Joel Solomon, Renewal Funds Management | BCBusiness

Joel Solomon, Renewal Funds Management | BCBusiness

When Joel Solomon confronted his own mortality in his twenties, he turned his back on a family business and sought a better way to live—and to make a living—in B.C.

Joel Solomon is at full throttle today, espousing the merits of investing in socially responsible enterprises. The chair of Vancouver-based venture capital firm Renewal Funds Management explains how business can unleash “great creativity and solutions in the world.” If Solomon once had a reputation as a behind-the-scenes figure, he’s now ready to take centre stage. Blame his age, perhaps; at 59, he feels that he’s entered an “elder era,” overcoming innate shyness to speak more publicly about his beliefs. More importantly, however, he feels the success of Renewal’s business model of funding “for-benefit” companies—from Sustainable Produce Urban Delivery (SPUD) to Seventh Generation cleaning products—gives him somewhat of a platform.

Solomon founded Renewal Partners in 1993 with Carol Newell, the Rubbermaid heiress, who invested $14 million from her inheritance. Forming Renewal Funds in 2008, Solomon (with CEO Paul Richardson) went on to attract money from more than 100 outside investors through two funds that he expects to hit a total of $85 million in assets under management when the current round of capital raising is completed next year. 

“I’m a doer and initially our strategy was to operate low-key until we have a track record before we start talking about it,” says the Tennessee native. “It’s still a boutique business but it’s moving toward something more significant,” Solomon continues. “As part of ‘eldering,’ I think it’s my duty to share the stories with the next generation, and I’m excited.”

While Solomon is healthy today, when he discovered in his twenties that he had a potentially fatal genetic kidney disease, it was the pivotal point that turned him into a self-confessed “seeker,” eventually landing in B.C. after leaving his family’s business in shopping malls and his work for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign in the ’70s.

“I got the visceral experience of what we all know on paper, which is mortality,” he says while scanning the deck of the Flack Block, his Gastown HQ (we’re eating vegetable curry from nearby Smak). “This is the root of some of my investments: ‘What am I going to eat? Is it better for my kidneys? Are they going to last longer if I throw toxic loads at them or cleaner food that’s grown well?’ It’s common sense.”

Solomon’s foray into the organic world was via gardening on Cortes Island, where he chairs the board of the Hollyhock learning centre. Its CEO is his wife, Dana, with whom he enjoys biking and kayaking on the island.

In Vancouver, he’s lived in the Downtown Eastside for 16 years and is a keen walker. He doesn’t own a car here—a fact that aligns with his sustainability philosophy, just as his venture investments in socially responsible companies link his values with making money. “We love the drama and poignancy of building companies,” Solomon says, “and we believe that there’s a massive change underway.”

While it’s well known that Renewal helped fund Happy Planet—the juice company Mayor Gregor Robertson co-founded—and backed Vision Vancouver, he scoffs at the idea that he has any political influence. “It’s kind of amusing and a gross exaggeration to say that I do,” he says with a smile. “Basically, I’m a friend of Gregor’s and a citizen who cares a lot about public leadership.”

Clearly another responsibility “elder Joel” would be more than excited to talk about, too. n

Joel Solomon’s Favourites

1. “Restaurateur Sean Heather’s new deli, Rainier Provisions (2 West Cordova St., Vancouver; rainierprovisions.com), is a nice place for lunchtime meetings. I enjoy the outside sidewalk area they’ve created and I’m a fan of the kale Caesar salad.”

2. “I’m a night guy, so one of the most diverse businesses I like to go to for celebrating after hours is the Calabash Bistro (428 Carrall St., Vancouver; calabashbistro.com). Beyond the Caribbean cuisine, I’m a music fan, and it has live music many nights. I’m from the south, so I crave this type of African-American style.”

3. “With my kidney failure I got advice and gave up coffee, which I adore. Now I love going to places that serve chai and I often go for meetings at Bean Around the World (175 West Hastings St., Vancouver; batw.ca), which is on the ground floor in our building. They found salvaged wood for the space, which is great.”