California Forum

Investing for ‘impact’ and to make the world a better place

Gerald Haslam
Gerald Haslam

It’s a truism that many filthy rich are interested in becoming filthier still by adding to their assets, but there are noteworthy exceptions.

In 1971, a pair of UC Davis graduates, Justin and Bonny Meyer, who possessed few resources (“Justin had a dog and I had a car,” Bonny recalls), married and crushed grapes the same week. Justin had served a winemaker’s apprenticeship at Christian Brothers, and Bonny turned out to be a philosophical partner for him: “Our goals were simple,” she explained in “Bolder Giving” magazine. “To have a good life, make really good wine, and have fun in the process.”

As near as I could tell, they did exactly that. Bonny’s late husband, a blue-collar kid from Bakersfield, was my pal and teammate from junior high on, and he emerged as one of the large personalities in the wine industry.

Back in 1971, with the financial backing of new partner Ray Duncan, the impecunious Meyer managed that first crush, which led to a shared dream. As Justin later explained to writer Jeff Morgan, “Only one wine can be your best, and I felt that cabernet was what we did best in Napa and Sonoma.” It was certainly what he did best and 25 years later, “Wine Spectator” would proclaim that their Silver Oak Cellars cabernet sauvignon “has achieved a following most vintners can only dream of.”

In 2001, Justine and Bonny sold their interest in Silver Oak to Duncan for $110 million. Throughout their marriage, the couple had shared a strong sense of social responsibility. Before Justin died in 2002, the couple had begun to look into ways to use their wealth creatively. Today, Bonny is principal of Meyer Family Enterprises, and her emphasis on “impact investing” has led to a discussion of her strategy in “Forbes 2015 Investment Guide.”

“Impact investing” seeks to do well while doing good. As the Forbes article explains, 23 percent of the Meyer portfolio “is in public companies selected through do-gooder funds. … Another 23 percent is in fixed income (which) buys bonds that back clean energy and affordable housing.” She aims to have 100 percent of her portfolio in impact investments by 2020. Some funds, she added, “have low returns and high social benefits. Some have solid returns but not as high a social impact.”

Meyer and visionaries like her are not interested in the temporary resolution of problems. They are trying to create an infrastructure that allows greater opportunities and better living conditions long-term for all. One of her investments, for example, is in Bridge International Academies, a for-profit that has built more than 400 private nursery and primary schools in Kenya and Uganda that deliver education for just $6 a child per month.

Why not simply distribute money directly to the poor? In a sense, Bonny does that through contributions to organizations which offer micro-loans. “I use the assets of my portfolio to guarantee $2 million in loans to support microfinance,” she explained in “Bolder Giving.”

“Each $1 million … enables 5,000 women to feed, clothe and educated their children.”

By no means is Bonny Meyer alone in supporting impact projects, so her story suggests how far investing has come as seasoned money managers and some large investment houses have become involved. Increasingly, investors are signing a Giving Pledge, committing themselves to sharing their wealth with charities.

Bonny’s emphasis is not on accumulating wealth but on using her family’s assets to make the world a better place. As she has said more than once, “businesses must do no harm, and if possible, should solve problems.”

Gerald Haslam is an author who has been called the “quintessential California writer.”