How Ron Cordes went from profits to purpose

April 11, 2014, 7:36 PM UTC

Next is a series of articles that looks at executives’ efforts to use their talents and skills to enrich or support the lives of others and upon retirement from professional life.

FORTUNE — Even at a young age, Ron Cordes had a plan to spend the last third of his life giving back. If he didn’t devote a portion of his journey entirely to philanthropy, he says he knew achieving something meaningful would be difficult.

“As long as I spent 80 hours a week running my own business, I wouldn’t have time to explore the next thing,” explains Cordes.

A classic overachiever, Cordes was able to jump into his second ahead of schedule. After working for 15 years as an independent financial adviser — he started the Monday after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley — Cordes founded AssetMark, a consultancy firm for the growing number of advisers choosing to run their own operations.

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The company grew to $9 billion in assets by 2006, and Cordes sold it to Genworth Financial for $230 million. At the age of 53, Cordes found himself ready to pursue the next phase of his life.

But for once, he also found himself without a game plan.

“I didn’t have a real concept of what I wanted to do, but I felt very strongly that if I put myself fully into it, I would find a path that would make sense,” says Cordes.

So he started exploring. Quickly after establishing a $10 million family foundation with his wife and daughter, Cordes had a friend call on him to fund a program in California focused on social entrepreneurship. The San Francisco-native had only a vague understanding of the field, but was eager to learn more. Cordes found himself “hardwired” to believe that business solutions and capital markets could solve the big problems in the world. It didn’t take long for him to realize that combining the investing principles he knew with the philanthropic purpose he desired would define his second act.

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The investor began by funding small microfinance programs around the world. From there, he moved into the just-emerging field of impact investing. One of his investments, Bridge International Academies, provides quality education for students in Africa for just $5 a month while also generating returns for investors. After establishing its first school in Nairobi in 2009, Bridge International now teaches more than 53,000 students in 134 different academies.

Cordes was also drawn to the idea of connecting local artisans in developing countries with the global supply chain in a socially conscious way. His family foundation backs Maiyet, a luxury clothing and accessory brand sold in Barneys that allows artisans and designers around the world to sell to customers who will pay top dollar for their products. All Across Africa, a home goods brand funded by Cordes and sold in Costco, works with 3,000 artisans and benefits both African communities and shareholders around the globe.

In 2010, he co-founded ImpactAssets to encourage other wealthy investors like himself to get involved with social enterprise. With $150 million in assets, the organization’s impact is expansive.

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“Many people are not fully aware that you can have this double bottom line, they think you have to give up a significant amount of financial return if you want to have a social or environmental impact, but our portfolio shows that isn’t the case,” says Cordes.

In fact, in many ways, it was Cordes’s devotion to alternative investments that saved him. In 2008 when the financial crisis hit, his portfolio came away without a single loss, he says. By taking on investments untied to the global financial market, Cordes escaped much of the nightmare experienced by several of his peers.

The final third of Cordes’s life is now well underway, but he is quickly realizing a fourth quarter may be equally important as well. Now 55, he finds himself becoming a spokesperson of sorts for retirees who hope to find similar purpose — and profits — in their second acts. After joining the board of Encore, the organization leading the second-act movement for many American retirees, Cordes travels around the world making speeches about his transition away from corporate life.

“We are really trying to change the lexicon of what retirement means,” says Cordes. “It is a powerful force.”


Advice for retirees considering a move from corporate life to giving back

Use the “Ready-fire-aim” approach. Don’t be afraid to jump in and take a few test runs. Get involved even before you’re ready to leave the corporate world in a volunteer assignment with an organization that speaks to your passions, one of the many trip opportunities that are available to see projects “in action” particularly throughout the developing world or one of the expanding number of conferences that are designed to open opportunities for “encore” engagements. We’re actually involved in co-convening one of these conferences, the Opportunity Collaboration, held each October in Ixtapa, Mexico. Many of our attendees are folks seeking to find the right engagement opportunity and meet fellow travelers along the encore journey.

What he wishes he knew before the switch

Honestly — I wish I knew how incredibly energizing, joyful, and fulfilling this work would be — I would have found a way to get involved even earlier than I did.

Biggest challenge

Coming into a brand new space — in my case the fields of international development, poverty alleviation, microfinance, and human rights — and admitting that I’m the new guy and have a whole lot to learn. This can be humbling for folks who are coming out of fields where for years they have been looked to as the go-to expert.

Biggest reward

Meeting lifelong friends. I’ve made more of what I believe will be true, deep, lifelong friendships in the past five years than in my entire business career prior. There is something about starting a fundamental alignment of purpose that leads to a really deep and meaningful engagement.