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Is backing Tesla—’a car for rich people’—impact investing?

December 2, 2021, 6:41 PM UTC

Does backing a $31 billion-in-revenue, billionaire-led luxury electric vehicle maker—Elon Musk’s Tesla—count as impact investing? Almost, says Plexo Capital founding managing partner Lo Toney.

“Is Tesla an impact investment? No, right? It’s a car for rich people in Silicon Valley,” Toney said at Fortune Brainstorm Tech in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Wednesday. “But does it have a positive impact on the environment? Absolutely.”

Toney—who doesn’t consider himself an impact investor—debated the definition of impact investing, traditionally considered to be as for-profit investments designed to have a positive social impact.

He says he does look for investment opportunities that will generate a return and have a positive effect on the world (and avoids investments that further societal and socioeconomic divisions) but eschews the impact investor label. One example, he said, is an investment in mobile phones: another product originally developed for a wealthy consumer, and now used to connect low-income and rural customers to the internet and financial technology around the world.

He was joined by Evelyn Carter, managing director for the diversity and inclusion consulting firm Paradigm; Steve Ellis, co-managing partner of the Rise Fund; and Kelly Schmitt, CEO of Benevity, a software platform for nonprofits and businesses.

Ellis’s Rise Fund, which was launched by TPG in 2016, takes a more-straight ahead approach to impact investing; it was one of the first large-scale, private equity-backed operations in the space. Employees, customers, and startups are leading the charge on pushing for investing with a positive impact on the world, he says. “Are the Salesforces of the world or Microsofts of the world going to solve this problem?” he asked. “They’re trying to … but they’re not addressing acute needs.”

“Employers and customers are saying, ‘You have to do this or I’m not buying your service,'” he added. “That’s making this a ‘must have,’ not a ‘nice to have’ bounced around the boardroom.”

That’s a permanent change, Ellis argues: “This shift is secular and generational.”

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