After a varied career, including graduating from the Airforce Academy and starting the first sustainable food truck in Colorado Springs, Jo Marini earned an MBA in business design, determined to address the staggering lack of venture capital investment in anyone but white men. To that end, she recently co-founded Mother Superior, a “venture and social purpose foundry,” as she calls it, for founders from diverse backgrounds.
The services include counseling very early-stage social entrepreneurs on how to develop and launch their startups, providing funding and continuing to act as advisors later on. When they’re profitable, the ventures invest a certain percentage in Mother Superior.
“We provide access, not just funding,” says Marini, who is CEO of the company.
Founders in the Pipeline
Marini and co-founder Willi de Dios Cohen got started about a year and a half ago. But they decided to launch officially this month, the better to ensure all the ducks were in the right rows. “I knew the biggest criticism I would face was that this was naïve,” says Marini. “I didn’t want to launch until knew we had founders in the pipeline and metrics to back up what we were doing.”
The firm focuses on not just Black, people of color, women and LGBTQ founders, but also over 60-year-olds, immigrants and the disabled. “These are people outside the margins of traditional VC,” says Marini. The foundry part of the company works with founders for a year to a year and a half to help them launch. After that, the firm stays on as advisors for as long as ten years, “to make sure when something comes up we’re there for them,” says Marini.
The fund has raised $3 million, mostly from individuals and family offices; that amount includes what Marini describes as “time, resources and money to get the companies off the ground”. Investments range from $250,000 to close to $500,000. Also, startups are obligated to pay 1% of profits into the fund once they start making money.
A Back-Up Idea
At the moment, Mother Superior is working with four startups, beginning the work at the proof-of-concept stage. One such company is Minerva Minded in Eureka, Cal., which will sell a hardware device for cannabis consumers. Founders Laura Costa and Cara Cordoni have a prototype, with plans to launch an Indiegogo campaign in April, when they’ll take the wraps off what exactly the product is.
The partners started talking to Marini in 2019 about a different business plan for a fresh cannabis juice. After three or four discussions, they realized it wasn’t feasible. Then they presented a “back-up idea” Marini liked much better and decided to pursue that. They founded the company in early 2020 and spent the past year working with engineers to build a real production-ready prototype. “By bringing the idea to Jo, we were able to move forward,” says Cordoni. “Otherwise, we would not have pursued the project.”
Before Mother Superior makes a commitment to a startup, they work together for 30 to 90 days. After that, either side can walk away or continue. If it’s the latter, Mother Superior makes an investment. It’s a minority stake, though Marini wouldn’t elaborate further. Also in the operating agreement is a “common good commitment” to finding ways to guarantee that, as profits grow, the social purpose will be maintained. That can mean anything from how decisions are made to requirements for board members,
Later this quarter, Marini is launching a news outlet called Motherlode, which will publish stories about Mother Superior-backed founders. After that, the firm will introduce the Office of Social Purpose, through which Mother Superior will work with established companies to “build social purpose into their DNA in a way that makes sense for themselves and their investors,” says Marini.