Cynthia Muller Director, Mission Driven Investment, W.K. Kellogg Foundation
Cynthia Muller

“Cynthia’s multifaceted experience and strategic skills let her connect the dots between mission and investing before most investors see the opportunity. She’s a pragmatic visionary and a powerful advocate for impact investing.”

Carlos Rangel, VP and CIO, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Cynthia Muller’s drive to tackle structural inequity by magnifying how we see opportunity is rooted in her upbringing and earliest lived experience. Born to an Alaskan Native mother and Black father—the latter of whom settled in Alaska after the Vietnam War—Muller grew up near Anchorage during an eventful period in the state. Construction was underway for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. It was the early days of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which created 13 regional corporations to administer financial and land claims made by Indigenous tribes. Muller witnessed first-hand how underrepresented groups drove innovative partnerships and investment structures with business and government entities. Amid this context, she grew up highly aware of the structural barriers that impede access for some more than others, but also of the ways that ideas and opportunities can be found in unexpected networks, communities and individuals.

When Muller returned home after graduating from Stanford University, she worked for Southcentral Foundation, one of the first tribal organizations to co-manage Alaska’s largest health care system under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Healthcare Services for federally recognized Native tribes. While at the organization, she worked on initiatives that helped the organization to grow to a roughly 1,500 employee firm overnight, up from an operation with approximately 250 staff. Working at the intersection of tribal interests and the health care system spurred her interest in how capital can be used to further social aims.

Muller then went on to receive an MBA from the Foster School at the University of Washington. She led capitalization and investor relations at Capital Impact Partners, a national community development finance lender, based in Arlington, Virginia. Later, she worked at Arabella Advisors, a consulting firm to endowments, corporations, and high net worth and ultra-high net worth individuals. She helped launch and manage Arabella’s impacting investing practice. Over her career, Cynthia has led the deployment of nearly $500 million in mission driven investments, globally.

Today, the director of mission driven investments at the Kellogg Foundation leads a more than $160 million portfolio. This investment capital directly advances the foundation’s social mission through private market strategies. For Muller, investing with fund managers who have diverse backgrounds and non-traditional investing experiences is not only about diverse representation: she believes that it introduces the foundation to high-potential entrepreneurs and strategies in undiscovered markets.

For her, impact and returns are not a tradeoff: they are complementary. For example, the portfolio investment in Impact America Fund, a Black woman-led venture capital firm that made an early round investment into Mayvenn, a fast-growing Black-owned hair extension company in the U.S. It’s a business with a significant market in parts of the country that the investor says just about no one ever thinks about. Muller and her team also invest in funds that are exploring new approaches to workforce engagement and performance, such as employee stock ownership programs (ESOP) and other models of share equity.

“I am proud of every transaction we do because each one of them is a different approach to how we help introduce the market to new practices that make more equitable opportunities for communities of color,” she said. “Not just the people who can get access, but for the people who can’t get access for whatever circumstance that they must face, and for the other allocators seeking to explore racial equity as a standard investment practice.”

CIO: What is the best way to bring more diversity to the financial industry?

Muller: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to advancing diversity, racial equity, and inclusion in the financial services industry. Every organization, person, and journey is unique. Investment leaders that value and seek to drive these efforts will require recognition and close management of representation, reinforcing positive business culture and refining business practices that undermine racial equity.

  • Representation: Increasing the numbers of underrepresented people (people of color, women, people with disabilities, LGBTQI, etc.) will allow more opportunities for teams and businesses to engage people with different lived experiences, perspectives, and education.
  • Culture: In so far that it seeks to create a shared understanding and is safe for all employees (physically, mentally, and emotionally), includes respect, and promotes racial equity.  
  • Practice: How do you make decisions, who is included, and how? How are staff engaged or not engaged? Who is often left out of the decisionmaking or not sharing the full benefits of the company’s or team’s success? Leaders need to look at existing practices that are undermining their culture and representation, because without that, you may be repeating behaviors that hinder your ability to retain staff you are trying to bring onto your team.

The  W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) has decades of learning to share with anyone seeking to advance diversity, racial equity, and inclusion.

CIO: What are your favorite alts, and why?

Muller: Right now, I’m watching real estate really closely. Even before the pandemic, we were seeing demographic shifts from the East and West coasts into places like the South and Midwest. I’ve watched this trend continue. It will be interesting to see what investments and new ecosystems emerge as a result of this shift. We’ve been seeing more and more managers come from places like Chicago, Nashville, and Austin, which allow for greater diversification, but we’re being mindful of capacity challenges and how we and other investors can strategically support them as new ecosystems and hubs pop up.

CIO: How will the pandemic have changed the economic/financial world?

Muller: The pandemic highlighted systematic gaps in our economy and society, and, as a result, demonstrated that investors and business leaders have been missing externalities. For instance, the staggering health care-related issues and impact of COVID-19 on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. Racial inequity is a meaningful business risk that needs to be managed more explicitly.

CIO: How will ESG change investing going forward?

Muller: It already has. It’s demonstrated how society and capitalism are inextricably linked and that investors across the industry are responding with notable strategies and funds. Groups such as BlackRock, TPG, Apollo, and others have deployed funds and established strategies to support underrepresented managers. ESG [environmental, social, and governance investing] will continue showing us new markets and opportunities that can be translated into broader investment strategies across the industry and how we can integrate those practices in our culture and teams.

CIO: Where do you see the most exciting areas to specialize further over the coming years?

Muller: Fintech was really tested during the pandemic and showed the industry and consumers that it is a nimble and resilient field. I’ve been watching the emergence of fintech over the last decade from groups like Varo Bank and Affirm to one of our underlying portfolio companies, Camino Financial, offering new and data and AI [artificial intelligence]-driven approaches to underwriting and credit management. Further, fintech companies’ activity during the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) accelerated their market growth. Companies like our investee, Capital Impact Partners, had the digital infrastructure and agility to rapidly deploy capital to diverse-led businesses, which were the hardest hit by the pandemic. Expect to see ongoing shifts in banking, investment management, and beyond.

CIO: What should be an investment trend, but isn’t (yet)?

Muller: Cooperatives and other shared financing models like ESOPs. Millennials have already demonstrated the initial staging in the development of a shared economy. As we see more growth in secondary markets from reused clothing to equipment and services, this is a tool that can set the stage for development and growth in a wide array of markets.

CIO: What investing decision have you made that you’re most proud of?

Muller: For me, it’s not just about a single investment but an ecosystem, market transformation. I’m most proud of the investments that have benefited from not only the capital we’ve deployed but also our relationship as a GP [general partner]and peer funder. 

The work that I do represents one small part of what happens here at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

In 2007, our board mandated that WKKF become an effective anti-racist organization that promotes racial equity. This is our DNA. When we can leverage these investments to influence the broader field; seed a woman and person of color-owned startup; and walk alongside an LP [limited partner] or grantee in their racial equity journey, that’s us living into our mission. That’s what motivates me every day.

CIO: Who is the manager you don’t currently work with whose brain you’d most like to pick for an hour?

Muller: Point Nine, based out of Berlin.
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