In conversation with

Dama Sathianathan

Partner at Bethnal Green Ventures



Purpose driven business isn’t a trend; it’s a paradigm shift: away from profit as the sole measure a success, towards a world where the most valuable businesses are those that improve millions of lives. This is the philosophy of Bethnal Green Ventures, Europe’s leading early-stage tech for good VC, and the first UK VC to become a B Corp.

Dama Sathianathan is a Partner within their team of self-coined practical optimists. We spoke to her about the language of purpose, fostering community for founders and what exactly makes a real problem.

Question and Answer

You’ve worked at Bethnal Green Ventures for over 6 years. What made you want to work in venture and what keeps it exciting?

When I first heard about BGV, I didn’t know much about venture. I wanted to work at BGV, because the idea of supporting founders early in building tech for good products really excited me! I joined a fabulous team who all cared about building a workforce where people can learn, flourish and grow, and fundamentally are united in their belief that we need to allocate capital towards products and services that drive positive outcomes for people and planet, which is probably why I’m still excited six years later.

What conversations are dominating the world of impact investing right now?

Climate tech is a dominant conversation, for sure, though it feels like we’re at the peak of the hype cycle. There are now also more conversations focused on increasing the impact maturity of both funds and startups, so you see a lot of resources and guides out in the open that enable people to dig deeper into developing their impact measurement practices, like the Founder Playbook published by ImpactVC recently, or BGV’s own Impact for Startup Guide.

“A real problem is one that serves needs, not wants. It becomes even more real when it serves the needs of many who might have been historically excluded or where we see greater depth of impact potential from tackling this very problem. ”

You’re for founders solving real problems. What constitutes a real problem for you?

Oh, easy! It’s addressing a problem that serves needs, not wants. It becomes even more real when it serves the needs of many who might have been historically excluded or where we see greater depth of impact potential from tackling this very problem.

At BGV, you describe your team as practical optimists? What is that worldview?

Hahaha, depending on who you ask on which day, it fluctuates between practical optimist and tragic cynic. For us, it means being aware that there’s grave injustice in this world, where we might not have agency to drive change. But we can do our best within the realm of our work (investing in tech for good) to imagine and shape a better future. Paul, BGV’s CEO, writes a newsletter called the Practical Optimist, regularly sharing his musings on what that might look like for BGV.

Terms like ‘impact’ ‘purpose’ and ‘for good’ sometimes trip people up. How do you differentiate between them, and how important is it to be specific with the language we use?

Oh, I agree 100%. It trips people up. Especially when you consider the translations in different languages. ‘Purpose’ for example, has a different meaning and association linked to targets or aims in German (my native tongue), whereas in English, it might invoke more of a sense of intent or motivation. ‘Impact’ doesn’t always mean positive, as the impact can be both negative and positive. And ‘for good’, well for good is in the eye of the beholder, right? But as capital allocators, defining ‘for good’ is a very privileged position, and we’re acutely aware of the power imbalance that comes with it. This is why we focus our tech for good lens on the outcomes we’d like to see in the world, and that’s backing founders contributing to a sustainable planet, healthy lives and inclusive society.

“Ultimately, regardless of consumer sentiment, showcasing your purpose might have a positive unintended consequence that’s worth it.”

We recently wrote about ‘purpose fatigue’ in our newsletter. Do you think this is a real problem for consumers? (It feels to us like a cop out).

It feels like there’s just generally a sensory overload from brands, but there will always be consumers who will care and who will want to know the why behind a brand’s existence. And it has a knock-on effect, right? Take chocolate. You might have been entirely unaware of the severe exploitation and environmental degradation behind your favourite chocolate. One day, you discover Tony’s Chocolonely. And now, when you pick up any chocolate bar, you might wonder what your purchasing decision is enabling. Ultimately, regardless of consumer sentiment, showcasing your purpose might have a positive unintended consequence that’s worth it.

Are there any tech for good businesses that are really leveraging brand to drive positive outcomes at scale?

Fairphone, but I’m biased as BGV invested in them. Cur8 for sure, as they also know how to differentiate between their stakeholders and are a lovely team.

A big aspect of BGV is the community support. How important is community among start-up founders you work with?

It’s so important. Being a founder and an entrepreneur trying to do good and well can be a pretty isolating experience. And whilst we’re here for our founders, there are things founders at a specific point in time can only get from interactions with people going through similar motions of building a business from the ground up. Nothing beats the type of pastoral care and support you can get from that, so it makes sense for us to simply provide founders with a platform to receive that support.

What advice would you give tech for good start-up founders?

Always remember that any action you take can lead to a multitude of different impacts. So find the one (ideally positive) outcome that you want to achieve and hone down on that.

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