Interview: Jill Arnold CA
Building an impact economy through purpose-led businesses is one step closer. Jill Arnold CA, Head of Social Investment Scotland’s SIS Ventures, tells Kitty Finstad why a truly positive return on investment entails so much more than just profit.
As big, world-changing, of-the-moment missions go, “business as a force for good” couldn’t be more – pardon the pun – on the money. The World Economic Forum has been championing the pursuit of profit with purpose for the past several years, and this year highlighted the need to overturn the outdated idea that “the purpose of business is business”. Instead, the 2021 Davos Agenda argues that a long-view focus on sustainability, community and societal impact, alongside environmental and human wellbeing, should be the drivers of how businesses both spend and make their profits.
Add innovation, collaboration, equality and inclusivity, plus the wider vision to build an impact economy to the remit, and SIS Ventures could easily top the search results for just such a business. A wholly owned subsidiary of Social Investment Scotland, the Edinburgh-based body aims “to support and grow high-impact organisations through access to mission-aligned investment”.
As Head of SIS Ventures, Jill Arnold CA’s ambition is to lead the organisation to become a recognised brand within the venture capital market and to develop its reputation as a valuable co-investor with unrivalled experience and impact. “I want SIS Ventures to be one of the UK’s largest social investment intermediaries,” she says matter-of-factly.
Taking up her post in November 2020, Arnold quickly embraced the SIS Ventures vision while diving straight into the fundraising. Although she recognises that impact investment is still relatively new for both corporate and retail investors, there is, she says, an evident and growing appetite for “core-impact societal and environmental returns”.
One recent example is the Edinburgh-based medtech company Manus Neurodynamica, which secured a £1.2m funding round for its groundbreaking digital pen – a diagnostic tool used in detecting the early signs of Parkinson’s disease. It’s the kind of innovative, high-impact business that motivates Arnold and her team.
“We have a very diverse portfolio, but what unites them is that they’re all mission-driven, early-stage businesses that are disruptive and scalable,” says Arnold. “They’re led by ambitious management teams who are laser-focused on scaling up in order to maximise their impact. And for us, it’s about buying into those people who are driven and ambitious – and who obviously also have a defensible, sustainable product or service.”
Medtech and healthtech seem like obvious areas for investment, while the world is grappling with the ongoing pandemic, and Arnold observes that some of the most exciting young businesses emerging in Scotland and around the UK are operating in this space.
“That said,” she adds, “our strategy and framework going forward are broader than that. We might look to deepen that sort of societal impact, and we can do that in a variety of sectors. Cleantech, in particular, is something we see as a big opportunity.”
One notable cleantech company to receive backing from SIS Ventures is Trojan Energy, which was formed with the singular mission to ensure everyone benefits from the transition away from fossil fuels. One of its first products was the Trojan electric vehicle charging system, which deploys advanced technologies that can be removed when not in use. Perfect for electric-vehicle owners who don’t have driveways or garages.
“It benefits pedestrians because the charging points aren’t getting in their way,” says Arnold. “It benefits councils by leaving pavements clutter-free for everyone. And it gives EV owners and potential owners confidence thanks to the practicality of having their own personal charging unit.”
SIS Ventures also led a late seed investment round for Talking Medicines in 2019, recognising the potential of that business’s female executive team, which, says Arnold, is “massively important to us in terms of the diversity of our fund”. The Glasgow-based datatech company provides a platform that enables pharma companies to capture valuable measurements and insights about their products, directly from the voices of the patients who use them.
“With its natural language processing and differentiated technology, the platform offers pharma companies the ability to find meaningful and valuable insights from people active on social media – around 50% of the population – that inform patient-centric marketing decisions, which in turn drive more effective medicines,” says Arnold.
Arnold’s personal commitment to diversity and inclusivity is unsurprising given that she launched the successful crowdfunding programme Back Her Business during her time at RBS. (“With massive amounts of help from across the bank and everybody in CEO Alison Rose’s senior leadership team,” she stresses.) Arnold spent 14 years at RBS, now the NatWest Group, working in mid-market private equity and structured finance. “I absolutely loved it, but I wasn’t driven purely by doing the deal for financial return,” she says. “There was something missing for me.”
Following a maternity leave in which she spent time reflecting on her next steps, Arnold returned to RBS with a renewed commitment to investing with impact. She developed Back Her Business, the first UK female-only grants-based crowdfunding programme to support would-be entrepreneurs, which worked in parallel with her CEO’s Rose Review of female entrepreneurship, carried out on behalf of the UK government.
“That work validated what we already knew around some of the stats, including the fact that only 1% of venture capital funding goes to female-led businesses and that women start businesses at half the rate of men,” Arnold recalls. “So that’s what Back Her Business sought to address. Not only with funding but to create a community for women to test and validate their ideas, giving them the confidence to know whether they had viable strategies and customers. It was never just ‘Here’s some money, now off you go.’
The real value was in creating that peer network, which included coaching, access to events and being inspired by meeting relatable role models.
“I’m equally passionate about supporting female entrepreneurship at SIS Ventures. We’ve already supported two female-led businesses and we continue to evolve our impact framework – gender diversity is a key focus for us.”
Across her 21-year career to date, Arnold says she was naturally drawn to impact investment by a deeply held personal ethos, which eventually led her to SIS Ventures: “I’m incredibly passionate about supporting anyone from any walk of life to start and grow a business, irrespective of their background, their age, their gender, their ethnicity. And I strongly believe that everyone deserves an opportunity to fulfil their dream.”
Baptism of fire
She credits her early career at Arthur Andersen, where she completed her ICAS training, for teaching her to take the positives from even the most difficult of periods. “I had literally just qualified when the Arthur Andersen/Enron scandal broke in 2002, and it was an incredibly sad time,” she recalls. “I had been so bought into the ethos of Andersen and its culture.”
With already solid financial foundations from a degree in accounting and finance, Arnold believes completing her ICAS training expanded her business skills in other, less tangible ways. “The qualification boosted the strong ethical grounding that my parents gave me,” she says, “that desire to do the right thing. The credibility of the CA qualification also gave me an understanding of professionalism – something that I’ve always held true to my values. Always be professional and with that comes credibility, trust and accountability. ICAS teaches you to take accountability seriously. I also think that the audit training teaches you to be inquisitive, to not just accept things at face value and to trust in your instincts. Ultimately, I decided audit wasn’t for me longer term, but it was incredibly valuable training.”
The demise of Arthur Andersen led to a large and widespread network of Arnold’s former colleagues moving into new and exciting roles across Scotland and the UK – a peer group with which she’s still very much in touch. “My best friends are those I sat my TPE exams with 20 years ago. We’ve been through so much together, having young families and the challenges that brings. A number of us met our husbands and partners through our ICAS training. Friendship and that peer group have truly been the best things that came from it – all strong coaches, sponsors and mentors. I’m also so grateful that I was able to tap into the ICAS mentoring scheme, which was very helpful at a particular point in my career.”
Arnold’s key piece of advice for those who are just starting out on their own business journey is to recognise that they’re not alone, that it’s common for early-stage management teams to feel isolated. But, she says, if you’ve tested your market, know your USPs and have confidence in your product or service, then investing in your management team is what will drive the business forward.
“It comes back to people,” she says. “People are what will attract others to support you. Make sure you have strong managers, strong networks and tap into the collective strength of existing business ecosystems. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice. Start-ups are often surprised at just how many people are out there and prepared to help you. But some of the best business ideas have been born during challenging economic climates just like this.”
Arnold stresses the importance of measuring and sustaining positive impact through continuing to work with management teams post-investment – something that gives her personal satisfaction.
“Investing with the sole purpose of making money was never a motivator in its own right,” she says. “Seeing positive societal impact is what’s really fulfilling for me. When the role came up to head SIS Ventures, I thought that it was uncanny – it brought together all the skills and experience I’ve gained over the previous 21 years. But it also gave me the opportunity to do something that I’m so driven and passionate about. Addressing society’s biggest challenges is not just for social enterprises or charities. It’s a role for all of us.”