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Mar 6, 2024

Venture Capital, Impact Investing, and Life Lessons

A Fireside Chat with Kenan Institute Distinguished Fellow Josh Lerner, PhD.

By Khushi Jain, Class of 2025

In my time at UNC, Josh Lerner was not just a name on a syllabus or a reference in research papers; he was a constant presence in academic conversations, a benchmark for innovation and expertise. To me, and to many of my peers, he is a pinnacle in his field. Meeting and hearing him in person was a phenomenal experience. It was magical to hear about his experiences right from his college classes, to now teaching at Harvard Business School. He shared key insights with the Luther Hodges Scholars on topics like venture capital, his passion projects, Impact Investing, and importantly, cross-sector collaboration.  

He began with an overview of venture capital, illustrating its evolution from a niche market to an ubiquitous force across industries. He highlighted the unique challenges it faces in an era dominated by tech giants and rapid innovation, such as the difficulty in forecasting growth trends, which often leads to uncertainty and a knowledge gap for investors. Drawing from his rich experience with entrepreneurs, he offered sage advice on the strategic value of discretion, citing Google’s early reticence regarding their keyword auction strategy as a case in point for protecting business strategies and maintaining a positive public image. 

Professor Lerner then shifted focus to impact investing, a sector he described as burgeoning yet paradoxically characterized by modest individual investment scales due to typically lower returns. Despite this, the sector’s appeal has surged, driven by the societal benefits these investments yield. He emphasized the cyclical nature of industry trends, noting the current fervor for AI-centric initiatives as a prerequisite for attracting capital. 

In addition, Professor Lerner shared learnings from cross-sector collaboration and the Private Capital Institute, which he founded in. He shared his two motivations for creating the institute, growth in research, and the summation of knowledge. Elaborating on cross-sector collaboration, he used Singapore’s biotech example, and the role of government to show that the ‘secret sauce’ is finding the sweet spot in collaboration.  

Professor Lerner wrapped up his talk with something that struck a chord. “Don’t try to impress your friends in college,” he said, “you’ll look back in a decade and wonder why you even bothered.” His words were a wake-up call about what really matters. It was one of those conversations that will stick with me, full of real talk and life lessons. I am totally grateful for the experience. A big shoutout to the Luther Hodges crew and the Kenan Institute for putting together such an insightful fireside chat, and to Dr. Josh Lerner for a phenomenal session.  

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