After working as the CEO of the Americas division of her family business for 16 years. Els returned home to Belgium, driven by a passion for people and their well being. Here she started The Nest family office to increase the scale of impact on human lives.
How did you get involved in impact investing?
Until quite recently, I was living in the USA and actively involved in our family business. This changed when we made the decision to step away from the day-to-day operations, resulting in a liquidity event. It catapulted me into a soul-searching journey; I moved back to Belgium after 16 years, and went from being the CEO of a sizeable organization to “what will I do now?”. A UN summit on climate issues became my eye opener and a calling for me to put profit to purpose. I found out; I want to make a difference. This led us to start our family office, with a focus on impact investing. And some of the inspiring people we met at the beginning and along the way, such as Myleen Verstraete of PYM, Maarten van Dam of Pymwymic, and many others, continue to inspire us today.
What are you most passionate about changing/creating through your actions and investments?
I am passionate about building a resilient and circular food system, based on respect for all living beings; plants, fungi, and animals, with farmers and agricultural workers at its core. As investors, we are dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs and philanthropists who create solutions that
1) Utilise technology to enhance and optimize nature-based solutions
2) Develop innovative business models that regenerate local economies and prioritize farmers and growers
3) Contribute towards the transition to a better system, by being truly additional to the existing ecosystem.
Who do you ask for advice and why?
We want to be experienced and informed investors, so we consult multiple advisors, mentors, and experts. That way we can make educated decisions and learn a lot along the way. We are also part of several networks we can tap into - such as PYM, CREO, YPO, FORA, and The Shift - and I am blessed to have a small team of very talented people whom I can always ask for advice.
What are your thoughts on philanthropy as an impact investor?
There are many initiatives that by their nature require philanthropic money. An example for us is access to knowledge and training for farmers. Many farmers want to apply more regenerative practices but they don’t know where or how to start. Giving those farmers access to that knowledge is not directly a “bankable business model” but once the farmers have this knowledge and community, impact investment can help them bridge financial gaps and create positive returns. For us philanthropic giving is more emotive and less due diligence based— it is more about supporting a mission than investing in a certain return/goal. Both are needed.
How has impact investing changed your daily life / daily decisions? And does it continue to do so?
Impact investing has changed my (daily) life for the better. Having a purpose and seeing the positive impact you can make is so rewarding and motivating. Of course, I also want to practice what we preach in my day-to-day habits. I started gardening and creating space for wildflowers, I have my own chickens which I feed leftovers every day, I eat and enjoy local organic produce, and have largely stopped eating meat and dairy. I have become very mindful of waste and I teach my children about the importance of their actions. We also acquired a 100 + hectare bio regenerative farm, Domain de Graux. We are not perfect, but we are actively becoming more conscious every day.
How would you describe your investing style?
Pragmatic, Impact-driven, Long term.
What would you advise those who are just starting out in impact investing?
Start with your end goal in mind. What impact do you want to create? What returns do you want to make? And do something you are passionate about and interested in.
On a more practical note, it is also important to decide if you want to invest directly, through a fund, with an asset management company, or a combination of all. This depends on the time you can/want to allocate. Also, do good due diligence. It is easy to ''throw money away'' at something with good intentions but with a structure set up for failure. Moreover, you will want to decide what asset class you want to invest in. Impact investing spans various asset classes from cash at a sustainable bank, to microfinance bonds, to private equity and real assets like affordable housing.
Also, building networks is a great way to learn from each other. In fact, it is a big focus in our family office: create awareness, share knowledge and help each other.
And a final very important piece of advice, and this is where I started: check where your money sleeps. How is the bank investing your money?
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