Changemakers: Ella Goldner

Co-founder of ZINC VC explains why it builds companies that tackle the developed world’s toughest problems

By Alex Falconer 17 May 2019

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Mateusz Baj

When governments fail to provide solutions to our most pressing social problems, where are we to turn?

In March 2015 Ella Goldner MBA2011, co-founder of the mission-led venture-builder Zinc VC, asked herself the same question. Having twins and taking maternity leave from her job as Strategy Director for IPG Mediabrands sparked a shift in outlook that led her to change direction towards making a positive social impact on the world: “It had to be something that was my own,” says Goldner, “and I didn’t want it to be an app or a digital product. That was my brief to myself.”

A graduate of London Business School’s MBA programme in 2010, she reached out to LBS’s career coaches and, through “serendipity” and getting to know the right people, met the man who was to become one of her co-founders: Saul Klein, a venture capitalist and Executive Fellow of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at LBS.

Together with third co-founder Paul Kirby, a former partner at KPMG, they started to flesh out what Zinc would look like; they have since raised £3 million from a mixture of venture capitalists and the London School of Economics, enabling them to fund three ‘missions’.

The first, focusing on women’s emotional and mental health, spawned 16 companies, addressing a raft of issues from gauging the likelihood of developing psychological side-effects from using the contraceptive pill to how to navigate through the maze of seeking help for infertility.

“There’s a lot of data available now to help solve these problems,” says Goldner. “It’s just not been tapped into. But with more female founders and investors who care about these issues, we can change that.”

‘There are no examples to give people when they ask how our model will work. It needs to be proven. We’re pioneering a different ecosystem’

In every mission, Zinc brings together 50 minds for nine months to find co-founders to build new businesses from scratch. Each mission has three criteria: it must tackle one of the great-unmet needs in the developed world; it must have a potential market of more than 100 million people; and there must be opportunities to disrupt, extend and improve existing services through new technologies and insights from research. 

Zinc’s biggest challenge is also its biggest strength: It’s one of a kind. The mission-led model has been used before (by Francis Crick Institute in the UK, for example), but not with creating companies from scratch and not in the social sciences. That’s why one of its first hires was Rachel Carey, a consultant at University College London’s Centre for Behaviour Change. “Her job is to translate the research that’s done in leading academic institutes so all our solutions can be evidence-based, and proven to work,” Goldner says. 

“There are no examples to give people when they ask how our specific model will work. It needs to be proven. We’re pioneering a different ecosystem.”

The support that has been given to Zinc since its conception is impressive. Both Camden Council and LBS gave the start-up office space and more than 20 coaches share their expertise with the founders and develop them on a pro bono basis.

But, for Goldner, Zinc’s biggest asset is the networks it creates. “Someone among our fellows on one mission might be a professor at the LSE. They can meet someone who is a serial tech entrepreneur, or a head of a charity, or someone who runs an NHS authority. These combinations would not ordinarily happen and everyone, including us, can tap into these networks. There is so much inspiration.”

Inspiration for Goldner comes not just from the high-achievers who surround her in her job, but a source closer to home: her mother.

A serial entrepreneur who brought the first professional training franchise to Israel in the 1970s before starting the first and biggest chain of female-only gyms in the country and selling it to pay for an MBA in her sixties, she showed Goldner that anything is possible.

Goldner’s husband is another business owner who has supported her and their family through the risk-taking and uncertainty inherent in founding an enterprise. She also credits LBS as a vital component in her journey: “Being an entrepreneur is hard, especially if you’re trying to break boundaries. If I ever needed anything, I knew I could email someone at LBS for help and advice.”

Financially, she knows Zinc has been fortunate to raise £3 million and is aware that getting money can become harder further down the track. “We’re opening it up to our network of investors and advisors,” she says. “These are challenges facing any business and we’re fortunate to have brilliant investors and advisors to be able to lean on.”

But it is the challenges facing society that have led Goldner to do what she does now; to try her utmost to fulfil the ambition to make the world a better place. People simply have a responsibility to make a difference: “Technology has created opportunities for individuals to make a huge difference, but it has also left people behind,” she says.

That’s where Zinc’s second, and current, mission comes in: to unlock new opportunities for people in places hit hard by globalisation and automation. Having kicked off in October 2018, the full-time programme is overseeing the creation of new businesses, ready to be unleashed on the world in June this year.

The cohort is half-men, half-women, which is important to Goldner, who has always been passionate about diversity. Zinc also includes a fair portion of entrepreneurs over 35, as statistics show they are more likely to be successful.

She is also a big proponent of another proven way to increase one’s chances of success: reaching out for help. “Never think that someone is too important to help you,” she says. “Think big. You might have to start small, but think big.”

Zinc is looking for applicants for its third mission: to add five more years of high quality to everyone’s later life. Find out more at www.zinc.vc/mission-3

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