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Sunday Sitdown with Marc J. Lane: Use business to fix social problems

Amid the minute-to-minute drumbeat of war and scandal and stock market upheaval no farther away than your phone or desktop, Chicago lawyer, financial adviser and author Marc J. Lane stands apart for his optimism.

The Lincolnwood native’s latest book — his 35th — is titled “The Mission-Driven Venture” (Jossey-Bass, $28). But it’s the book’s subtitle that says more about Lane: “Business Solutions to the World’s Most Vexing Social Problems.”

Lane spoke with reporter Sandra Guy about what keeps him believing that the world’s problems might yet still be tackled. An edited transcript follows.

Question: You’ve written a book of advice for anyone from starry-eyed startup founder to veteran entrepreneur to fill a humanitarian vacuum by setting up and running a mission-driven business. How does that work?

Answer: We’re seeing significant interest by foundations, millennials, entrepreneurs and the kinds of high-income, high-net-worth individuals I’ve always represented as they seek to diversify and to make investments that work to increase societal good.

Q: What’s driving this?

A: I have been deeply involved for my entire career in accountability and transparency issues, and wrote Illinois’ “low-profit limited liability company law. The L3C is a business form that lets for-profits and non-profits obtain all the advantages of a traditional limited liability company with a non-profit’s aim to place mission over profits. There are 1,200 L3Cs now throughout the United States.

Too many people — 50 million in the United States — are living in poverty, and philanthropy and downsized government agencies aren’t up to the task of tackling all the problems poverty brings with it. Many social entrepreneurs and non-profits have decided to create businesses that create jobs and catalyze private-sector “impact” investors.  JP Morgan Chase predicts that impact investing will total $1 trillion by 2020.

Q: What can ordinary people with savings in IRAs and 401(k)s do?

A: Demand that your investment adviser ensures that a company’s behavior is compatible with your personal values. Are the companies in which your advisers invest sourcing products from sweatshops? Polluting the air and water? Turn your portfolio into an active asset that drives positive social change.

Q: What’s next?

A: We’re just now seeing Social Impact Bonds, futures contracts on social impact.  Illinois’ first Social Impact Bond — which was incubated in the Governor’s Task Force on Social Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Enterprise I chaired — will generate $30 million in private investments for programs targeting at-risk youth, reducing their dependence on the state’s welfare and criminal justice systems.  It will also lead to long-term savings for taxpayers.

Q: What started all this?

A: I had activism in my genes. My father — the late Sam Lane — was in charge of the Office of Price Administration during World War II, when gasoline and food stamps were rationed. He had a progressive bent. And my mother Evelyn, 96 and very proud of it, is very socially conscious — very involved and concerned with families and communities. And so am I.