Author Tags: Advice

Socially responsible investment--SRI funds--is being touted as the way to make investment money ethically. Even the banks want to get in on that bandwagon. But avoiding the subsidization of weapons, gambling, pornography and tobacco is not necessarily the route to virtue. Using your money to make good things happen, that's what is now being called "social finance."

Simplistically dubbed "the man who bankrolled Gregor Robertson" in order for organic juice magnate to be elected Mayor of Vancouver in 2008, social financier Joel Solomon has co-written The Clean Money Revolution: Reinventing Power, Purpose, and Capitalism (New Society 2017), with journalist Tyee Bridge, founder of Nonvella, for short works of literary fiction, and Arclight, a "custom publishing" service.

While living in the downtown eastside of Vancouver with a tenth-floor panoramic view of the harbour, Solomon is chiefly described as Chairman of Renewal Funds, a $98-million mission venture capital firm. Not bad for a guy born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1954 who inherited $3 million U.S. in the early '80s when his father died. That's around the time he made his first leap into social finance by investing in Stoneyfield Farm, now reputedly the most successful organic yogurt producer in the U.S.

According to his bio, he has invested in over 100 early-growth stage companies in North America, "delivering above-market returns while catalyzing positive social and environmental change." Solomon spent ten years building businesses in Nashville's deteriorating urban core, where he co-founded Village Real Estate, CORE development, and the Bongo Java chain of coffee houses.

Solomon is a founding member of the Social Venture Network, Business for Social Responsibility and is Board Chair of Hollyhock. He a Senior Advisor to RSF Social Finance in San Francisco.

Joel Solomon is a committed capitalist who was nonetheless accused by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper of encouraging "foreign radicals" to infiltrate Canada with their environmental concerns because he is a co-founder of Tides Canada, a national charitable organization.


The Clean Money Revolution Reinventing Power, Purpose, and Capitalism (New Society 2017) $29.99 9780865718395

[BCBW 2017]

The Clean Money Revolution: Reinventing Power, Purpose, and Capitalism
Review 2017

from Mark Forsythe
The Clean Money Revolution: Reinventing Power, Purpose, and Capitalism by Joel Solomon with Tyee Bridge (New Society Publishers $29.99)

Joel Solomon is a committed capitalist with the heart and soul of a 60s socialist. His newly published memoir, The Clean Money Revolution is also a manifesto for changing the world through Socially Responsible Investments (SRIs). That translates as ethical, sustainable and aligned with values--at above market returns. Here Mark Forysthe reviews his new book co-written by Tyee Bridge.

here are two things to know right off the top: Joel Solomon chairs Renewal Funds, a $98 million mission venture capital firm, created in partnership with now B.C.-based Rubbermaid heiress, Carol Newman.

He was an early backer of Gregor Robertson's Happy Planet organic juice company, and later backstopped Robertson's mayoralty campaign Solomon's life story is something of a history lesson on clashing values during the rise of the civil rights movement, anti-war dissent and environmental awakening.

As a Jewish kid from Chattanooga, Tennessee, he had a father who was shut out of the inner business circle but proceeded to build strip malls across the U.S. South.

Solomon was groomed for the family business, so he attended Baylor Military School where, "racism and misogyny were the norm" and later graduated from Vassar College with a political science degree.

He became a foot soldier in Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential election campaign, and marvelled at how a peanut farmer who came from nowhere could win the White House.

The now almost-forotten powell Memo of 1971 was pivotal for Solomon, for it revealed how business directly influenced politics. Lewis Franklin Powell Jr. was a lawyer for tobacco giant Philip Morris (among others). His memorandum asserted that business interests must shape national thinking. This was in reaction to a rising consumer public interest movement led by Ralph Nader, new environmental laws and occupational safety regulations.

Powell wrote, "the American economic system is under broad attack." His plan was specific, with a 50-year time horizon. Influential conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, Business Roundtable and the Cato Institute emerged as a result.

Business moved on Washington to lobby government head on, and CEOs got to know their senators. And it paid off. Lower taxes, business friendly legislation and less government were the result.

So that's partly how Solomon came to believe and understand that the socially progressive left should "play bigger" in the corridors of power. Meaning: Clean money could overcome dark money.

In his twenties solomon learned he had the same kidney condition (Polycystic Kidney Disease) that would soon take his father's life, at age 63. He faced, "dialysis, transplant or death." This predicament placed him on a path, searching for clean food, air and water.

Consultation with alternative health guru Andrew Weil followed, with an emphasis on non-toxic foods, reduced stress and pursuit of a spiritual purpose. This would become his mantra for doing business: "Helping to promote clean organic food, healthy environments and a just society would be my life's work."

His quest for meaning and health included learning how to be an organic gardener and a self-described "soil freak."

Solomon lived on Cortes Island at a hippie farm, a forerunner to the non-profit educational institute Hollyhock. When his mother visited she remarked that she had, "never seen people living this way by choice."

One of Hollyhock's founders, Shivon Robinsong, donated a kidney in 2005 to help save Solomon's life.

Later Solomon worked for scientist and Greenpeace activist Paul Spong at OrcaLab on Hanson Island. He was exposed to local Indigenous culture, read mountains of books on spirituality and psychology, fought depression and spent hours alone.

"Living meaningfully became my goal."

In 1983 he received a $50,000 payout from a family investment and injected half into Hollyhock, the remainder into Stonyfield, an non-profit organic farm.
Stonyfield broke ground in the U.S. organic natural yogurt market and was later bought for $180 million.
A year later his father was on his deathbed with renal failure, pleading with his son to not reject what the family business had created, imploring him to, "do something with it."

Solomon inherited $3 million, moved to Nashville and invested money in small businesses and grassroots organizations that helped revitalize the urban core. He calls this a "family legacy cleanup," pretty much the opposite of building strip malls that suck the life out of city centres.

In Nashville he helped get a city councillor elected and expanded his network of like-minded people who invested in "higher purposes."

The Threshold Foundation (created with Carol Newman) spawned the economic activist Social Venture Network. He launched Renewal Partners in B.C. and invested in budding green ventures like Happy Planet, Capers, SPUD home organic food delivery service and 7th Generation, makers of non-toxic cleaning products.

"Less harm, more good."

Solomon is also co-founder of Tides Canada which the Harper government accused of being comprised of "foreign radicals" laundering money in Canada and highjacking the country's need to develop natural resources.

Tides was instrumental in helping generate donations to make the Great Bear Rainforest agreement a reality, and has provided some $158 million in grants.

The Clean Money Revolution often reads like the script for a Renewal Funds promotional video. We meet "change agents" using "angel networks" for "impact investing" viewed through an "ethical screen" to create "social mission based businesses." A "gold mine of opportunity" awaits as $50 trillion is expected to change generational hands over the next 33 years.

Meanwhile, the concept of clean money is now embedded in business schools; ethical investing through banks is a common option and the world's largest asset manager has started an Impact US Equity Fund.

Solomon has clearly achieved his goal of living meaningfully.


Mark Forsythe is the former host of CBC radio's Almanac.