Illumen Capital: Bias Reduction to Unlock Impact and Returns
Building on Nobel Prize-winning research, nearly a decade of experience investing in impact funds, and a lifetime of social and economic justice advocacy, Daryn Dodson’s Illumen Capital, an impact investment fund-of-funds, was at a critical juncture. Prior to founding Illumen in 2017, Dodson struggled with finding a way to transfer the success he had experienced in building awareness across teams at institutional asset allocators on topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion to long-term organizational change. Instead, he observed that the investment teams—those with the most power and leverage—rarely engaged in the work, and many investments were underperforming from both a return and impact perspective because of racial and gender biases. Indeed, research consistently showed that diverse managers offered alpha enhancements for investors—not just because diversity at the general partner level led to better investment decision-making and differentiated deal flow, but because diverse managers drove diversity at the portfolio company level as well. This meant a staggering missed opportunity considering that just 1.4 percent of the $82 trillion of the asset management industry was overseen by firms owned by women and people of color.
Through Illumen’s proprietary bias reduction programming, and because of its powerful fund-of-funds structure, Dodson was well positioned to reduce bias and unlock impact and returns. Specifically, the 10-year curriculum was a means of spurring long-term institutional change beyond one-off trainings; however, Dodson knew that changing one firm in an entire ecosystem was not enough. To elicit lasting change, he would have to enlist many firms working together to create field transformation and capitalize those firms with specific plans to reduce bias. Further, the fund-of-funds structure was a leverage point in the system; its top-down effect allowed 10 times more impact than investing at the company level. With its first fund close in 2018, and just over two years of commitments since then, the team had begun to plant the seeds of structural change for years to come. Whether those seeds would flourish remained a question.