André Pienaar Interviews Kevin Barrow

André Pienaar: “Welcome to the C5 Innovation Leader’s Series and Channel. My name is Andre. C5 is a specialist venture capital firm, focused on investing in cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing. Today, to have a cup of tea with me in London, we have Kevin Barrow, one of the founders of Mark Labs, one of the most exciting startups that have passed through our accelerator program in Washington. Kevin, welcome. Mark Labs is helping to change and innovate the world of social impact investing. Tell us more about how you’re doing this and what you are focused on.”

Kevin Barrow: “Absolutely. One of the things that we’ve seen is, over the last 15 years, we have taken the world of impact investing from this niche community with people that can probably fill, fit in this room to something which has definitely become mainstream. We have the large pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, family offices, investment houses, all seeking to put their capital to work to both achieve a financial return but also to achieve some sort of social good at the same time, and the huge challenge that has come with this is being able to prove, to quantify, much more, to optimize the work which is being done, and today, we have a really interesting situation that has arisen in the sense that for literally the first time in human history, we have the will, the resources, but also the urgency. Climate change is real. The social problems which we have become national security problems that affect everything from elections to the ability for rule of law to work, and what’s unique is that when you bring will, technology, resources together with that urgency, we’re able to achieve something really great. Where Mark Labs comes in is with the technology piece. We help to take the very large data sets, the proprietary data, alternative data, data which is coming from a myriad of sources, and bring it together to give organizations a really granular understanding in real time of the work that they are doing so that they might better understand and communicate internally and externally but also optimize the work that they are doing.”

André Pienaar: “Kevin, this is tremendously exciting. So you are helping investors understand how their money is being deployed and what is the impact that’s being accomplished as a result. Now, this is something that’s really enabling and helping to open up how much money’s being deployed for this very important asset class, impact investing.”

Kevin Barrow: “Absolutely. And actually, one of the things that I’d like to point out is that impacting investing has evolved from probably being an asset class to something which embraces every asset class, and in terms of investors wanting to put their money to work and have a diversified portfolio of investments that exposed to everything from private equity to traditional equities and everything in between with the goal of being able to put money to work for good and get the returns that their investors see.”

André Pienaar: “We completely understand that because many people ask us, “Why does C5 … ” which is a specialist venture capital firm that’s focused on cyber, how did we get into social impact investment, and why did we start these two accelerators in Washington and Bahrain? It was really because we saw in deploying capital to help secure the digital world, how that can help make a difference, and the opportunity and the possibilities of using cloud and AI to expand that into other key areas of social impact investing, and one of the things that we very strongly believe in C5 is that, for venture capital to be sustainable, we need more diversity, and we need to be opening up this sector to talent from all parts of the word, and we need to bring in new talent, new minds into this sector, and so one of the areas we’re very focused on is the role of women in venture capital, women leaders in venture capital and in technology. What is Mark Labs doing in this area, in terms of working with impact investors?”

Kevin Barrow: “Absolutely. So it’s very interesting. I would point, start off like, props, pointing out the work of thought leaders in this space like Patsy Doerr at Thompson Reuters that has proven that when you have more diverse teams, and that’s everything from diversity in terms of class to gender, to other forms of cultural backgrounds, that you actually have more sustainable, more dynamic, more successful teams, and it becomes, it’s because of the perspectives that are brought to the table. Within the Mark Labs family, within the Mark Labs company, actually, we are, several of our leaders are women, and I can tell you that either the perspective, which is brought by having different people around the table, we speak, I think, 10 languages across the team.”

André Pienaar: “That’s fantastic.”

Kevin Barrow: “Amongst our leadership team, C-suites, half are women, and we have, it’s probably every, you know, racial and religious background you can imagine, and what that does is it helps inform what impact looks like within a particular society’s context. Context is absolutely essential. What works in London is not going to be what works in, you know, in Cape Town, and it’s not going to be what works in Lahore, and being able to understand those nuances, and at the same time, extract what is universal, is absolutely essential. Now, when it comes to working with the companies that we work with, we have the ability to, if the companies are looking at how do they bring issues like diversity and inclusion into their supply chains, and our platform helps them to not only analyze that across their current suppliers but actually build a process for transforming their supply chain to reflect their values over time, and that also extends to risk and other types of, types of considerations as well.”

André Pienaar: “Now, at the core of your platform is being able to take data from investors …”

Kevin Barrow: “Yes.”

André Pienaar: “And making that data measurable, understandable, being able to analyze it and bring it to concrete, conclusive results with integrity about how much is being spent and being deployed.” 

Kevin Barrow: “Absolutely. A few really interesting examples that I would like to point out in terms of recent customers that have, that have gone down this route. One that I’m really excited to announce, this is the first time that we are saying it publicly is …”

André Pienaar: “That’s very exciting.”

Kevin Barrow: (laughs) “Is the CDC Group.”

André Barrow: “The CDC Group.”

Kevin Barrow: “And so this is the private investment arm of the, of DFID, of the UK government, and here, the CDC takes very seriously its 70-year-old legacy and wants to take an even stronger approach to being able to quantify the impact of its businesses. They have three business units, private equity, a fund of funds, and their debt business, and we’re starting off within their debt business, helping them to become much more agile in terms of being able to manage internal data sets as well as their, as well as being able to integrate alternative data and other information to, to help decision makers across the organization better deliver for the UK, for the British people. Another example that I’d like to point out is the World Food Program, and this is within the UN, and here, what is being explored is, how does the World Food Program, which delivers essential food assistance that is essentially life and death situations in many instances to over 91 million people …”

André Pienaar: “91 million?”

Kevin Barrow: “91 million people every year, in, I believe, over six dozen countries, how do they make sure that they are using the resources which they have been entrusted in as effectively and efficiently as possible and, at the same time, build the capacity of those local communities so that they are less dependent on the World Food Program over time? The innovation team in Darussalam in Tanzania, when they reached out to us, it was with the goal of being able to provide more integrity to this process through the applications of data science and artificial intelligence.”

André Pienaar: “Kevin, well, these are two very, very exciting examples, but I know, to do something that’s completely new and at the cutting edge, as you and the team in Mark Labs are doing, takes a lot of resilience and commitment as entrepreneurs because you’re helping to change the world, but at the same time, there are many obstacles and hurdles for entrepreneurship. How have you found the adventure of entrepreneurship and what role has the accelerator played in that process?”

Kevin Barrow: “Oh, those are really great questions. So, entrepreneurs, necessarily, you have to have grit. You have to be resilient and above all, you-“

André Pienaar: “Cause entrepreneurs are often misunderstood.”

Kevin Barrow: (laughs) “Almost always, almost always are misunderstood, and the entrepreneurs that are trying to do something new, and I remember when we were, when I look at my cohort, across the, I mean, if there were eight teams that were present, none of us were trying to buy a gallon of something in one place and sell it for, you know, a 2% markup elsewhere. We were, within our respective domains, you know, trying to push the needle and in some instance, create an entirely new reality, right? And many times, it takes, it just takes time for that innovation to be de-risked, such that it can be used by the CDCs and the UNs of the world, but if you have a great team, if you are able to identify the right partners, and you have the, and you really master the, the problem that your, that your target customers are facing, and the story that allows that problem to be understood, then everything becomes possible, and, and we know that the role of the accelerator program was absolutely essential in helping us to, in giving the resources and the access to be able to better interrogate our understanding the problem and then also access to brilliant thought leaders and resources that helped us to refine that story so that it could be, so that it could be, within months of the, of the accelerator, we were able to get partners with, able to develop with an investor and a customer relationship with one of the most important partners of USCID, FHI 360, which annually mobilizes over $800 million to help some of the world’s most, you know, most vulnerable people, to advance in terms of their public health and education, and here, they partnered with us for a simple reason, they had tons of data which they wanted to be able to use more expertly to go further, farther, faster, and better, and the role of FHI, the role of FHI in helping us to grow was made possible by people like you and Ava and other members of the C5 team, getting on the phone, working with us, also reaching out to FHI and validating that, you know, “Yes, this group has been interrogated. This team, we know and trust them, and we are willing to put our reputation’s on the line,” so that’s all part of the ecosystem which is necessary to be successful.”

André Pienaar: “Well, you, just the range of skills that you’ve described, Kevin, being able to tell a story, being able to focus on your problem, being able to build a team, having the grit and the resilience to move your business forward, that’s a great many skills that the entrepreneur have to master, and I commend you and the Mark Labs team for everything you’ve accomplished, and we believe you’ve got a great future.”

Kevin Barrow: “Thank you.”

André Pienaar: “All the very best for the mission.”

Kevin Barrow: “Thank you André.”