Carol Newell had a small fortune and a vision. Joel Solomon had the values and talent to bring it to life. Together, they executed a 25-year plan that began to change Vancouver and everyone’s ideas about what money can do.
by Rachel Zurer
Hollyhock hosts conferences and leadership trainings that have helped foster a progressive community in BC.
What would you do with lots of money? How much is enough? What happens with more than enough? These are questions most of us fantasize about, the kind of good problems we wish we were so lucky to have. But for the small but powerful set of people who — through pure luck or hard work — control the kind of wealth that far exceeds their personal needs, deciding what to do with that money can be incredibly challenging. “When you have significant wealth, you face a lot of options, which can translate to a lot of opportunity,” explains Carol Newell, who in her 20s and 30s inherited wealth eventually amounting to $50 million in Canadian dollars from the Newell Rubbermaid fortune. “Then comes the conundrum: ‘What are the right choices?’ It’s easy to become immobilized.”
On top of that pressure, the current mainstream culture around extra wealth is to turn it into more wealth. Throw in the fact that a traditional financial manager’s job is to keep growing a pot of money, and you end up with trillions of dollars deployed with the singular goal of multiplying them. “People are out there retaining their capital because they’re convinced it’s what they’re ‘supposed’ to do, or because they’re actively trying to grow it to a billion dollars,” Newell explains. For what? she wonders. But even in not spending that money, those people are making powerful choices about the world. “Our money is working 24/7,” she says. “I have not generally seen that it’s working on the kinds of things we want it working on.”
Newell, on the other hand, has spent the last 25 years pioneering a completely different paradigm of what money can — and perhaps should — do. Since 1993, she’s set her own capital loose in a strategic, coordinated attempt to turn her home region of Western British Columbia (BC) into the most progressive, resilient, innovative, and sustainable community possible.
Perhaps the most surprising part? It seems to have worked. With what by modern standards is actually a quite modest amount of “big money,” Newell’s influence has helped transform Vancouver’s economy from a resource-extractive environmental problem zone to one of the world’s premier hotbeds of tech innovation, sustainable enterprise, and smart growth. “We helped normalize a values-driven business orientation,” she says. “And we learned that leveraging personal capital in a radical way can actually fuel change significantly and quickly.”
“Carol is one of the best models on the planet for what you can do with more than enough money,” brags Joel Solomon, her longtime business partner. “I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished together.”
If you’re a person of significant means, Newell and Solomon’s story is an important roadmap and catalyst for making sure your legacy delivers the best chance for the kind of healthy, engaged world you really want. If you’re not as fortunate, it’s still a fascinating and inspiring tale of how a clear mission and a smart strategy can move the world. We spoke with both of them to piece together the story of what they’ve done, how they went about it, and the key lessons they’ve learned along the way.
It’s 1993, and 37-year-old Newell and 38-year-old Solomon are huddled around a wood-burning stove in a cabin on Cortes Island as a storm howls outside. With a few associates, they’re gathered to start to answer their key question: How best to leverage Newell’s wealth? The 500-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America has just passed, and Newell still hasn’t forgotten the stroke of insight she’d had years earlier in Egypt. So it doesn’t seem so strange when the crew decides to start by asking, “How could we have an influence on the next 500 years?”
“We understood that was really a metaphor,” Solomon told us. “But the point was to look long beyond our lifetimes.” And just as importantly, beyond the quarterly earnings statements and short-term thinking so prevalent in investing. Soon the vision exercise comes around to the more practical horizon of 50 years — about a human working lifetime. Looking back 50 years, it’s clear to the team how much can change in just that timeframe. Looking forward, they start to get excited.
As the discussions continue, more pieces of their strategy start to fall into place: They’ll focus on one region — British Columbia, especially the Vancouver area — in order to concentrate their efforts, cross-pollinate missions, and hopefully mobilize a movement, or at least a community of changemakers.
Newell will remain anonymous; she doesn’t like the idea of being known for her wealth, and doesn’t want to deal with the day-to-day networking and decision-making of getting her money out into the world. Instead, Solomon will be the public face of the money, and Newell will approve his budgets twice a year.
They’ll stay quiet about their work, in general, at least for the first decade — trying lots of things, seeing what works, learning from what doesn’t. They won’t be afraid to say yes to as many ideas as possible, won’t be caught up in perfectionism: They want that money working on projects they value, those that bring long-term health to their environment and communities, especially the food system. They’ll also work on getting the money into lots of different hands; they’re not looking to build an empire, but rather empower others to drive change. They’re especially interested in investing not just in individuals and organizations targeting particular issues, but also in infrastructure and capacity-building. They’ll pay attention to all the work the money is doing, all day every
day — which means caring about where they bank as much as about where they invest.
With their vision in place and their strategy sketched out, all that’s left to do is the hard work of spending lots of money.
Newell and Solomon decided to use an integrated approach in deploying Newell’s capital. Instead of focusing just on business or on philanthropy, they simultaneously engaged with three interlocking tracks: philanthropy, business, and inner skills. They later added a fourth, power and politics. “You need the benefit of multiple structures to handle different capital and to support different parts of the strategy,” Solomon explains. “Basically, we were a machinery of finding great people and figuring out how to do something to help them. And creating ways we could do it in bulk. We wanted to support the universe of changemakers.”
Newell was already involved with philanthropy when she started working with Solomon, and the pair saw good reason to keep helping that work to flourish. “The nonprofit sector has regulations, culture, and purposes underneath it that have a lot to do with tax structures,” Solomon says. “Some things are best accomplished that way.” Also, they thought it important to help build a strong and resilient philanthropic economy. “The cultural witness and imperative the philanthropic community provides and addresses is vital,” Newell says.
Solomon took the helm of Newell’s pre-existing Endswell Foundation, which had a $20 million asset base at the time. Over the next 14 years, the organization made grants to dozens of social and environmental organizations in western BC in a deliberate attempt to spend down the foundation money and get it working within the community, rather than keep an ongoing endowment. In 2009, Endswell completed its spend-down, with major investments in two organizations that continue to meet Newell and Solomon’s desire to support capacity-building infrastructure for progressive causes: Hollyhock (more on that soon), and the Tides Canada Foundation, which Newell and Solomon helped found.
“Tides provides services and products to help hundreds and hundreds of people give away more money effectively, and helps many dozens of nonprofit initiatives by providing shared professional services,” Solomon explains. His friend Drummond Pike started the foundation in the US in 1976, but nothing like it existed on a national scale in Canada until Newell and Solomon helped make it so. Today, the two are still involved with the foundation, but neither of them are in positions of control.
Newell and Solomon were among the first modern investors to realize and act on the idea that the tools of business, which were harming the world so severely, could also be a force for good. In 1994, they established Renewal Partners as a seed-capital mission investment firm, with $7 million to spend. The fund’s investments included organic food companies, like Happy Planet juice and Horizon Distributors; independent media, like Sounds True; responsible investing businesses; and green products, like Seventh Generation. “Joel became the go-to for anybody looking for capital and connections to advance their business or environmental work,” Newell says. “At the time, no one was investing in small enterprises or initiatives. Values-based entrepreneurs came out of the woodwork, grateful for willing seed- and second-stage capital to build their capacity. The combination of all of those investments then continued to build up the capacity of the whole region.”
A key part of Renewal’s take on business was its unusual perspective on the idea of return. “I expanded my sense of expectation to embrace a whole continuum of potential endings to an investment,” Newell says. “Even if the invested capital didn’t come back to us, we helped seed an entrepreneur who went on to do something else, who had conversations in different kinds of ways, who learned a lot of skills and got on board with another operation and, basically, kept moving things forward. It’s important to redefine our expectations, to be willing to take risks and reframe what failures might look like: they’re not failures, they’re learnings. From the get-go it was capital designated to deploy as Mission Money. I could afford to consider it out the door and expendable. In fact, I increased my outlay to $15 million total invested. Mission-building was the return, first and foremost, in my mind. Cash back and financial returns are a bonus.”
In 2008, Solomon and Newell, led by long-time colleague Paul Richardson, opened Renewal Funds, an even larger mission venture-capital project that allowed outside investors to buy a stake in their methodology. In contrast to Newell’s private portfolio, Renewal Funds explicitly seeks financial returns for its investors. Their ambitious goal for each 10-year fund is to not only fuel and foster social change through their investments, but to deliver above-market-rate returns to their investors. “Our job is to prove that can be done while adhering to these kind of deeper principles,” Solomon says. He is still actively involved in managing Renewal Funds.
3. Inner Skills
Because they were trying to foster a true community of change, Newell and Solomon realized that human connection and leadership development would be an important piece of their work. Solomon was already involved with Hollyhock; soon he and Newell became key investors in growing the property on Cortes Island where they’d had their original visioning session into a premier leadership retreat and events center. Many of the leaders of businesses and nonprofits they funded through Endswell and Renewal were able to forge and deepen connections with each other through retreats at the rustic island conference center. The events Renewal helped launch — such as the Social Venture Institute, in partnership with Social Venture Network — became important not just for the local community, but for the larger mission-driven business network in North America.
In essence, by investing in Hollyhock and its leadership institute, they were able to create a robust environment in which to build connections and foster shared learning among their growing regional community connected by values. “We laid groundwork and built cross-sectoral, intergenerational trust networks,” Solomon says.
4. Power and Politics
Especially as their work together entered its second decade and Newell decided to break anonymity and talk about the success of their strategy so far, Solomon realized that deliberately cultivating power and politics would be a key part of their ability to drive change. “Progressives and do-gooders are very poor around power,” Solomon says. “We’re scared of it. We don’t want it. We consider it wrong. And so we’ve made ourselves not credible for managing big systems or leadership of actual societal structures. We’ve made ourselves permanently into critics outside the system. But the end-game has to be power and leading society in intelligent ways, not just critiquing and fighting.”
Partly through training at Hollyhock, Solomon encouraged their contacts in the nonprofit and entrepreneurial sectors to learn more about the political system and understand how to influence it and how to run for office. And their economic successes helped feed the work toward political influence. “Historically, power and dominant corporate culture find it easy to write off progressives because they don’t know how to run things,” Solomon says. “They don’t know how to manage budgets, they don’t know how to build businesses. Therefore, how can they manage the economy? That story is effective. It keeps progressives out of power. But I’m now a job-creating Venture Capitalist,” with a whole different level of credibility.
And it’s not just Solomon himself. One of the two founders of Happy Planet juice, an early Renewal Partners investment, was Gregor Robertson. With major support from Solomon and Newell, he’s now the third-term mayor of Vancouver, with a majority of the city council behind him. He helped create a political party that brought together the center, left, and greens into a coalition government with an aggressive agenda of social and environmental issues and an entrepreneurial mentality.
A major recent environmental and political victory in which Newell’s and Solomon’s various paths of influence converged was the 2016 declaration on the Great Bear Rainforest, which protects a 21-million-acre tract of temperate rainforest along the coast of BC.
“The power component was really about building relationships,” Solomon says. “It was effectively learning and exploring and the real work of figuring out what power-sharing is. Hollyhock now gets a lot of First Nations visiting. There are First Nations who have been there eight, nine, ten times. These are now true alliances. They have their issues and challenges, of course, but there is a power in bridging constituencies in an effective way.”
Newell and Solomon helped transition Vancouver away from an extraction-based economy.
These days, Newell and Solomon are continuing to work for change in their region, but mostly they’re involved in smaller ways with big projects other people are leading. Their strategy, as they head into this third decade of their work, revolves around dispersing their ideas and influence. “We are anti-empire in our behaviors,” Solomon explains. “I have systematically attempted not to be in control of very many things. And Carol’s genius was being willing to get the bulk of her wealth out the door, into real things today.”
“We really mobilized the capital and got it working in a powerful way because we were working with abandon,” Carol concurs. “If you are a significant wealth-holder, I think it’s important to just be willing to sometimes dive in, let go, let flow. Take risks. And not only for greater financial gains. One key for me was designating capital on the front end. After ‘enough,’ it’s easy; ‘the rest’ was money on a mission. To me that meant giving it permission to see the possible, to explore, invent, nurture, enhance.”
Looking back, they’re proud to have pioneered and demonstrated new models of how spending big money can work. “We invested very heavily in lifting up alternate points of view,” Solomon says. “We have wanted to find progressive ideas — the divest movement, the social justice movement, the reconciliation movement, etc. — and say, ‘These are different points of view. They are valid. They are substantive. They are credible. They’re not just hippie shit that you can discount.’”
Sharing the lessons
Both Newell’s and Solomon’s latest projects involve reflecting on the work they’ve done together and encouraging and empowering others to follow their example.
Solomon has written a book, “The Clean Money Revolution: Reinventing Power, Purpose and Capitalism,” which will be available in the spring of 2017. “It’s a moral and ethical call to understand that while George Washington may have his face on your money, it has your name on it,” he explains. “What that money does through your choices, particularly the investing side, is your responsibility. We cannot carry on turning our heads away from what we are involved in and benefitting from. I consider this a joyous, loving, highly spiritual process because what it requires is really thinking about the meaning and purpose of our own lives.”
Meanwhile, Newell has been hard at work on a program called ReWeaving Wealth, which she designed to help families and organizations make headway on and hold true to tough decisions about how to spend their money in a strategic, values-aligned way. The core of the program consists of five decks of cards. “I settled on cards because when I was working with wealth-holders in Play BIG [a gathering she co-founded for those with large amounts of discretionary capital], we found folks would start to figure out priorities, then go home and it wasn’t clear how to accomplish them. People just didn’t have a layout of all the decisions they could make.”
The decks and accompanying worksheets help start and guide conversations around Values, Concerns, Strategies, Big Questions, and Next Steps. The Values cards start by providing a discussion point for prioritizing the deep things you care about, such as “cooperation,” “justice,” “creativity,” or “sustainability.” The Concerns cards help you see what other issues might relate to a top-line issue you’re interested in: The “fresh water” card, for example, reminds you to think about how fracking, marshlands, pollution, and upstream issues might relate. The Strategy cards offer many of the tactics Solomon and Newell used at Renewal. These include suggestions like “tell stories,” “encourage youth engagement,” and “invest in research.” The Big Questions include conversation-starters like “How much [money] is enough?” and “What are your expectations regarding financial returns and exits?” And Next Steps starts to offer extremely specific and practical options, like “survey how your business might contribute to a shift,” with a list of ideas to help you begin to think about your answers.
“The cards are a fun and easy way to move through a sequence of decision-making and set yourself up to actually take action,” Newell says. “I’ve worked with the prototype now for several years, and I’ve had wealth-holders tell me about life-changing moments using them. I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’m going to take these to my investment advisor. I’ve never found a tool to help me discern so quickly what I want to focus on.’”
As for the next 25, 50, or even 500 years, both Solomon and Newell are hopeful. “It’s been a long haul to get here, but I think that actually the tide is turning,” Newell says. “People are beginning to open up and see how extending their arms out to embrace the whole community creates a stabilizing effect, which will help everybody move forward.” And whether they know it or not, each of those who follow that path will find their way just a little bit clearer and easier thanks to Newell and Solomon.
What to do with wealth? Solomon and Newell have provided one complicated, nuanced answer. But their biggest plea to wealth-holders is to recognize their power and choose something. Anything. Just make sure it’s truly deliberate, and in service of building the world you want to see. And that’s good advice for all of us, no matter how small or large our resources.
Learn more about Newell and Solomon’s remarkable partnership and Solomon’s philosophy on the power of money in his new book, “The Clean Money Revolution,” available at JoelSolomon.org in May 2017. Learn more about Newell’s ReWeaving Wealth program at ReWeavingWealth.com.