Visionaries of the Meaning Economy: Joel Solomon

Visionaries of the Meaning Economy is an interview series by Manuel Maqueda that explores how meaning is transforming the economy, and our future. This interview features SVN founding member, Joel Solomon (Chair, Partner, and Co-Founder at Renewal Funds and author of the new book, The Clean Money Revolution .

Manuel Maqueda

Joel Solomon is a not only a visionary of the Meaning Economy, he is also a pioneer, and renaissance man. Joel’s long career is marked for an insatiable curiosity that has taken him on many ventures that span finance, politics, and entrepreneurship. It is an idiosyncratic gift of Joel Solomon’s, however, that all his manifold endeavors, when contemplated together, would all offer a harmonious outline to the onlooker, like bold brushstrokes on an impressionist painting.

It is Joel’s unique trait, also, to preserve his authenticity and spiritual integrity in the midst of two sectors quintessentially deprived of both: finance and politics. Behind Joel’s wisdom, intelligence, and expertise, there is a glimmer of innocence that disarms the almost unavoidable specter of skepticism that surrounds the debate about the wavering voice of morals amidst money and power.

With the exception of a question about Joel’s new book, which I have recently added by email, the rest of this interview took place in person in Hollyhock, British Columbia, well before the 2016 presidential election in the United States. I believe this timing offers added value, because the lights and the shadows, the pessimism and the heartfelt hope of systemic economic change were already there, in full contradictory force. Since then, however, the black swan event of Trump’s rise to power has come to predominate any conversation at the intersection of meaning, economics, and social change, often at the loss of many nuances and a broader, long term perspective—definitely not the case in this interview.

Joel Solomon is a seasoned social investor with over 100 early-growth stage company investments in North America. He is Chair, Partner, and Co-Founder of Renewal Funds, Canada’s largest mission venture capital firm, with $98 million under management. Joel is a Senior Advisor with RSF Social Finance; a founding member of Social Venture Network, Business for Social Responsibility, the Tides Canada Foundation; and Board Chair of the Hollyhock retreat and learning center. Joel is author of the freshly published book, The Clean Money Revolution.

Manuel Maqueda: What is your day job?

Joel Solomon: I am Chair, Partner, and Co-Founder of Renewal Funds, which is a mission venture capital investor. We take money from individuals, families, and charitable foundations, and our job is to go out and invest in organic food and green technology businesses and bring back a return, a profit, to our partners. We work in one part of the financial sector to try to prove that you can invest in a better way and still make reasonable returns on your money.

MM: However you are involved in so many things, almost like you cloned yourself. How do you manage to do all, successfully and consciously?

JS: There are a couple of tricks about that. First I don’t like to be in control of very many things. I prefer to have a minority interest as an investor, for example. So having an insatiable curiosity and passion that gets me involved in far too many things while not attempting to control too many things—or control less, or choose very carefully when something is my baby—that helps me get involved in a whole lot of things.

MM: What is the commonality that fuels your passion along all these diverse endeavors?

JS: I like to think like a gardener who is working in an ecosystem —a cultural, socio-political, economic ecosystem—and I attempt to use principles such as fringe intensive biodynamics, that pays attention to diversity and complexity. I’m no scientist but I like to try to think like an ecosystem, and imagine how an ecosystem might do things in the human realm.

Another question that has been essential to me is asking how much is enough. Thinking about how much is enough for myself I concluded that I have enough. And what I might want more of, to put it crassly, is being a billionaire of good deeds. So that’s what drives me. That feels a lot more motivating than counting my money.

MM: How successful have you been in enlisting others to think in a similar way?

JS: There are two different generations to that question, the elders and the youngers—and both have components that are interested in this. Those of us who are asking these questions want to see models on how to have a great life while trying to be in harmony with everything else, especially for younger people who find themselves in a changed world that offers to them less security.

I think that it is contagious, because my life is a lot of fun. I am happy, relatively healthy, and have access to so much learning, stimulation, comradery, good things... What all that does to me is that it makes me committed to more generosity, or more flow. My most compact saying about this is “glow and flow,” meaning that if we can get ourselves in alignment with our purpose, and with what is deeply real and honest for us, then it's easier to move around in the ups and downs and challenges of life because keeping perspective of what really matters helps. That sincerity of integrity along with competence and capability is a model that I think it’s really compelling.

MM: How would you summarize your purpose in just a few words?

JS: It took me a long time to get here, and I came to realize that what I believe was an ancient and common belief, which is: I am the product of a lot of ancestors I don’t even know the names of, who did everything they could to see that there will be a good world and a good life for me to come into. So my deepest and truly sole purpose ultimately is to be a good ancestor—to pass on as much of as possible to the future generations of the whole.

MM: Tell us about your new book The Clean Money Revolution . What makes it relevant now?

We are about to face a 30 to 50 trillion dollar generational transfer of wealth only in North America over the next three decades. It is relevant now because we are nearing "last call" for shifting these trillions of dollars to solutions that ensure future civilization that is clean, green, and just. It's time to rally for long term thinking, fair taxation, and an economic strategy for rebuilding every sector of the economy. There is more than enough money in the world to solve our challenges. In The Clean Money Revolution every dollar must be examined for its life cycle role in the well being of future generations.

MM: What is money? How do you see money?

JS: To me money is a representation that allows us to exchange goods and services. I think that currently it comes from the exploitation of planet, or people, or both. So we get more money if we are more effective at creating a margin between what we pay someone, or what it costs to extract, and then sell it out into the marketplace. I accept that’s is the system I live in. However the deeper meaning of money is that it is a representation of energy that we are actually exchanging. I think that money should be relational. This comes from writings about money from philosopher Rudolph Steiner. His writings on agriculture gave rise to biodynamic farming, his thoughts on education to Waldorf schools, and his thoughts on money, which are a bit less known, are the base for associative economics. I am a paid advisor to RSF Social Finance (a social lender based on Rudolf Steiner principles). Four times a year, lenders and borrowers of RSF get together to share their personal stories, and together they come up with a recommended interest rate. That is really exciting because there is an opaqueness around money that is important to unveil.

MM: Here’s a challenge: how would you explain what money is to a child?

JS: I guess I would say that money is what people decided I can use to buy something from another person. [Joel now pretends he is talking to a child and takes out a 20 Canadian dollar bill from his pocket] This is money [he shows me the bill] because the Government says so—and everybody believes it’s money! If I give Manuel my $20 [he hands me the bill] and he makes me dinner, he can take that money and go buy some clothes [Joel stops, slightly embarrassed, and we both crack up laughing]. I guess that’s the best I can do to explain it!

Money works because we believe in it! There are other ways to represent money and the exchange of goods and services. That’s going to be a field for younger people to figure out from here.

MM: How do you see the emerging role of relationships in the new Meaning Economy.

JS: We know more, we have more information than ever about the implications of what we use and buy. The result is that the entire economy is going to become more relational. We are going to be less willing to separate ourselves morally, ethically, spiritually, rationally, and politically from how we get money and what effect it has. So relationship is ultimately what is under that. Relationship to planet, relationship to community, relationship to each other.

There are other things that need to happen besides creating better businesses. We must think about power and politics and who makes the decisions. We need fair taxation, first and foremost. What we have done over in last few decades of moving tax burden down and tax benefit up it’s really not good for relationships.

MM: When you look back at everything you have done, what gives you the deepest satisfaction?

JS: I believe the basis for deep and lasting satisfaction has to do with self knowledge. My life has been a journey of exploring what truly matters and who I want to be, what are the relationships that matter the most, how much is enough... Recently I’ve come to realize that I could have been very dangerous to the planet and people if I had moved unconsciously down a path that mass media and sometimes family structures wanted me to go on; I could have created a lot of damage making a lot of money. I think I have saved the world a lot of damage just through figuring out myself. I’m really satisfied about that.

MM: Do you share this insight with others? Seems quite crucial.

JS: Yes, when I go to a business school I get asked “what is the single most important thing I need to know” [to become a successful entrepreneur] and what I answer is: you need to work on your psychological, emotional, spiritual, and relational skills. Making money, business . . . that’s all mechanics. That’s easy, and there’s plenty of people to teach you that. If you don’t know how to deal with conflict, how to deal with yourself, with fear, with anger, and emotions . . . you are going to cause a lot of damage, probably.

If you can figure out what you’re really about, and what matters, you are much more likely to make wise, kind, and generous choices in life.

MM: What could we do about those people who have a lot of money and a lot of power and who are stuck in damaging emotions and behaviors?—which seems to be quite prevalent. Any ideas?

JS: This is a time of great optimism and great pessimism. And there are good reasons for both. It does take a lot more thinking here [points to his heart] to be optimistic. Here [points to his head] it’s looking a little rough right now about the future. First a political platform which will help: tax fairness, carbon pricing, responsibility for externalities . . . so there could be, and will be, policy components—it’s a matter of will they come soon enough. Secondly there is the human spirit and the enlightenment, or the pathway of morality; there are many different ways to say it.

So how we are going to pull off creating a new morality or a new point of view . . . Probably it will have to be aided by proving that it takes care of more people, and helping those people to understand that staying involved is really important. Right now people believe that they are acting morally. They don’t go out on the street and dump poison; they don’t drive their truck over somebody, so they think they are a good person. Meanwhile their money is killing people, damaging people’s communities, and destroying many things a lot of the time. If we simply take responsibility to stay in touch with and look at where money comes from, where products come from, and the choices that we make, that is a pathway and a doorway that leads to a kind of inquiry that could lead to an intelligent future in which love, beauty, and consciousness manage to thrive.

As for the outliers, for the pirates . . . there has to be societal norms. Should it be legal to accumulate billions and billions of dollars? And if you do, are there any kinds of rules about what you can do with that money, besides what the current laws say? I think there should be.

Manuel Maqueda, author of the forthcoming book The Meaning Economy, is an economist, a social entrepreneur, and a social business consultant. He teaches social entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley and other business schools. Visit www.meaning.ec for more interviews in this series.

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