Leading change in venture capital, so it can change the world
Kookai Chaimahawong (MBA ’19) is a social innovator-turned-investor with a talent for identifying early-stage companies that are designing solutions to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges. By leveraging her career experience with the United Nations and social entrepreneurship, she became a venture capitalist with a focus on environmental and social sustainability.
Kookai has long viewed business as a vehicle for tackling local and global challenges and making the world a better place. In Thailand, she worked for a number of social enterprises and NGOs, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). When tasked with promoting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), she successfully signed up 17 of Thailand’s largest corporations and celebrities to publicly support the 17 goals for a more sustainable future.
Another UN project allowed her to showcase her entrepreneurial talents by launching a sustainable tourism project to support endangered communities in Bangkok by preserving their traditions and improving livelihoods through tourism. Although her work was making a positive impact, Kookai wanted to take bigger and bolder steps to tackle sustainability.
“When I worked for the UN, I would speak with corporations and ask them to donate to initiatives and NGOs to support their causes. The work involved funnelling money from corporations to projects that needed resources, but the pool of capital they received felt relatively insignificant and it was not sustainable,” she says.
Kookai decided she could have a bigger impact if she got companies to invest in—not merely donate to—organizations that develop solutions for today’s environmental and social challenges and also run sustainable business models. But having studied social sciences at university, she decided to return to school to learn more about business.
"I chose to do my MBA at UBC Sauder because of its focus on sustainability. It wasn't a typical MBA, it was more comprehensive. There was entrepreneurship, sustainable financing and other courses that would leverage my work with the UN and equip me to make an impact in the world.”
Looking back on her classroom experience, she says her cohort and professors expanded her vision of what was possible.
"Justin Bull taught Innovation and Sustainability and got me thinking about what businesses can do better and what frameworks we can develop to help companies inspire social change. He helped me see a middle path, where social impact can be the core function of a venture capital investor.”
Practicing responsible business
Today, Kookai works for Pangea Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in start-up companies utilizing science and engineering to develop solutions to address climate change, food and water security, waste recycling and other environmental challenges.
After initially landing an internship and demonstrating that she had a sharp eye for identifying high-potential ventures, she was offered a full-time position.
"At the time I was hired, Pangea Ventures realized they made investments to create some sort of impact, but they hadn’t found a way to measure that impact or create a narrative for why their high-impact investments would deliver high returns,” she says.
Kookai quickly took on the role of measuring impact and creating reports to monitor and maximize the company’s investments. Leveraging her past experience with the UN, she helped Pangea Venture use the SDGs as a framework to track and measure the impact their portfolio companies are having on the world.
"My work is actually similar to what I did with the UN in Thailand. I'm looking for companies that are developing products and solutions to solve world problems. The difference is, I am not just providing them with capital in the form of donations, but I am investing in fast-growth start-ups with clear revenue models. These sustainable solutions may eventually be acquired and implemented by large corporations, which in return, generate our returns on investments.”
Kookai is not just financing sustainable startups, she’s also recasting the image of venture capitalists from profit-maximizing platforms to sustainability leaders. Some of her investments to date include Hazel Technologies, a startup that's extending the shelf life of fresh produce to reduce waste; and Tidal Vision, which upcycles fish and seafood waste into an eco-friendly product for building materials and other industrial applications.
Each job is a stepping stone
Kookai hopes her career story will help others see that there is no one path to finding that dream job.
“My past experience seemed like the opposite spectrum of VCs, but the two ends of ‘impact’ and ‘investing’ were starting to merge at the time I was hired. It was partly being in the right place at the right time, but I also believe I landed my dream job because I already had a vision that this was what I am meant to do.”
With her MBA credentials and unique skillset, Kookai is enjoying her career in finance as a bridge between investors and entrepreneurs who share a vision of a cleaner planet and better world.