Executive Spotlight: Laurie Lane-Zucker, CEO of of Impact Entrepreneur

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PITTSFIELD — Investing isn't always about just making money. The financial return can be balanced with a social or environmental component, something that creates a positive outcome, maybe in clean energy, health care or education.

The method is known as impact investing, and one of its practitioners is Laurie Lane-Zucker, of Sheffield, the former executive director of the Orion Society who serves as CEO of Impact Entrepreneur, a group he founded nine years ago that now has over 23,000 members around the world.

Lane-Zucker, originally from Connecticut, came to the Berkshires in 1996, when he moved the Orion Society, an environmental organization, from New York City to Great Barrington.

We talked with Lane-Zucker recently about impact investing, sustainable development, and his organization's goals in the Berkshires and beyond.

Q: What is Impact Entrepreneur?

A: It's focused on the intersection of business and investment and sustainability. When we say sustainability, of course we mean environmental sustainability, but also the host of social needs and social issues that are deeply interconnected with questions of the environment and environmental co-sustainability. ...Working in sustainability, broadly stated, has been the common denominator for all of my career ... the first half of my career as CEO of Orion, the last half when I moved into the entrepreneur investment side of sustainability.

Q: Describe sustainability to me.

A: Sustainability, as it is generally understood, has evolved profoundly over the last few decades. But, as I referred to earlier, you can link it to a set of interconnected social and environmental issues that, if well taken care of, can lead human civilization not only toward a healthth and lasting positive relationship with the planet, but also would achieve a more equitable and resilient human society.

Q: What's the ultimate goal?

A: At this point, we're talking about flattening the curve of [the] coronavirus, but we have a whole host of other curves that need flattening, and some of them, like climate change, believe it or not, are more serious in their ramifications. ... It's flattening the curves of ecosystem degradation, of biodiversity loss, plastics in the ocean, poverty, human trafficking, etc.

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There are a whole host of curves that need flattening, and sustainability is addressing all of those.

Q: How did you become involved in impact investing?

A: I've always had a strong feeling of closeness to the natural world and a sense from very early on that I wanted to focus as much of my work as I could around strengthening that relationship between people and nature and care taking the earth.

Originally, I did that work through nonprofit organizations, but I came to the conclusion around the turn of the millennium that my work would be better — I'd get more bang for the buck, so to speak — from business and sustainability. ... Business is actually a major driver of a lot of sustainable practices, and if properly transformed, it can actually be the most powerful vehicle for sustainable development.

Q: When we first talked four years ago, you were interested in building an international Impact Entrepreneur Center in the Berkshires. You said then that the project was in the developmental stages. Where is the project now?

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A: I don't use the word "center" as much now, even though we're still doing a lot of the same work since then.

Impact Entrepreneur is a company that has a global reach. Since 2011, I have been very focused on building what is arguably the largest global network of entrepreneurs, investors and scholars of sustainable business in the world. We've developed ways to engage with the global network.

We have two webinar series that are quite popular. We have a YouTube channel, Impact Entrepreneur TV; we also offer cutting-edge ideas and information and are doing cutting-edge research. We've done two major reports in the last year and a half or so. ... We hosted an international conference here in the Berkshires (last year). We did two reports that came out of that.

I do a lot of speaking. I engage with the universities a lot.

Q: It sounds like you've gotten away from having the Impact Entrepreneur Center located in a structure.

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A: Yes, that's very true. However, a significant amount of work was done around creating a center with a capital C in the Berkshires.

I linked up with the father of sustainable architecture in the world, [architect] William McDonough, in Charlottesville, Va. He worked with me on a sustainable plan to build a world-class cutting-edge building to house Impact Entrepreneur's work.

Q: So, are you still trying to get that done?

A: I would say that it's on the middle to back burner at this point, only because I haven't found enough allies here in the Berkshires, frankly. ... We move slower here, let's put it that way.

There are other parts of the world that are much more attuned to the need for sustainable business and this very exciting space of impact investing. ... It doesn't have to be a new building, but to do it properly, you're still going to need some support. ... You're talking about an $8 million to $10 million project here if we build a new building.

Q: What are the obstacles to building it?

A: One of the things that had been part of the dynamic as I talked to people was the [Berkshire] Innovation Center in Pittsfield. It was taking up people's attention.

They were not only trying to fund it, but build it and launch it and to get behind another ambitious project that had an innovation business incubator dimension to it. ... I think it was just too much for people to chew on at the same time. I talked to people at the state level, but I think they just felt that the Pittsfield project was the main priority.

Q: So, is building an Impact Entrepreneur Center still possible?

A: When the timing is right, and the right set of allies come together and we get some serious financial support, then we'll run with it. I've got a great plan in hand by a very high-profile, globally recognized architect. But, I've learned through experience not to spin my wheels.


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