Sunday 20 March 2016

Podcast Interview with Clare Zutz and Mark Hand, University of Texas

A few weeks ago I was introduced to a couple of community members that had written a super interesting blogpost about visualising the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) on the Neo4j BlogClare Zutz and Mark Hand are both researchers at the University of Texas, and as you will read below, they have done some remarkable work to use Neo4j for the greater social good - so read on and follow the conversation...

Here's the transcript of our conversation:
RVB: 00:03 Hello everyone. My name is Rik Van Bruggen from Neo, and here I am recording another episode for the Graphistania podcast, and tonight I have invited two lovely people from all the way in Texas, who have been doing some wonderful work with Neo4j. That's Mark Hand and Clare Zutz. Hi guys. 
CZ: 00:24 Hello.
MH: 00:25 Hi everybody. 
RVB: 00:26 Hey. Good to have you guys on the podcast. Thanks for making the time, I really appreciate it. I've been reading some of your work that you guys have been publishing on our blog and everything, but some people may not have read that yet. So why don't you guys introduce yourselves and make yourselves known? 
CZ: 00:49 Okay, I'll start. So, hi I'm Clare Zutz and I'm currently at UT Austin at the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service, and I lecture an undergraduate course, and then Mark and I also do research around social innovation and network analysis. 
MH: 01:06 My name is Mark Hand and I'm an adjunct assistant professor here at the University of Texas, affiliated with the RGK Center. And I also work for an incubator of social enterprises here in Houston Texas called UnLtd USA
RVB: 01:17 Very cool and the RGK Center? What does that stand for [chuckles]? 
CZ: 01:22 It's the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service
RVB: 01:26 Oh okay, all right. Very cool. I saw the website, but I didn't know what the acronym was for-- 
MH: 01:32 It's named after a businessman and his wife, Ronya and George Kozmetsky, who are big donors to the university. 
RVB: 01:37 Interesting, okay, very cool. And you guys have been doing some very interesting work with graphs, networks and Neo4j. You wrote about the GIIN - the Global Impact Investing Network - which you might want to tell our listeners a little bit about. 
CZ: 01:57 Yeah, absolutely. So, last summer Mark and I were talking about the intersection of social innovation and food policy. Mark has been in the social innovation space for a long time, and I had just finished a Masters with focus in food policies. So we were talking about what impact investing in sustainable agriculture looked like, and we weren't really sure what that network or ecosystem looked like. So Mark offered up the idea of using a graph database to visualize that, and to be able to gain some better insights. So what we did, was we began by scraping publicly available data from GIIN, and again that's the Global Impact Investing Network. And so we looked at the asset managers, and looked at their investments, and we ended up with 45 asset managers and over 400 relationships. So that was how we started, and our idea was to try and kind of understand the evolution of co-investments over time, to uncover some of the key actors and the influencers in the space and highlight some of the co-investments. So thinking about it as an opportunity for entrepreneurs to search for different investors, and then investors to also see where other people are co-investing in different opportunities. 
RVB: 03:12 Super interesting. So I've read your blog post, but listeners may not have done that yet. So impact investing, what is that again? 
MH: 03:20 Sure. So one of the things that happened over the course the last ten to fifteen years is that the an increasing number of both foundations and traditional investors and asset managers have began to ask the question, "What happens if we actually intentionally invest in companies that have some kind of social and environmental mission at their heart?" Included in this world might be micro-finance and fair trade, and to some extent conscious consumption, conscious consumerism. And one of the things that's happened recently is a certain coalescing of these investors around a set of industry bodies. And the Global Impact Investing Network is the largest of those bodies and includes everything from family offices that are deciding to make investments in, let's say a software in Kenya that helps connect mobile money to back office small business software, all the way to alternative energy sources, perhaps in coming from certain types of trees that are farmed down in Texas. 
RVB: 04:21 Oh, wow. So, and this is global, right? This is not just, you know, North American investors, managers, this--? 
MH: 04:29 One of the things that's been interesting is that this really is a global phenomenon. There's a tremendous amount of activity in India. And then in the United States it's come out of-- in the United States and Europe it sort of evolved from the international aid world into an industry on it's own right. And there's sort of - there's still questions about boundaries and definitions, which is part of actually what we were interested in - is can we actually look at who's in and who's out, or what kind of activity is happening, and look at it deductively from who's actually making investments and who's actually making transactions, as opposed to trying to induce definitions on the space? And if the listeners are interested, the database that has, perhaps, the most amount of information - the most number of investors and entrepreneurs - is actually also out of Austin, Texas and they were our partners in this project. It's called Enable Impact. If you go to, that's where listeners can look up and see who some of these entrepreneur's are, and who some of these investors are as well. 
RVB: 05:32 I'll put some of those links on the blog post with the transcription. So that's great that you put that out there. So how did you guys get into graphs for this type of work? Mark, you were like the guy suggesting this the idea to start--? 
CZ: 05:48 He was indeed [laughter]. 
MH: 05:50 So I took a class on strategy and innovation from a professor at Oxford named Marc Ventresca. And in that class we got exposed to how networks can help us understand the way that entrepreneurs behave, the way that entrepreneurs gather their teams together and manipulate resources around them. And when I came to Austin to start work with UnLtd USA, one of my questions was to what extent can we actually take some of this scholarly work on entrepreneurs and the way that they manipulate networks, and actually turn it into something that can help entrepreneurs who are just getting started? And the more we sort of went through that, the more we began to consider how else might we apply some of these lessons - not just to working with entrepreneurs themselves, but to understanding the ecosystem of players around them. So actually we made a map of the Austin social innovation ecosystem, that was graph based. And from there we began to ask more question here, at the University of Texas, about: What can we actually learn about this ecosystem if we get a little bit more intentional, and if we try to get a little bit more focused on the questions that we're asking? 
RVB: 06:54 That's super cool. And then what were some of the interesting results that you guys found? Any particular highlights that you want to sort of call out? 
CZ: 07:03 Well I think one of the interesting things that we learned was, I think our original goal to just bring some transparency to the sector, right? I think a lot of people talk about impact investing, but what exactly does that mean and what does that look like, especially for sustainable agriculture? I think when we were going through it, we initially thought, okay that to have this map will lend some clarity to the space, but then we also realized that this could really be used as a tool for entrepreneurs and also to give recommendations for investors. And we've actually had a lot of different organizations reach out to us after the blog post went out, so that was really exciting, to see that there was a need for that, and it was actually gaining deeper insights. 
RVB: 07:43 That's super cool. Is there any future work planned on this, Clare or Mark? Are you guys planning to evolve this in any way? 
MH: 07:53 We hope so. So one of the things we found actually, is that we ended up having to get this data from the portfolios from the websites of the investors who were part of the GIIN. And what we did was, we began with their investments and then we actually looked at press-releases and then on CrunchBase and AngelList to see who else had invested in those companies as well, to try to determine what other investors were out there that weren't identifying as impact investors, but were making investments in companies that might be considered social enterprises. And that's been a pretty tremendous learning for us, to see  how it is that this network of people is starting to pull in other more traditional investors into some of these companies. Hampton Creek is a company that's a good example of this. It's a company started by a guy named Josh Tetrick, and they make an egg alternative, or a mayonnaise alternative. And they've actually been able to get some - what might be considered impact investing - but then they've also been able to get a tremendous amount of mainstream investors pulled into this company as well. 
MH: 08:57 And the other thing that was really interesting was to see which entrepreneurs had been successful at raising money from within the GIIN ecosystem, so from within self-identified impact investors, and then which companies, like Hampton Creek, had actually had more success raising funds from people who didn't self-identify as impact investors. Now what happened when we tried to move forward with this, is it turns out that, in fact, that this information simply doesn't exist anywhere yet in this kind of form. And so now we're considering how we might move forward knowing that we would actually have to construct this data set ourselves, as opposed to trying to do some work on an existing data set. So we are beginning to do a couple of things. We're beginning to look at other data sets. There is an organization called D-Lab which runs a certification program for entrepreneurs that consider themselves social entrepreneurs. And they have a beautiful data set of about 80 investment funds and some of their investments, and then also the impact metrics associated with those entrepreneurs. And so that may be one project that we take up. Another is actually to try to build up a more robust map of the Austin social innovation landscape, and perhaps even make it open source so that entrepreneurs and investors can enter their information in. But we've sort of got a long way to go and a bunch of projects that we are playing with. We're also - if listeners are interested - we'll be contactable through a website that we'll be putting up in the next couple weeks. It'll be It'll be dedicated specifically to: How do we use some of these analytical methods - like those that Neo4j helps facilitate - to better understand the social impacts sphere? 
RVB: 10:31 Wow, so many plans! Usually when I ask people about their future they're like, "Oh well, we--" [laughter], but you guys have a lot of plans laid out for you. It's very cool. 
CZ: 10:44 We do. For having spoken them out loud, perhaps somebody will have to hold them to us [laughter]. 
RVB: 10:48 That would be very cool. Well, this has been a wonderful conversation. I really enjoyed it, and I wish you guys lots of success with the future work that you are planning. It's been really cool to see some of that work come out that you share with our community. We all really appreciate that. So thank you so much for coming online and talking to me about that. And I'm hoping that we'll meet each other someday at the GraphConnect Conference or something like that [chuckles]. 
CZ: 11:19 Wonderful, thank you so much. 
RVB: 11:21 Thank you, have a nice day. 
CZ: 11:23 Bye.
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