Jenna Nicholas – Investor, Entrepreneur, Board Member in Social Investments

August 5, 2023
Jenna Nicholas

Jenna Nicholas is a lot of things. She is brilliant, kind, and compassionate. But she also works across several major initiatives. Based out of the Bay Area of California, Jenna is the co-founder and CEO of Impact Experience. This organization focuses on equity across investments, healthcare, education, and climate. And about a year ago, they started another initiative within this org called Business Climate Finance, where they work with companies to decarbonize their financial supply chain and focus on racial and climate equity.

On top of that massive undertaking, Jenna also leads the investments and acquisitions for One Planet Group, where they have acquired companies over the past couple of years and have consolidated them. They make investments off the balance sheet into seed-stage companies that are all looking at contributing towards the betterment of the world. And then on top of those two large endeavors, she also serves on the Advisory Committee of the private equity firm Apollo’s Impact Fund and the Investment Committee for the Wayfarer Foundation. 

In 2019 she was named Forbes 30 under 30 for Social Entrepreneurism. She has given a Ted Talk about socially responsible investing. And in 2016, she was awarded a PD Soros Fellowship for New Americans to receive her MBA at Stanford to pursue work in impact investing and social responsibility.

Raised in the UK, Jenna was instilled from her earliest days about the importance of pursuing work not for work’s sake or personal prestige but ultimately for the betterment of the world. She attributes some of her fire stemming from when she was 12 years old and was high-fived by Desmond Tutu. But to be honest, most 12-year-olds don’t get to be in the room with people like Desmond Tutu unless they’re raised with adults who understand this outlook for themselves. Jenna’s mother and grandmother, who raised Jenna as a Bahá’í, helped ensure that she had a global outlook from a young age and focused her thoughts on peace and global prosperity. 

Jenna attended an international school called Hill House until age eleven, which was run by a colonel from the army. Their field sports days revolved around which team could build a cannon the fastest. This is hilarious and amazing, and unique enough that the school’s culture led to amazing opportunities to develop lasting friendships with children from around the world. In secondary school, she attended an all-girls school, St Paul’s.  And in the summers of those years, she spent her summers at a program that helped deepen her understanding of her Faith’s commitment to global prosperity and world peace. She read different religious texts in the Swiss Mountains during the program’s first years. In groups, they discussed different ethical dilemmas and role-played the scenarios. And the later years, as she grew, the focus became more academic, and she delved deeply into texts of the Baha’i Faith. 

With all these ideas flowing through her, young Jenna thought she would grow up as a Human Rights Lawyer but was still deciding and needed to be 100% sold on the idea. When considering what university to attend, she opted to come to the United States instead of staying in England, as the path after university would be more open than attending university in the UK. She was deciding between two schools and could not make up her mind. On the night before she had to decide, she was parking her car in London and got into a conversation with a man about whether she should park her car there. She noticed that he had an American accent, so she asked him what he thought of the two schools, and it turned out that he was a professor at one of them, so she felt confirmed in her choice. She would attend Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. 

Looking back at her path over the years, she knows she may have done many of the same things she’s doing now, as she is so committed to this type of work. But she credits the social network with helping her get to where she is (at such a young age) because of the relationships she could cultivate from her college experience. And while she was in college, things like Investment Banking and Consulting jobs did attract many of her peers; she credits the moral compass instilled in her to apply herself to causes that resonated with her heart.

At graduation, she got a job working with the founder of Calvert Research and Management, an industry leader, pioneer, and gold standard of responsible investing. Through this job, she could tap into extensive networks from her bases out of DC and Beijing. She also got to teach a course at Tsinghua in Beijing on investing and corporate responsibility and work with the World Bank Treasury on developing Green Bonds. Through these special and unique opportunities, Jenna had a fantastic foundation to build up her knowledge set on corporate responsibility. She saw that it was possible to shift away from the investments harming our planet and opportunities to help the earth turn green (environmentally and financially). 

As her vision became more exact about what impact she could have with her work in the world, she was drawn to a new idea of creating her organization to help investors consider sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion in their firms. She was awarded a fellowship by P D Soros to attend grad school to pursue her MBA at Stanford to amplify the impact of her work through learning about different business models.

Returning to the Bay Area with a new endeavor in her sight, she took full advantage of the network waiting to receive her and her ideas about the betterment of the world. She loved the Interpersonal Dynamics Course, and the case studies in all her classes gave her perspective on scaling impact business models.. She had already started her organization, so she was uniquely positioned to utilize the time at school to talk with professors and others to tap into their knowledge about how to find success in this endeavor. Upon graduation, she earned a Stanford Social Innovation Fellowship, which included a year of funding and coaching and office space that helped her drive forward faster the work she was already doing.

You can find out more of the specific work and examples of what Jenna and Impact Experience have done on her website. The nexus is really about tapping into the expertise of local populations and small groups to generate solutions that bring about positive change and create action plans that get partnerships and buy-in within their communities. On Jenna’s team at Impact Experience, she has experts in health care disparities, a former school principal, and other experts to help delve deep into the meaningful issues.

A core part of the Impact Experience work is engaging groups to understand the historical context and present-day reality of structural racism.

“We have a pre-curriculum that people engage with, and we have one-on-one conversations with each of the participants in our experiences before the experiences themselves. There is a lot of emphasis on the action orientation and what people are doing as a result of participating in these experiences so that it’s not something that just starts and ends in words but will lead to tangible shifts over time.” It is an asset-based approach rather than a deficiency-based approach. There is inherent wisdom and expertise that lies within the communities and groups that we work with, and Impact Experience is creating spaces to be able to build bridges and relationships that can unlock capital and broader partnerships.

In addition to working on expanding the reach of Impact Experience and working in more and more communities, she is also the Managing Director of One Planet VC. One Planet Group is a company that incubates, operates, and invests in businesses. Jenna’s role within this company is to identify companies that One Planet Group invests in and acquires and to support those companies’ post-investment and acquisition.

The thread of working to shift capital into companies that pave the way for a stronger and more prosperous planet and people has helped build out Jenna’s knowledge of these industries significantly. Now she brings this applicable knowledge to Apollo and Wayfarer to help these organizations invest wisely for the planet’s sake. At Apollo, Jenna serves on its inaugural Impact Advisory Committee. And within Wayfarer Foundation, Jenna serves on the Foundation’s investment committee to promote investments in women, people of color, and impact-oriented companies and funds.

When asked about her unique path to where she is now and what this road means, Jenna commented that success can look different to different people.

“If I think about the people I admire most, they aren’t necessarily people who pursued traditional career paths. So in my case, I look at some of the people I admire and the choices they made at different points in time; I think there’s so much that we can learn from how other people have carved out their careers. And while everybody has their own journey, I think it’s vital that we don’t always need to start from scratch. 

I have always been inspired by the idea that life is so short and some of the issues that the world is grappling with are so urgent that the idea of doing something, even for a short period, that wasn’t directly aligned with my passions and what I could contribute to the world, was not worth doing.”

Jenna is also a champion of supporting other women on their paths. When I asked what advice she would give to other young people who are thinking about their future as if they were a younger version of herself, she said the following:

“My key piece of advice is the power of reframing. Often when life sends us obstacles, it can feel overwhelming. Reframing allows us to shift the way we think so that we can celebrate the amazing things that happen and know that the challenges that come our way are there to help us grow into stronger people and inform our development and growth. And when there is fear, it is good not to be held back by it, but use it as fuel to serve others.”