Faith drives college student to launch impact firm

Plesion Capital has already closed its first investment as it seeks to make an impact in the finance, food, water and infrastructure industries of Sub-Saharan Africa.

While most college seniors are worried about landing their first job, Ben Finlay has faith that his faith will see him through.

Finlay, who is in his last semester at Princeton University studying religion, recently founded Plesion Capital to make impact investments in Africa. The Vienna, Virginia-based firm just announced that it has committed $500,000 to Uganda-based fintech platform Xeno’s $2 million seed round.

Finlay, 22, learned about impact investing while studying economics and entrepreneurship and subsequently completed an internship at London-based Round Hill Ventures to learn the basics of venture investing. The word plesion, which means “neighbor” in Greek, stood out to Finlay while he was studying New Testament Greek at Harvard Divinity School, and he feels it encapsulates his firm’s philosophy.

Ben Finlay, Plesion Capital

“I think the idea that to impact invest you have to sacrifice profits and return on investment is a bit of a myth,” Finlay told Venture Capital Journal. “Economic development and return on investment really go hand in hand. Even though this is a venture capital impact firm, it is by no means only venture capital or only impact. We like to think that we’re at the perfect in-between to accomplish real change as well as returns with our investments.”

Plesion is in the process of raising $10 million for its debut fund, with a “relatively small” amount already committed from a number of family offices, according to Finlay. While he declined to reveal the names of the existing LPs, he said there is plenty of interest but wants to be patient as he plans to complete his degree while also serving as a captain of the men’s varsity lacrosse team.

Why start a venture fund when he could just enjoy playing lacrosse and finishing his degree? “It really comes down to my relationship with Jesus and knowing how fortunate I am to have been brought up the way I was in the environment I was in,” Finlay said. “I wanted to honor God in my own way and really just wanted to find a way to give back and steward financial resources in positive ways.”

As the sole employee of his firm, Finlay wants to take a “rifle shot” approach to his investments rather than deploying a large amount of capital across multiple companies. “We want to find the right investment for us and commit to it in a strong way,” he said. “Right now, it’s important to have a strong yet relatively limited fund so that we can make meaningful investments that we’re confident in.”

Finlay said he plans to ramp things up after he graduates this spring, with the intention of bringing in more team members and raising a second fund once his first is fully invested.

Plesion has identified three industries where it believes it can make the greatest impact – food, water/infrastructure and finance. The firm plans to invest in agritech companies focused on fixing the food supply chain, companies increasing access to clean drinking water, clean and improved energy infrastructure, internet and financial technology companies in Africa.

The firm’s first investment, Xeno, operates an educational investment management application to help users learn about and engage in a variety of financial topics including long-term investing, retirement accounts and savings. The company’s app is available to those with and without internet access, utilizing the mobile money infrastructure in Africa and its own proprietary technology to allow investments through SMS messaging. Xeno is pre-installed on more than 14 million phones in Uganda, with plans to expand to other countries including Kenya and Nigeria. Its seed round was led by Beyond Capital Ventures.

“I’ll be the first to tell you I haven’t been doing venture capital for the longest time,” Finlay said. “I try to make use of different relationships that I have, different networks I’m a part of, the school that I go to, to really maximize the impact that I can make for underserved communities, for those living in impoverished areas. I really think that with certain emerging markets, particularly in Africa, there’s a huge opportunity for positive venture capital to make significant change in good ways.”