Silicon Valley’s tech community often brags about wanting to change the world with its latest inventions. But are the startups who stand to profit from these innovations giving anything back? Although a few leading figures — like Salesforce’s Marc Benioff — advocate for philanthropic efforts, most startups wait until they’ve reached the later stages to implement a corporate social responsibility (CSR) model or start a foundation. Alexandre Mars, a French serial entrepreneur and investor, wants to change that by encouraging startups to incorporate social good in their business early on.
To do so, Mars and his team have created the “sharing pledge,” which invites interested individuals to pledge a percentage of their shares (for founders) and carried interest/management fees (for VCs) to selected charities around the world. The pledge is part of Mars’ nonprofit Epic, which he created in 2014 to help “make giving the norm.”
“By pledging and embedding social good in their business, entrepreneurs and investors will develop a competitive edge and attract purpose-driven employees and consumers,” said Mars, in an interview with VentureBeat.
There is no imposed percentage. Le Tote’s Tondon, for example, chose to pledge 5 percent.
“I pledged an amount that I felt was appropriate and something that could be meaningful to the charities it’s going to,” Tondon wrote in an email to VentureBeat. “The number of shares don’t actually get diluted if we raise additional capital. The amount of ownership I have in the company gets diluted.”
Mars explains that as individual equity owners, these founders elect before an exit to donate a percentage of the proceeds from their equity sale to Epic. As this doesn’t involve any transfer of assets, it doesn’t create any liability, nor does it require any board approval, legal diligence, or administrative processing. And just in case you’re still not convinced, the pledge also reduces the taxable income from the proceeds of the exit.
Granted, it can take years for the stock to become liquid, at which point it can be donated to charities as capital. But the model is smart, as it seamlessly integrates a philanthropic DNA within the company.
Another draw for pledging founders is that they trust the system Epic has set up.
“Entrepreneurs start companies to change the world in a positive way,” wrote Coffee Meets Bagel cofounder and COO Dawoon Kang, in an email to VentureBeat. “We all want to contribute to the world in one way or another. However, a lot of us don’t have the time to find a reliable NGO to donate to or volunteer for. Epic makes it easy as it takes care of the whole vetting process.”
Epic currently works with 30 NGOs around the world, including seven in the U.S.
In order to back his nonprofit, Mars created a family office called Blisce that invests in both VC firms as a limited partner (LP) and in companies as a direct investor. A portion of the returns are reinvested in Epic to cover all operational costs so that 100 percent of the individual donations and pledges can go to the charities, says Mars. Alibaba, BlaBlaCar, Casper, Pinterest, and Spotify are some of the companies Blisce has invested in.
“Our successes at Blisce allow me to fund Epic,” said Mars. “So, as you can imagine, Spotify’s exit was great news for us.” The Swedish company opted for a direct listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in early April, meaning that Spotify shareholders, including Blisce, could sell their shares immediately on the public markets in order to get liquidity.
Mars is trying to lead by example and has already convinced a handful of VCs in Europe to sign the sharing pledge. These include Ventech, Serana, 360 Capital, and Breega Capital.
“In the U.S., we are just starting to implement this solution with some VCs and investors,” said Mars. Fabrice Grinda from FJ Labs, Donald Stalter from GFC, and 17Capital have already signed the pledge.
We’ll see soon enough which top-tier VCs in the Valley are willing to pledge some of their returns to help those in need.