Sean Melrose‘s background in mathematics and philosophy is just the beginning of what makes him a unique investor – amidst colleagues of accountants and MBAs. His continuous ability to lend a unique lens to problem-solving led him to launch Rhiza Capital, which is bringing the small town values of care (and, as an extension, impact) into the big city investment landscape. A strong supporter of Ethelo since 2014, Sean serves on Ethelo’s Board of Directors and is the lead investor for the current investment round on Frontfundr.
What led you to founding Rhiza Capital?
I had made a big move from the city to the small, struggling former mill town of Powell River. A lot of money in town but not necessarily used to create their future. They were still hung up on what they had been. So I decided to focus my efforts on a localized community investment fund that would allow this small town to pick itself up by its bootstraps and drive local industry.
How has Rhiza evolved into what it is today?
This vision evolved to become Rhiza Capital through partnerships with Sunshine Coast Credit Union and Community Futures on the Sunshine Coast.
We recognized that there is something unique about small town values – there’s a real focus on taking care of each other. In the big city, this is called impact. That’s why we look to invest in companies around B.C. that we feel are having impact. We believe in this model, and are also dedicated to spreading it throughout other communities in B.C.
What’s Rhiza’s approach to impact investing?
Impact is an idea that has soft edges, as there are a lot of different interpretations of what impact is. My bottom line, outside of the minimum threshold of being a viable business with growth potential, is that I want the world to be a better place for having had this company inside it.
What led you to Ethelo?
I boarded a ferry to Vancouver with an idea that I could find successful and sensible companies with values baked into the pie. At this point it was a theory. I would say that running into Ethelo at the Vancouver Angel’s Forum in 2014 was one of the moments that I realized that I could have my cake and eat it too. Ethelo became one of the first nine companies that were in the very first iteration of Rhiza venture portfolio.
What are the things that drew you to Ethelo the most?
I do have a tendency to apply more weight to the person than the business plan I think. Not to say that Ethelo had anything less than an excellent business plan, but what was most compelling was the person. When I got to talking to John, who also had a background in philosophy and mathematics, I discovered that was actually what drove the research and what was the underpinning of Ethelo in the first place. That’s what was so compelling to me and garnered my attention in the first place. The fact that he had such a drive, well that was the second layer – that he was already a proven commodity. He was a serial creator.
What are some of the challenges you encountered working with a social venture?
I understood the value of having a for-profit engine (Ethelo Decisions) support the non-profit society (Ethelo Democracy) and its social justice work. However, as an investor I watched other investors trying to wrap their heads around this structure and the chilling effect it had. There was a perception that somehow this connection could undermine Ethelo’s ability to be independent, profitable and successful.
For our experience, I now know with certainty that there is a path that can be navigated to maintain the integrity of both drives. Figuring out the balance has been a process that I’ve been proud to be part of. I know you don’t need to forsake one or the other.
What are your greatest hopes and dreams for Ethelo?
My greatest wish for Ethelo is for it to be a robust engine for good over the long term. I want Ethelo to get to a point financially where its capacity to do what it needs to do for growth and mission is inevitable. I feel that we are on the cusp of that point where instead of it being aspirational it becomes inevitable. That’s my hope for Ethelo and exactly the work we’re doing this year.