CZI Ventures Vivian Wu on How Impact Investing Can Scale Change
Explore how Vivian Wu, CZI Ventures managing partner, and her team are making strategic investments into businesses that can have a transformative impact on our world’s most critical challenges.
The people closest to our society’s most pressing issues should be the ones to inform solutions and drive change. Our teams partner with diverse educators, families, community leaders and organizations, scientists and more to ensure the voices of those most impacted are always heard. So when we say to “stay close to the work” at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we mean it.
In this edition of Stay Close to the Work, get to know Vivian Wu, managing partner of CZI Ventures. Wu is passionate about universal access to quality education for students in all corners of the world. She’s spent her personal life and latter part of her career connecting with and serving the community, and investing in businesses that she believes are capable of helping to solve the global education, health and climate challenges we all face.
Tell us a little bit about what you do at CZI.
I lead impact investing at CZI. Impact investing is one of the tools we use to address the social issues we’re hoping to solve — alongside grant making, policy change and building technology. Our team looks for mission-focused entrepreneurs developing transformative solutions globally in education, health and climate, and supports them in building successful businesses that can scale their impact. By leveraging entrepreneurship, innovation and technology, we hope to extend the reach of CZI and to serve as the tip of the spear.
How did you get started in the ventures and investments space?
I started my investing career a couple of years post-college, after first building skills in strategy development at McKinsey & Company. An opportunity emerged for me to move to Hong Kong, China, to work on one of the early teams in Asian private equity. We were focused on traditional growth equity investing, a strategy of gaining minority stakes in late-stage companies exhibiting high growth. This was a newly emerging sector at the time in Asia. Investing involves a lot of interdisciplinary thinking and skills, which I’ve always been drawn to. I studied finance and European history in college and have always been interested in global, multicultural issues. I love speaking different languages — English, French, Cantonese and a bit of Spanish — having grown up in Canada and Hong Kong and studied abroad in Lyon, France. Moving to the other side of the world felt way outside my comfort zone. Still, I found investing in countries from Indonesia to China and learning about such different macroeconomic, political and socioeconomic environments fascinating.
I spent over 15 years in traditional venture capital and private equity, including at Accel Partners and TA Associates, investing in growth businesses. I love working with founders and entrepreneurs, supporting them in building businesses, thinking strategically about technology, and staying at the forefront of innovation and change.
I remember an assignment during my second year of business school at Harvard: we had to write a letter to ourselves 20 years in the future. In that letter, I envisioned myself happily in traditional growth equity. At that time, I thought I would be a private equity investor for life.
How did those experiences pave the way for your transition to impact investing, specifically your move to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative?
As it turns out, several things converged to lead me to impact investing. While at TA Associates, I had the chance to look at a few education technology businesses. One passionate founder, in particular, got me excited about how he was improving student and teacher experiences through product innovation and technology. Though we did not invest, it tapped into something vital for me — a more profound sense of purpose I felt I’d been missing.
Later, a mentor challenged me to think about what problem I was put on Earth to solve, and my thoughts immediately gravitated toward education. I realized that, throughout my life, I’ve always invested much of my time in learning and children, especially students who historically aren’t afforded education or opportunity. But I hadn’t connected those dots with my work.
I knew I wanted to devote more time to education. So, when I left TA Associates to join a family office, I started spending more and more time consulting pro bono to innovative education nonprofits, joining nonprofit boards, and meeting with thought leaders. It felt invigorating to work with like-minded reformers to evolve and disrupt education as we know it! Along the way, my eyes were opened to an inspiring array of education technology founders.
In 2014, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg were in the early days of their philanthropic work and looking for someone to create and launch their impact investment strategy. They connected with me through education leaders I had worked with. I realized joining them would be an incredible opportunity to combine my personal and professional passions and show that mission-focused entrepreneurs could achieve crucial social change at scale.
How does your work at CZI relate to who you are and your values in life?
CZI’s mission to build a better future for everyone resonates with my life goals. I’ve volunteered in education and with children throughout my life. While at the University of Pennsylvania, I mentored children in West Philadelphia, and then the Bronx while I lived in New York. At McKinsey, I worked on a pro bono project in my free time for A Better Chance, which hosts a college readiness program for students of color that has a 99% admission rate to college. In Hong Kong, I started an after-school mentoring program with my friend and taught in Shanghai, China, for a summer. In California’s Bay Area, I volunteered for a charter school in Vallejo and Richmond serving primarily Black and Latinx/a/o students and chaired their board. Through these experiences, I’d had the opportunity to connect with incredible young students and support their academic work and success.
The singular experience that has stayed with me the most — and was the most defining in my journey to impact investing — was an experience as a volunteer teacher in a Miao village in the mountains of Guangdong, China. I was welcomed into the homes of some of the families and learned that one father had to walk six miles simply to reach his fields. Another could only afford to send one of his three kids to school. All the families I met said their children would have to return to the fields after sixth grade. This significantly impacted me. I experienced the joy these students felt learning in the classroom and heard what continuing to learn meant to them. It was devastating to know they would not have access to education that could allow them to live better lives.
That feeling has stuck with me and is what really drew me to work with Priscilla and Mark. CZI’s mission is to help build a more inclusive, just and healthy future for everyone — and that is what I want to do for that Miao community, the Black and Latinx/a/o students I’ve met along the way, and for so many more people all around the world. Ensuring everyone has access to quality education and giving them a chance to achieve their potential — this is what motivates me.
What do you enjoy most about being a part of CZI?
I work with a group of incredibly bright and driven colleagues. They’re motivated not by building a discrete portfolio of venture investments but by our bigger mission. They see the potential of being part of CZI with its unique access to researchers, scientists, educators and community builders. We have daily active debates about a solution’s depth of impact, an entrepreneur’s commitment to access or impact outcomes, and whether a business model is likely to sustain and scale. I’m proud to say this is a group of amazing people who genuinely care about our work!
I’m also inspired by the many programs and projects my colleagues are funding and working on across so many issue areas that I care deeply about and am learning more about. I’m excited by CZI’s willingness to try new approaches and to collaborate across so many different areas of expertise — with people with diverse experiences and backgrounds — to find creative solutions that may not have existed in the past.
How do you hope CZI will evolve and grow over the next five years?
When I joined CZI in 2014 to launch our impact investing work, right from the start, we believed supporting mission-focused entrepreneurs would allow us to drive social change in ways that could be more scalable and sustainable than through grantmaking alone. We always saw it as a complement to the grantmaking work. We believed there would be opportunities to use technology, entrepreneurship and innovation to help solve some of these problems.
Our work has evolved since, and I fully expect it will continue to evolve. In education — where we started — we have seen our companies grow rapidly to scale their impact. They serve people learning English as a second language, diverse student populations, educators in K-12 school districts, parents of early childhood learners, adults seeking to upskill or reskill, enterprises, and even governments in developing countries. Our companies have often served millions of learners around the world. It’s genuinely possible for these entrepreneurs to build transformative and impactful products and services while also building successful, growing businesses.
As we look to the next five years, I want to see us make similar strides in our newer areas of impact investing in climate and science. We have already made several investments in climate with carbon dioxide removal and sustainable food systems, and our first health investment in Brazil.
We continue to find new ways to collaborate with grantmakers across the organization on strategic program investments to catalyze markets or new ecosystems like Carbonbuilt and Twelve. Finally, we continue to feel there is so much we learn from the innovation of our entrepreneurs (e.g., as they test creative solutions to solve deep income disparity and access issues in low-income neighborhoods and countries). We hope to see more cross-pollination of best practices throughout the portfolio and CZI.
What does staying close to the work mean to you?
Investing and building impact businesses is systems-level work, so I love staying close to our entrepreneurs, as they have so many stories of the people and communities they impact. But it’s important to me to find ways to interact directly with students, whether mentoring, speaking in class or visiting schools. I also love to work directly with educators and nonprofit leaders seeking to innovate. I think it’s important to stay connected to the people I’m hoping to serve — and the organizations directly serving those people — because they’re the reason behind my purpose.