Crypto and Change: How Cecilia Chapiro is Creating Social Impact with Venture Funding

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The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series,” is a series of stories, Q&As, and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies.

Cecilia Chapiro, Yunus & Youth Founder and Investment Adviser at UNICEF Ventures, is leveraging venture funding and cryptocurrencies to drive long-lasting social impact.

While working in the nonprofit sector, Cecilia noticed the shortcomings of the charitable model when it came to funding. At the same time, as she became increasingly involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, she realized that there was an abundance of money available—but it wasn’t going to minorities or founders from developing countries. She saw an opportunity to change that through UNICEF, a United Nations agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide.

We asked Cecilia about her journey into investing, the impact that she has seen through her fund, and the advice she has for game-changing social entrepreneurs.

Q: Tell us a bit about your fund. What’s your fund’s core theses and what types of companies do you invest in, and at what stage?

UNICEF’s Venture Fund invests in open-source, emerging technology digital public goods with the potential to impact children on a global scale. It provides investment of up to $100,000 for early-stage startups and investment in cryptocurrencies through its CryptoFund, the first cryptocurrency denominated venture fund within the United Nations.

All of the investments come along with product and technology assistance, support with business growth, and access to a network of experts and partners to allow for scale. Our goal is to build successful digital solutions into Global Digital Public Goods, to ensure fair, equitable, and open access to these unique and new tools for human development on a global scale.

UNICEF’s Venture Fund and CryptoFund were the first financial vehicles of its kind in the United Nations and enabled UNICEF to learn from and to shape markets of emerging technology to guide these technologies to benefit children. 

To date, the Venture Fund has made strategic investments in digital public goods in the areas of machine learning and artificial intelligence; drones; augmented reality and virtual reality; accessibility; and blockchain. There have been 100 investments in digital public goods across 56 countries. By providing flexible funding to early-stage innovators, it allows UNICEF to quickly assess, fund, and grow open-source technology solutions that show potential to positively impact the lives of vulnerable children.

Q: In what ways does your fund do things differently than others? 

The Innovation Fund invests exclusively in open source solutions. The Fund generates value by building open source IP and scalable digital public goods, strengthening communities of problem solvers, and growing solutions that bring results for children and the world.

We measure the return through the open source IP generated by each investment and made available for replicating the social impact in additional communities. The investments are equity-free, meaning that there is no financial return to UNICEF. The Fund monitors the open-source technology that is developed by each startup in real time. Ultimately, the most important thing to us is to generate social value. The open source development maximizes the social impact we aim to generate. Additionally, we have a very robust impact measurement system to track and evaluate the social impact that the tech startups in our portfolio generate.

Q: What made you join the fund that you are currently at?

After solidifying my career strengthening social ventures, I was looking into maximizing the social impact I could generate. I joined UNICEF’s Fund inspired to tackle the challenge of funding for under-represented entrepreneurs in the tech space. I had the opportunity to structure the Fund’s operations at its inception, developing sourcing strategies, portfolio management processes, and measurement frameworks aiming to help our investments grow and benefit more children in the most vulnerable communities.

Q: Tell us about your career journey. At what point in your career did you decide to work as an investor and why?

I was born and raised in Argentina, a country with more than 40 percent of people below the poverty line. Seeing poor children in the streets was unfortunately a common thing. Wanting to change this reality, I joined several nonprofits from a young age. While I was inspired by their mission, I saw the shortcomings in the charitable model—when the money dries up, projects get discontinued.

I wanted to create a model that delivered social value without being dependent on perpetual external funding—to create financially sustainable social enterprises. Interested in alleviating the financial stress of charities in my country, I discovered the work of Muhammad Yunus. Reading about his framework to use social businesses to empower people out of poverty led me to build Yunus & Youth, an organization that leverages technology to remove educational barriers between countries and generations. Through Y&Y I got to work with hundreds of social entrepreneurs in developing countries and one thing was clear: they needed funding to grow. 

But as I got more involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, another thing was clear: there is a lot of money available, but it is mostly available in developed markets. It is very difficult, however, for minorities and founders from developing countries to connect with the funding sources.

So when the opportunity to support the development of an investment vehicle for social entrepreneurs within the United Nations came about, I jumped right to it. It was important to me that this type of funding reached the highest impact.

It wasn’t so much a decision to become an investor. For me, it was a decision to make a social impact in the most efficient, equitable, and long-lasting manner. To this end, I found that combining business methodologies with technology and a clear social purpose is the best way to empower communities out of poverty. Joining the United Nations Childrens’ Fund as an investor seemed to me a great place to set the example of how investment should be channeled to maximize social value.

Q: What do you look for when considering a company or idea for investment?

We look for companies that have a prototype and evidence that indicates that their solution has potential to improve society. We particularly look into the technology stack, their work with local partners, and results from user testing. But above all, we study the team, their background, their commitment to their project, and their potential to grow their ventures further. Two things I particularly care about are diverse teams and local funders that understand the local ecosystem and the problem they want to tackle.

Q: What is your procedure when you’ve identified a company to invest in?

On a regular basis, the Fund starts new, targeted outreach to identify companies using technology to tackle a humanitarian challenge that affects children. The selection process takes about six months and allows the UNICEF team to perform the due diligence needed to fund the companies that fit the investment criteria. 

Once selected, startups join our portfolio for one year, and the Fund focuses on strengthening their solution and supporting their growth to impact more users. My team is composed of experts across industries and technologies, as well as business and product advisors. Once selected, we co-create a one-year work plan with the founders. Then we not only provide the funding but we also work with them as they test, iterate, and re-design their solution. The key to maximizing their impact are connections to organizations for further testing and continuing to grow their work.

Q: What is your biggest triumph thus far?

So hard to pinpoint one! I’m very excited to also have led the way into building a portfolio of tech startups run by ‘minority-funders’ meaning all our investments have gone to the kind of funders that are well under-represented in the space—especially Latin, African and women founders. Also, it was a big triumph to launch UNICEF’s CryptoFund’s first investments. As we grow into a digital world, it is key that global and influential institutions like the U.N. learn and understand how to operate with and leverage digital assets to maximize impact and financial inclusion.

But above all, I’m really excited to see the impact that the Fund has generated over the years. At a very high level, the startups that we have invested in have provided digital education to 817,211 students and remote healthcare access to 283,101 children, among many other results. It’s very rewarding to see results like this, because then you realize the impact of funding for humanitarian solutions, if done well. I hope it paves the way for more funding coming this path.

Q: What advice would you give to a company or founder wanting to pitch you?

The first thing would be to do your research. With UNICEF’s Funds, there is a lot of information about the investment thesis and eligibility criteria online. Make sure you read everything you can to understand if you are a good match, and if so, tailor your pitch and questions accordingly. Now, if you’ve done that and are interested in UNICEF’s funding, aside from the criteria, I’d highlight the evidence of impact. If you can show that your early-stage technology solution is improving the life of your community and you have validation and evidence of this, I’d love to learn about it!

Cecilia Chapiro is a member of Dreamers & Doers, a private collective that amplifies the entrepreneurial pursuits of extraordinary women through thought leadership opportunities, authentic connection, and access. Learn more about Dreamers & Doers and subscribe to their monthly The Digest for top entrepreneurial and career resources.

  • Originally published April 7, 2021