Marin Sonoma Impact Ventures bets on local startups

A business venture with a dual goal of helping startups in Marin and Sonoma counties with networking and financing needs has been gaining momentum since launching at the height of the pandemic.

Marin Sonoma Impact Ventures formed in April 2020 and debuted two months later on Zoom. It started by signing up 30 local entrepreneurs, according to Zachary Kushel, founder and managing partner of the Corte Madera-based company.

“We now have 110 local founders — CEOs of young startup companies who are saying, ‘I don't want to build in a vacuum,’” Kushel said. MSIV also currently has 38 local C-level executives that have signed on to help mentor the local founders, he noted.

MSIV has set up an investment portfolio that so far includes three businesses. The company is set to hold its first large in-person event later this month to bring together company founders, executives, investors and local leaders involved in Kushel’s venture.

Kushel calls MSIV a social enterprise, which he describes as a for-profit business with a social mandate. MSIV has a combined goal of growing the counties’ entrepreneurial community through networking, mentorship, capital investment and job creation.

“I think what's different about MSIV than other past efforts in the North Bay that have had a focus on local economic development is that none of them have been driven out of the private sector,” Kushel said, adding prior efforts have come from the government, nonprofits or academia. “That’s certainly not a bad thing. It's just that it becomes very different when you are harnessing the power of the private sector to make public good.”

Kushel said he believes MSIV is growing because of its specific focus on the two counties, whose entrepreneurs have largely been overshadowed by the bigger players in the Greater Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

Kushel, who previously served as head of business development at Glassdoor in Mill Valley, also has held leadership positions at a number of other companies, including Cisco Systems in San Jose; and SmithRx in San Francisco.

He has been steeped in his own research for years, finding that Marin and Sonoma counties’ entrepreneurs ought to be commanding more attention than they’ve been getting, he said.

“Local startups are undercapitalized, and I think starting to fix that is a big deal,” Kushel said.

In October, MSIV launched what Kushel said was the “first-ever regional venture capital fund that's focused entirely on making investments in Marin and Sonoma counties’ startup companies.” He continues to raise funds but declined to provide details.

MSIV’s dual mandate of building a startup community and creating an investment portfolio so far has resulted in its making investments in three local businesses, Kushel said. Those business are Novi, a Larkspur-based technology platform for the consumer packaged goods sector; Finalis, an investment banking firm based in Corte Madera; and New Retirement, a financial planning technology solution in Mill Valley.

Marin Sonoma Impact Ventures has partnerships with the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce; Sonoma State University’s School of Business and Economics; the Barowsky School of Business at Dominican University of California in San Rafael; and Marin Economic Forum. Kushel sits on the board of advisers at Dominican University and the board of directors at Marin Economic Forum.

“Marin Sonoma Impact Ventures works with us as a collaborator in terms of sharing data, sharing strategies and inputs into initiatives that the county might be pursuing that meet the objectives of strengthening the economy,” said Mike Blakeley, CEO of Marin Economic Forum, a 501(c)3 public benefit organization.

Blakeley and Kushel first connected shortly after MSIV launched, and in August 2020, during the height of the pandemic, co-wrote a commentary that stressed the need to leverage the North Bay community’s resources and expertise to help support promising new local ventures. Their piece appeared in the Aug. 17, 2020 edition of the Business Journal.

Other partnerships Kushel has formed are still gaining steam. Those collaborations are directly focused on supporting the startup founders.

“We've been acquainted (with MSIV) for a couple of years, but haven't necessarily had the opportunity to work closely yet,” Ethan Brown, interim executive director of Sonoma County Economic Development Board said, noting he plans to learn more at North Bay NEXT, MSIV’s inaugural conference set for May 17 at Dominican University. “We're looking at how to better increase awareness of what they’re doing up here in Sonoma County at this point.”

Jean-Francois Coget, dean of the School of Business and Economics at SSU, said in an email statement that the school and MSIV have “vowed to collaborate and cooperate in helping create a supportive environment for entrepreneurship to thrive in the North Bay region. We haven’t yet implemented any specific project.”

The San Rafael Chamber of Commerce joined MSIV as a community partner last year, said Joanne Webster, president. And Cynthia Murray, president and CEO of North Bay Leadership Council, said the capital investment portion of MSIV’s business is particularly important.

“When we look at how to make the North Bay economically competitive and foster economic vitality, having MSIV giving these companies the financial assistance and coaching they need to start up brings great opportunity to our region,” Murray said in an email statement. “MSIV is filling a big void and couldn’t have come at a better time as we look at strengthening our economic recovery from the pandemic and the other cris(es) we are experiencing.”

Pedro Moura, cofounder and CEO of Flourish Fi, a technology company whose financial wellness app uses fun and entertainment to encourage people to save money, joined MSIV earlier this year purely for the networking component.

“Finding like-minded individuals is very important to me,” said Moura, whose company licenses its proprietary platform to banks, which in turn offer the app to customers.

Moura and co-founder Jessica Eting, who serves as chief operating officer, launched Flourish Fi in 2018 in Silicon Valley. The company has since gone 100% remote, with most workers distributed across the U.S., Brazil and Latin America; and Mexico, he said.

Moura, however, is based in Petaluma, which affords him the opportunity for in-person meetings.

“I've been able to be introduced with folks that have built technology companies around the financial services industry, and that have scaled those organizations,” Moura said. “As founders in the early journey of the company, it's important to have access to people who have done it.”

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at or 707-521-4259.

This story has been updated to reflect that Finalis is based in Corte Madera.

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