efforts of making a better world forward.
It wasn’t just the Lowcountry’s beauty that prompted Williams’ move to Charleston, it was also a test. “We thought if this worked in one the reddest states in the country, it could work anywhere, and it has. We’re rolling this out in West Virginia right now with similar success, and our events are always ‘sold out.’ Giving people a leg up is always better than giving them a hand out,” Williams concluded.
Although most IEA events are free of charge, space is limited. For more information on how IEA and you can make a better world while making a buck, visit InPlaceImpact.com.