Jon Shell, MBA ‘03, has redirected his career towards the pursuit of a more sustainable society. As Managing Director and Partner at Social Capital Partners, Jon is committed to influencing public policy to create real impact and creating a sustainable, inclusive economy.
How did you know you wanted a career in the social impact field? Was there a specific motivating factor/experience that led you the field?
I didn’t originally intend to pursue a career that tackled social issues. I followed a pretty stock-standard path of an MBA graduate: consulting, followed by entrepreneurship. As an entrepreneur, much of my success was due to factors outside my control: changes in interest rates, shifts in how pensions funds invested their money, and, frankly, my own demographic background. So much was luck. Yet, I saw many people in my position attribute their success only to hard work and skill, and ignored how much luck they had. It bothered me. So, given that the world had already vastly overpaid me for my contributions to the economy, I shifted my focus in 2017 to trying to find ways for that luck to be distributed a bit more evenly, which led me to joining Bill Young as a Partner at Social Capital Partners (SCP).
How did your experience at Ivey impact your entrepreneurial and sustainability journey?
My experience at Ivey was very important to my entrepreneurial journey. Most importantly, my two co-founders of VetStrategy, my first post-MBA business, were in MBA1 with me! That company has gone on to tremendous success under Orin Litman’s leadership.
The MBA has helped me secure loans and build important connections by establishing my credibility within the business community. The alumni network and entrepreneurship curriculum were particularly helpful too. However, like many institutions, sustainability was not part of the conversation in the early 2000s – much of the curriculum was focused on shareholder primacy. I’m glad to see more effort being focused on sustainability these days.
During your time at Ivey, you were the co-Executive Director of the LEADER project. Can you share some details about this experience?
The LEADER project was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It is a student-run program at Ivey that sends business students to emerging economies around the world to teach general business skills and directly assist entrepreneurs. We did amazing work and learned so much by understanding different business environments. I spent many, many weeks in Ukraine; many of us ex-LEADERites are deeply moved by what’s going on there now. A couple of incredible professors and alumni made a huge difference in what we were able to achieve. I’ve always felt the school should do even more to support this incredibly impactful program. Very few schools have anything with the scope, history and legacy of LEADER.
Tell me about your most exciting project to date involving sustainability, whether it’s personal or professional.
Our effort at Social Capital Partners to bring more employee ownership to Canada through engagement with the federal government has been thrilling, disappointing, powerful, uncertain – it’s been a real rollercoaster. Both the United States and United Kingdom provide tremendous support to encourage business owners to sell to their employees. Briefly, this involves a business owner selling their shares to a trust that will own the shares on behalf of its employees, with the owner being paid the sale price over time out of company profits. This has proven to be an incredibly sustainable form of ownership, with powerful results for workers and communities. In the US there are almost 7,000 companies owned this way, with 14 million American workers sharing $1.7 trillion of company wealth. In the UK, over 300 companies were sold to their workers last year alone. Much more information is available on this at employee-ownership.ca.
We have very little support for this in Canada, and employee ownership can be a big part of making our economy more resilient and more equally shared. There’s huge opportunity if we can get the government to introduce a robust policy. They’re trying, but getting the government to move on things is really hard. It’s very exciting, but the stakes are high. We should know by the end of the year – stay tuned!
Where do you see the Impact Investing industry going and what role do you hope to play?
I think impact investing will continue to grow, but it’s yet to be determined how much real impact it will have. At SCP we’re moving away from impact investing and toward more engagement in public policy. After spending a few years working on both impact investing and advocacy, I’ve come to believe that shifting government regulation dwarfs the power of impact investment – I don’t believe it’s close. Yet, government engagement is risky, complicated and takes a long time. We’re lucky enough at SCP that we can take big risks, and for us moving toward influencing regulation is the biggest risk we can take, with the biggest potential result.
What advice do you have for students wanting to enter a career with sustainability as the focal point?
My advice would be to consider working at one of Canada’s large pension funds – they control a great amount of capital and will have a huge impact on sustainable investing in the future. I would also suggest following and engaging in the democratic process. In my current role, I’ve found many of my preconceived opinions about government to be incorrect. Public policy is incredibly complex – much more than any problem I faced in my business career. Within the business community one often hears extensive criticism of the government, often regarding their supposed inefficiency compared to the corporate sector. My recommendation is to do your best to ignore that narrative – it lacks complexity and nuance. And, as a consultant, I saw a lot of inefficiency in the corporate sector too! To solve the most challenging issues, government and business need to work together. In my experience, there currently isn’t enough trust or respect between the parties for that to happen. I hope the next generation of business leaders can embrace the complexity and challenge of public policy and public service, and be more of an ally to the democratic process than business leaders often are today.
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