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Kirchner Group’s Food Fellowship Program Tackles Global Food Security

Since its founding in 1985 as a traditional merchant bank, Kirchner Group has provided support to promising companies, entrepreneurs and their investors. Kirchner Group was formed on two fundamental beliefs, “every company can be more valuable and every company should contribute to a positive human future”.

“Kirchner Group is a unique values-based corporate ecosystem, maximizing individual and social benefit through our unwavering commitment to the thoughtful integration of ‘earning and returning’. We earn through the merchant banking activities, and we return through our philanthropic and impact activities,” explained Blair Kirchner, managing director of Kirchner Group.

The Kirchner Impact Foundation, one of the “returning arms” of Kirchner Group, focuses on harnessing the positive power of enterprise to make a difference in addressing some of the most important issues of today through initiatives like impact investing, a non-traditional and unique form of investing where the social benefit of an investment is just as important as the financial return. 

Now entering its third year, the Kirchner Food Fellowship, has notably emerged. It offers university students the opportunity to learn how to invest in startups through the tutelage and oversight of the Kirchner Group. During the program the fellows identify social enterprises for the Impact Foundation to fund in the area of global food security.

“While there are a lot of programs for university students that focus on entrepreneurship, how to build a business and how to run a business, very few were looking at how to invest capital in those businesses, which is a fundamental need of any business as it grows through its lifecycle,” Kirchner, said.

“We developed this program to give university students the opportunity to learn in a hands on way how to invest capital in social enterprise companies that are looking to do good while doing well with the overarching theme of addressing food security,” Kirchner said. “We also believed there was a smarter, lower cost more effective way to allocate capital utilizing the inherent skillset of millennials.”

Each year the program selects three university students to participate in the program.  The three students are chosen from a pool of applicants after a rigorous review process that includes thorough interviews, psychology and cultural sensitivity tests, as well as background checks. The program is split between tutoring and training that runs over eight months including the fellows working as a team to locate investment prospects. Once the investment is made, the team oversees the investment and provides hands on support to the companies as an active investor.

The Kirchner Group does not hold the hands of these future capitol allocators. Fund the Food’s team of directors, which includes Blair Kirchner, Auburn University Professor of Sustainability and Hunger Kate Thornton, Investment Director Steve Dauphin, and Agriculture Technology Director Rod Parker, only meet with their fellows four or five times a year.  It is up to the fellows to effectively communicate and work together, which is why the selection process is of utmost importance.

“Our Fellows are really chosen for a team dynamic versus rock star status. There is a fundamental need for collaboration and effective teamwork for a group of students that need to come to a unanimous decision on an investment and also need to be able to work remotely,” Kirchner said.

Thus far, Kirchner Group feels they have found success with the formula of selecting the right candidates who work together as a team.  In 2014 the first investment made under the program was in a company called Lucky Iron Fish, which provides a safe and easy solution for iron deficiency, a condition affecting more than half of the world’s population.    

Since the investment, Lucky Iron Fish has shown significant progress. It has received numerous recognitions and notoriety in publications, including an appearance on Oprah’s ’Things that make me smile” list. The product design has also been recognized by numerous organizations including being awarded 7 Cannes Lions and the Silver Edison Innovation Award. However, most importantly it is improving the lives of individuals around the world.

Blair Kirchner knows that the future of the program is bright---this year’s fellows include graduate students from Emory and Columbia, and a joint MIT/Harvard graduate student-which is a testament to the strong model developed by the Kirchner Impact Foundation. 

Ask Kirchner what exactly that model is and he is likely to reply with three body parts.  Head, hip, and heart.

“The head is giving back with the knowledge and experience that we have from the years of advising, investing and selling businesses. The hip is the financial contribution that is needed for companies to grow.  And the heart is really the desire and passion to want these companies to succeed,” Kirchner said.

Given the success the Kirchner Group has had thus far with the program and the personal satisfaction it has brought to its executive team the future is bright. “We are very pleased with the progress of the program and the opportunities it has to expand and continue to try to make a difference in global food security,” Kirchner said.