Rhia Ventures recently appointed Erika Seth Davies as CEO. The new role appears tailor-made for her background in fundraising, asset management, impact investing, and racial equity advocacy. There is no doubt she follows an eclectic career path with valuable lessons at every stop in the journey.
Erika Seth Davies gets a crash course in capitalism
Davies skated through early life, oblivious to any connection between racism and capitalism. When she signed on to an entry-level position with an institutional asset management firm in 2007, however, everything changed. This job exposed her to capital markets as a system that was managed–and not managed in her favor.
“Before working in asset management, I only had a general understanding of capitalism as our economic system,” says Davies. “This was the first time I interacted with the system and watched resources move.”
Davies worked in one of the few black-owned asset management firms, so she did not yet understand how few black people were in that space. Nor did she have a complete understanding of how the few who had gained admission to the space were consistently challenged when it came to accessing opportunities to manage resources.
When looking at the pedigrees of the investment firm’s portfolio managers and founders, she was torn between admiration and confusion. “We were always told, ‘Education is your path forward’ and ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,'” she recalls. “I knew these people had done these things, and yet they still struggled to participate in the capital market.”
Erika Seth Davies explores racial inequity
Davies left asset management to work for an organization focused on racial equity in the philanthropic sector. That’s when she put the missing pieces of the puzzle together to get her first clear picture of capitalism. “This is a system intentionally built to ensure resources stay in the hands of a relatively small group of people,” she says. “It’s a system that fundamentally dehumanizes an entire group of people to maximize power and profit for another group. We don’t spend enough time understanding slavery as the core to our economic system, but they are inextricably linked.”
This system has become so entrenched that Davies believes most people see it as a way of life. She points to a report showing the U.S.-based asset management industry is worth approximately $82 trillion, with less than 1.4% of those assets managed by black and women-owned firms.
“Having 98.6% of assets in the hands of white men in no way, shape, or form reflects our society,” she remarks. “That’s certainly not reflective of an economy that seeks to grow based on equality among its demographics. Statistics like that don’t happen without some type of construct built to support them.”
Erika Seth Davies starts the conversation about racial equity and capital investment
When Davies returned to the non-profit sector, she brought a very different view to the work. It was a time when conversations about racial equity, implicit bias, and structural racism were beginning to shape the space. People were uncomfortable and had no idea how to call a system racist without indicting the individuals who had created it.
Today Davies sees people stepping back and examining the system. “The results of a harmful system are all around us,” she says. “People are still uncomfortable about the topic, but now we know we can’t get away without having the conversation.”
Erika Seth Davies founds the Racial Equity Asset Lab
In 2016, Davies began exploring racial equity in impact investing. Impact investing is an approach to investment that seeks a double bottom line. Its goal is a return of capital, but it also ensures the money is activated to achieve positive results for the planet or its people. “I realized that space was not terribly diverse,” she recalls. “What’s more, the conversations about environmental, social, and governmental impact were not addressing race, racism, racial justice, or racial equity.”
Davies believed the conversation around impact investing was incomplete. She pushed for discussions without much success. “I realized I needed to create the entity that would be responsive to and focused on those conversations,” she remarks. “That’s why I launched the Racial Equity Asset Lab (REAL) in partnership with Common Future in 2019.”
At the REAL, Davies gives investors resources to understand investment decision-making through a racial equity lens. Her framework for rating investment decisions is based on a scale ranging from colorblind to equity-focused.
“A colorblind decision gets racialized results,” Davies explains. “We see it all around us.”
Colorblind processes ignore data around disparities. They ignore how historic discriminatory policy has shaped today’s landscape. Nothing in colorblind processes accounts for racism or attempts to level the playing field. The results will continue to perpetuate and reinforce the existing system.
To prove her point, Davies calls out the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)—loans that helped businesses keep their workforce employed during the COVID-19 crisis. “When that program was announced, we knew without regulation accounting for existing challenges, Black small business owners would be least likely to access PPP loans,” she says. “That’s exactly what played out because the process was colorblind. Banks could have served as Intermediaries and prioritized banking relationships with black-owned businesses, but they primarily went with their biggest clients. Nothing in this process accounted for this built-in disparity, and therefore nothing could deliver different results. As a result,41% of black businesses closed in the first months of the pandemic in 2020.”.”
During her initial planning and fundraising for the REAL, Davies was also asked to become a fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University to lead a project called Equitable Access to Capital Markets.
She accepted the role in 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic. Travel was locked down, so she opted to get the message out through blog posts and webinars. Her first blog entry, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Racism in the Room Made Visible by COVID-19 and How to Create New Pathways” was released a week before George Floyd’s murder.
Within weeks, Davies was fielding endless calls about racism and capitalism. The demand for focused conversation ramped up exponentially in 2020 and is still active today.
In response to her work at the REAL and the Beeck Center, Davies sees a heightened prevalence of conversation. “It’s going to take a while to see the impact because there’s so much learning for people to do,” she says. “The shift towards equity requires change that goes against the grain. It flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught.”
Davies chooses not to quantify her work in terms of immediate success. “I think about what I’m supposed to do during this time I have on earth to advance change towards new and different systems. We’re at a point where new systems and new models are being created to shift capital and change what isn’t working. I feel my job is to connect the dots and create space for those new models and systems to rise.”
Erika Seth Davies brings her expertise to Rhia Ventures as CEO
Rhia Ventures exists to develop a reproductive and maternal health market that works for all women. The organization has its own venture fund subsidiary called RH Capital to make direct investments in early- and growth-stage companies that are bringing innovation to the reproductive and maternal health market. Rhia is focused on building an ecosystem and supporting tighter connections between all the players, including investors, philanthropists, women, and birthing people. It looks at the policies and benefits corporations are offering internally to their workforces and whether they support reproductive and maternal health. It organizes investors to hold companies accountable so that their political spending aligns with their values. Specifically, Rhia is ensuring women have access to abortion and birthing people have access to the full range of supports for their health care.
“At Rhia, we use capital-connected tools to accomplish our mission, and one of them is impact investing,” comments Davies. “Rhia sits at the intersection of each of the different industries I worked with previously.”
Into her new role at Rhia, Davies carries everything she has learned along with her determination to change the system and make a better world. “The world in which we live now was a creation in someone’s mind,” she says. “To create a different world, we need to use our imaginations as well. We have to persist through cynicism, hopelessness, and a system that seems so entrenched that it will not change. That system feels inevitable now, but it wasn’t always that way. That system is the result of the choices we made. We can make different choices for a different future. But we have to imagine it to live it.”
Davies chooses not to be disheartened by her hard work ahead. She focuses instead on what she can do in the present moment. I am optimistic, but not naïve,” she comments. “The hope that I have is for a future that I probably will not experience. The work that I do is planting trees whose shade I will not enjoy. And I’m OK with this.”