Reading: Unpacking Balderton’s new Sustainable Future Goals with Magda Lukaszewicz8 min
Unpacking Balderton’s new Sustainable Future Goals with Magda Lukaszewicz
Europe is increasingly taking the driver’s seat in building purpose-driven, environmentally and socially responsible companies. This week marked a meaningful leap in that direction, when Balderton Capital – one of the giants of European early-stage venture – published their formalized approach to Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance.
In June of this year, Slush released Entrepreneurship Redefined – our data-driven take on how companies of the next decade will look different from those of the decade gone by. Within that, we wrote extensively about the mismatch in the focus on purpose between European tech startups and those who fund them. Our core findings were as follows:
- Purpose-alignment & ESG are exploding as founder and employee priorities. Depending on the size of the company, in just the previous 12 months, between 49 and 71% of employees in European tech startups reported an increase in the share of their colleagues that emphasize corporate & social responsibility.
- The purpose-driven investment ecosystem is being built from the bottom up, and VCs are the slowest to adapt. Across the stages, angel and corporate investors are much more likely than VCs to invest towards one or more UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and the tendency decreases among funds that invest at later stages. While 75% of angel investors invest towards some SDG, only 50% of Series C+ VCs do so.
- A lacking mandate from LPs – that’s the people who invest in VC funds – is the primary thing holding VCs back. Across the board, LPs report lower levels of commitment to SDGs than the institutions they back. For example, while 63% of Seed stage VCs invest towards some SDG, only 47% of their backers do so. This tendency decreases further among LPs that invest in VCs focused on more mature companies.
This Wednesday, Balderton Capital, Europe’s most active Series A investor, formalized and launched a ten-point ESG framework it calls its Sustainable Future Goals. To unpack what this means for founders hoping to raise from them in the future, and for an ecosystem that desperately needs to get serious about addressing humankind’s most pressing issues, we sat down with Magda Lukaszewicz – one of the co-leads of the project.
Times of crisis are a seedbed for the ambitions of smart people – and fertile ground for systemic change. The Middle Ages, plagued by war, famine and pandemics eventually resulted in the Renaissance. The horror that was two World Wars in the space of three decades led to a period of robust peace and progressive social change. Amazon and Google were built on the ruins of a tech ecosystem left in shatters by the burst of the dot-com bubble.
In unpacking why this was the right time for Balderton to formalize its approach to environmental and social responsibility, Magda points to both the current crisis we’re living through, and the one that’s been unfolding for the past few decades.
“2020 has been one strange year. It has really underscored our need to work together on the big issues we face. At the same time, the 21st century as a whole has confronted the global community with challenges that we must urgently address. While we’ve been working on these topics for a long time, this was the right time to formalize our approach and hold ourselves accountable through quarterly reviews and annual public reports.”
Realizing the need for agency, Balderton composed a working group earlier this year. In putting it together, they emphasized two things: the need to bring as much diversity of thought and of experience to the table, and the realization that this would have to start from the very top.
“It was Bernard – our Managing Partner, Jerome – our Operating Partner, Fiona – our CFO, and two Principals – Colin and I – that led the project. With this group, we engaged in absolutely pivotal discussion and debated around the issue. We also gathered feedback from the larger team and the portfolio. This all wouldn’t have been possible, had it not been a priority all the way at the top.”
Importantly, Balderton is not suddenly becoming an impact-only fund. The framework implies no changes to its investment framework, although it will be making ESG and impact part of its due diligence process. However, even more importantly, it probably doesn’t need to.
“Increasingly, the best founders have an answer not only to how they’re going to create financial value, but also to how they will do that in a responsible way, and these factors are interconnected. On the consumer side, many of the best-performing companies are making sustainability a core priority. As for B2B, companies are increasingly getting important building blocks like responsible data governance right. Even within diversity – an issue that’s taken the European ecosystem all too long to admit and address – the situation is improving. 5 of the 14 companies we’ve backed this year are female-led.”
However, Magda still emphasizes that founders need to intentionally build their business plan and narrative in a way that addresses these questions.
“First of all, every single company, whether they want to raise from Balderton or not, should think about these things – our generation has more knowledge and awareness than previous ones, and that implies a collective responsibility to make better decisions. Thinking specifically about us, we invest relatively early. This means that we bet on outsized founder ambitions. Increasingly, we’re going to expect the best founders to be ambitious in their take on responsibility, too, and they will, in turn, expect the same from us. We will act as support, but the teams have to be driving this. Say, you have an all-male, all-white founding team that has hired a predominantly all-male, all-white management team – which is not unusual in the early stages – I think some level of awareness when discussing the team is the least to be expected. If your first 10 employees are male, getting to a balance means that your next 10 would need to be female. At the same time, you’ll have set yourself up for a hard sell in convincing any woman to join. That’s an issue that’s really difficult to solve later on. We know that…”
Where a current portfolio company or future investment hasn’t got all aspects right from the start, Balderton will look to drive them in that direction through their board seat and a peer-to-peer community they’ve set up for their portfolio founders around the SFGs. In fact, Magda recognizes that retrofitting certain aspects of ESG may sometimes be a reasonable way of doing things. It’s all about prioritizing your values as a company.
“One of our portfolio companies, smol, is reimagining laundry capsules. Recently, they moved to paper packaging, which is the far more sustainable option. They had to go to great lengths to find a packaging that wouldn’t hike prices and jeopardize one of their other core values – accessibility. If they had looked to implement that from the start, they wouldn’t have been able to move fast enough. A company’s first priority is to get to scale. That is the platform on top of which they can enact meaningful change.”
Magda points to an increasingly conscientious customer base as one of the core drivers of responsible companies.
“I think that we can expect to see more successful companies building their products out in public, co-creating them with and for their customers by being relentlessly open to feedback. Under that model, and faced with harsh competition, you’re going to have to build according to your customer preferences.”
Taking the long view, Magda is excited about the change we’re going to see in the coming years. She expects great founders to drive the whole ecosystem in a more responsible direction.
“Increasingly, great companies are agents for great societal change. Take Oatly, and how they’ve come to hold the industry accountable to their CO2 emissions. As this process plays out, we can expect more focus on how, and by whom, shareholder value is created.”
About the framework
Balderton’s framework is based on the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Out of these, the team has distilled 10 Sustainable Future Goals. These 10 goals fall into three buckets: environmental, social and governance.
Across these goals, Balderton will enact change along three axes:
- In their internal operations
- As a shareholder in their portfolio companies
- As they source and decide on new investments
In holding themselves accountable to these goals, the team has opted for an OKR structure. Each of the 10 goals has a number of objectives attributed to it across the 3 axes of change, and each objective, in turn, has certain key results that quantify what success in reaching it looks like. In total, the framework consists of 60 objectives and 77 key results.
Magda Lukaszewicz is a Principal at Balderton. She joined the team in 2018 and focuses primarily on investment activities in the Nordics. At Balderton, she has been involved in forming the ESG strategy, and works closely with the Stockholm-based portfolio company Voi. Prior to Balderton, Magda spent 3+ years at Goldman Sachs, where she worked on the first sustainable credit facility. She has also been involved in politics and worked for Klarna in their early days.