In a cavernous, nearly empty room above the Readers Café & Bookstore in Building C of San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center, Woody Tasch sits at a corner table by a lone window looking out on the Bay. It’s the eve of the Slow Money National Gathering, and the organization’s chairman is putting the finishing touches on his opening remarks. He must fend off criticism that his model is “fantasy economics” and impress on the three hundred investors and five hundred or so other attendees that our industrialized food system has become as imbalanced as the financial system was during the depths of the 2008 crisis.
Woody, a former New York venture capitalist who now lives off the grid near Taos, New Mexico, wants to change how we finance food businesses as dramatically as he has changed his own life and career. In the 1980’s, Woody worked as a self-proclaimed “small-time VC” making healthcare investments for Prince Ventures, owned by the Prince family of Chicago. Ultimately, he transformed himself from a mathematics-driven investor to one with a social conscience with stops along the way as treasurer for a foundation and chairman of an angel investor network called Investors Circle.
“It’s no longer about how much we can take off the table for ourselves,” Woody insists. After getting involved with the global Slow Food movement, the antithesis of fast food in its promotion of sustainability, Woody and his collaborators sought to address the difficulty many sustainable food businesses have getting financing. “It hit me that patient capital plus slow food equals slow money,” he explains.
Woody and his colleagues are enabling microfinance for the food industry and, since 2009, have sparked $6 million in micro loans. Slow Money links growers, restaurants, organic farm suppliers and other food entrepreneurs with consumers willing to lend businesses a few thousand—or even a few hundred—dollars.
“This is not a typical fiduciary model,” Woody explains. “What we are going to be proving over the next decade is that collective intelligence and local knowledge of groups of individuals effectively collaborating will produce positive outcomes both in arithmetic and impact on the community.” In other words, investors can do good and simultaneously get a modest return on investment. At the moment, 3 percent a year in interest is typical.
Slow Money is evolving from advocating individual investments to promoting investment clubs. Compared to angel investing, for which investors must have assets of at least a million dollars or a yearly salary of at least $200,000, the investment club barrier to entry is much lower. As a model, Slow Food organizers point to the No Small Potatoes Investment Club, which provides low-interest loans to Maine farmers and food producers. So far, fifteen investors have each put up five thousand dollars.
After talking with Woody, I stop by the rehearsal for the entrepreneur pitches. These five-minute presentations are not unlike those for technology companies at venture capital conferences. But there is something perhaps more wholesome and genuine and, yes, rougher around the edges, about these pitches. Some of these food businesspeople have never before spoken at an event. George Weld, owner of both Egg restaurant in Brooklyn and a farm in Oak Hill, New York, speaks of the need to curb the “recurring alienation between rural and urban that plagues the food economy.”
One of the better-received pitches comes from Dr. Hubert Karreman, a veterinarian and founder of Bovinity Health. Hubert’s company manufactures natural alternatives to antibiotics for livestock. He clicks through financials including $250,000 in sales in 2011, provides market share projections and leaves the rehearsal audience whispering "he's gonna get funded."
Slow Food’s goal is for a million Americans to be investing one percent of their money in local food systems within a decade. Meantime, Woody Tasch offers his prescription for the economy. “What we need is rebalancing. Right now we’re lurching towards the global race to the bottom. It’s buy low, sell high, GMO [genetically modified organism], CDO [collateralized debt obligation] capitalism. We have to compete for cheap labor around the planet subsidized by cheap oil and ignoring the medium and long-term social and environmental impact.” Collaborating requires a longer-term focus, and Slow Money is helping enable that evolution.