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Ventures

Salesforce’s Impact Fund Sparks Change by Leveling the Playing Field for Startups

Claudine Emeott and Rachel Romer Carlson

Quick take: 

  • Salesforce Ventures’ $150 million Impact Fund has now invested in 28 companies — 60% of which have a female or underrepresented minority founder or CEO.
  • Guild Education, a female-founded unicorn, provides a case study for the fund’s success

Rachel Romer Carlson views education as more than just training — rather, she sees it as an avenue to distribute the opportunities that elude far too many. 

“We are in a moment as a society where we have a workforce craving something more and wanting to better themselves,” said Romer Carlson. “We also see a desire from employers to provide educational and training opportunities to grow the talent within their companies.” 

Romer Carlson is the CEO and co-founder of Guild Education, an education platform with a mission to unlock opportunity for America’s workforce through education and upskilling. Interestingly, Guild is a prime example of overcoming the odds and tapping into resources that haven’t always been handed out equally — in this case, venture capital. 

Guild Education Headquarters — Denver, CO

The company is a unicorn, and a vastly successful one at that, having recently completed a $150 million Series E funding round and achieving a valuation of $3.75 billion. 

There are more than 700 unicorn companies — tech startups that reached at least $1 billion in valuation— according to CB insights. Very few are run by women. In fact, only 2.3% of all Venture Capitalist (VC) funding went to women-led startups in 2020. 

According to Romer Carlson, reaching these heights took hard work. Though Guild is not the first education platform, its unique business model serving employees, employers, and universities is the secret sauce — connecting employers with specific programs empowers employees to find the higher education program best suited for their schedule and learning style.

The hard work and unique business approach paid off, resulting in companies like Disney, Chipotle, Walmart, Waste Management and Lowe’s offering educational benefits to their employees through Guild.

As the Denver-based startup grew, it also received a critical assist — from another female-run team.

Salesforce Ventures Impact Fund: A catalyst for equity in entrepreneurship

Salesforce Ventures Impact Fund is one of Guild’s strong supporters. Led by Claudine Emeott, the all-female Impact Fund team invests in innovative, global cloud companies and founders who are making a measurable social or environmental impact. 

Impact investing is a natural fit for Emeott.

“I’ve always been passionate about the intersection of technology, impact, and investing,” said Emeott. 

Emeott launched the Impact Fund in 2017 with $50 million to accelerate the growth of cloud companies that connect to the Salesforce ecosystem to address social and environmental challenges. At the time, Salesforce was the first corporate venture program to launch a dedicated impact fund. 

“Our idea was to marry the mission of impact-driven organizations and the strategic, financial return goals of corporate venture in a really compelling fashion,” said Emeott. 

Our idea was to marry the mission of impact-driven organizations and the strategic, financial return goals of corporate venture in a really compelling fashion.

Claudine Emeott, Senior Director, Impact Investing, Salesforce

Following the success of its first Impact Fund, Salesforce Ventures doubled down last fall with a new $100 million fund. In all, the Impact Fund has invested in 28 companies including two more unicorns, Unite Us, a veteran-founded technology platform that builds coordinated care networks for patient populations, and Flutterwave, an Africa-based company that created a global payments platform for companies to sell to customers anywhere in the world.

Emeott, who is among the 12% of decision makers at VC firms in the U.S. who are female, noted that the correlation between the low number of female and diverse VCs and the percentage of funding directed toward female- and diverse-led companies is no surprise. 

“Just as entrepreneurs start companies aimed at problems they’ve experienced, VCs tend to gravitate toward companies that address their own lived experiences,” she said.

Emeott has an ambitious goal to increase representation in the tech startup community — vowing to invest 50% of the fund’s capital in minority-led or founded companies.

  • As of the end of Salesforce’s fiscal year, 60% of the Impact Fund’s portfolio companies had a female or underrepresented minority founder or CEO.
  • And, 82% of those companies have board members who are female or underrepresented minorities. 

“Venture firms have to invest the time and resources to source entrepreneurs from different backgrounds,” added Emeott. “Once you build your own track record of investments in women and diverse entrepreneurs, that then attracts other entrepreneurs who have different lived experiences.”

The power of the Salesforce ecosystem: Driving success through capabilities, collaboration 

Rooted in its values and commitment to using technology as a platform for change, the Salesforce Ventures Impact Fund team is skilled in leveraging the company’s vast industry expertise through the Salesforce Ventures Advisors program for ad hoc advice from executives across the Salesforce ecosystem  to guide startups. 

For Romer Carlson and Guild, this included everything from Emeott leveraging her network of investing partners to make introductions, to nurturing strategic partnership opportunities between Guild and various product teams at Salesforce. “The dedication and thoughtfulness of the Salesforce Ventures Team and the way they go about their work is a true difference-maker,” said Romer Carlson. “They’re activating their network, they’re dedicated to helping our business grow.” 

The dedication and thoughtfulness of the Salesforce Ventures Team and the way they go about their work is a true difference-maker. They’re activating their network, they’re dedicated to helping our business grow. 

Rachel Romer Carlson, CEO & co-founder, Guild Education

As part of their initial discovery calls, the companies also connected around a shared mission of skilling and creating more equal pathways into the jobs of the future.  

Trailhead, Salesforce’s free online learning platform, is built with a similar goal to Guild — closing the digital skills gap. 

Emeott connected Guild to Heather Conklin, SVP & General Manager of Trailhead at Salesforce, to explore collaboration opportunities and share best practices. 

“The skilling landscape is changing so quickly with the rapid acceleration of new technology and the new skills people need to be successful in their careers,” said Conklin. “It was impactful and beneficial for both companies to sit down and brainstorm different ways we can reach more people.” 

It was impactful and beneficial for both companies to sit down and brainstorm different ways we can reach more people.

Heather Conklin, SVP & General Manager of Trailhead,Salesforce

Conklin was impressed by how Guild attracts frontline workers to develop digital literacy on their platforms. She believes Salesforce has just scratched the surface with how it can work with Guild and our joint customers. 

For the Salesforce Ventures team, these conversations within the Salesforce ecosystem are imperative in helping evaluate investments and reach the Impact Fund’s goals: To demonstrate measurable social or environmental impact, establish long-term strategic integration and relationships, and to achieve a strong financial return.

Emeott views strategic integration as two-fold – making those connections on technical capabilities and collaboration opportunities, but also aligning with Salesforce values.  

“Driven by Salesforce’s commitment to doing good while doing business, the framework of the Impact Fund blends the mission of corporate venture and corporate impact,” said Emeott.  

The plan is working. To date, Salesforce Ventures Impact Fund portfolio companies have directly served almost 32 million individuals, including students, adult learners, job-seekers, patients and small business owners. The companies have also created 1,124 net new jobs, reduced 560,000 metric tons of CO2 and provided nearly 5 million people access to new financial services. 

Salesforce Ventures Impact Fund Impact to date

For example, Salesforce Ventures’ investment in FutureFuel has helped tackle the $1.5T student debt burden in the U.S. — saving Salesforce employees alone $1.8M in lifetime student debt.

Additionally, BlocPower is a climate-based tech company focused on making American cities greener, smarter, and healthier. To date, the company retrofitted more than 1,000 buildings in disadvantaged communities in New York City, with projects underway in 24 cities. 

A new model to operationalize impact investing 

Emeott sees an opportunity and avenue for every company with a corporate venture program to drive change through impact investing.   

And, she is leveraging her expertise and network to grow the impact investing field and serve as a resource to others. 

“Once a month we are hearing from another corporate venture investment team that is looking to do impact investing or build a fund like we have,” said Emeott. “We are excited to have these conversations and aim to grow the entire field. 

Corporate impact investing has been increasing at a 54% compounded annual rate since 2016. It’s a trend Emeott is pleased to see.

“The more the merrier. Salesforce demonstrated how to start and operationalize a corporate venture impact program, and the more that are out there, the more opportunity there is for entrepreneurs and companies to make an impact,” explains Emeott. 

Salesforce demonstrated how to start and operationalize a corporate venture impact program, and the more that are out there, the more opportunity there is for entrepreneurs and companies to make an impact.

Claudine Emeott, Senior Director, Impact Investing, Salesforce

And for entrepreneurs focused on creating a better world, it’s a welcome approach with the potential to make a big impact. 

“We’re in the early stages of what social entrepreneurship and impact dollars will mean in terms of impact, and we’re just getting a taste of what that can mean from a growth perspective, and the overall impact on societal good,” said Romer Carlson. 

Learn more about the Salesforce Ventures Impact Fund and its portfolio companies here