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Joanna Kuang: Building Tools to Help Investors Be More Equitable and Inclusive

Joanna Kuang: Building Tools to Help Investors Be More Equitable and Inclusive


Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, and Changemakers who are advancing the UN SDGs.

Spiffy here! I’m back with the scoop on the entrepreneurial leaders of Planet Earth. As the only interplanetary journalist stationed on this blue planet, I’m thrilled to present this galactic exclusive with Joanna Kuang, SVP of product development and impact at Illumen Capital. Let’s see what she is doing to make a positive impact in the world.

Spiffy: Thanks for joining me, Joanna! Tell me, what challenges are you addressing through your organization?

Joanna: It’s great to be here, Spiffy! Illumen Capital’s mission is to reduce racial and gender bias in investing and entrepreneurship. In other words, the challenge we address is to increase racial and gender diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in who is hired as an investor and which entrepreneurs or founders get investment dollars. Illumen does this by working with investors to identify and reduce their own biases and then subsequently coaching investors to implement new initiatives and actions to increase diverse representation and make investing more equitable.

Spiffy: Very inspiring! What motivated you to do it?

Joanna: In college, I spent a summer working at a Freedom School in the Mississippi Delta that had incredible education outcomes for students of color but received very limited philanthropic funding to stay afloat. I saw how important financial and social capital was in making an impact on these students. My dad, an immigrant from China who received US citizenship under refugee status, worked on Wall Street. So, I was aware of the impact that investment dollars could make. I committed my career to working in impact investing, ultimately so I could use my privilege and skillset to remove barriers for women of color to build wealth.

Spiffy: How would you say that your organization is working towards a more equitable world?

Joanna: Illumen builds tools to help investors be more equitable and inclusive. For example, Illumen’s two-page “how-to” guides cover topics such as “how to write an equitable job description.” We use a very thorough impact measurement framework to understand whether Illumen is succeeding in creating a more equitable world. This includes measuring data such as the diversity of investment firms, the diversity of founders receiving investment dollars, people’s opinions and attitudes, and whether their biases are evolving or being reduced.

Spiffy: Tell me about a recent organizational milestone or initiative. What impact does it make on your audience or community?

Joanna: Recently, Illumen Capital published its third impact report which was used to share successes and learnings with investors and the broader industry and to set the tone for others to share diversity data more broadly and transparently. One of Illumen’s key initiatives is the collection and sharing of qualitative data on people’s mindsets towards DEI. Collecting this data moves the focus from solely diverse representation in this moment of time to understanding whether people’s mindsets are changing in the long run. Illumen hopes to change people’s mindsets and see a positive year-over-year change in confidence or actions taken so that investors embed DEI into their day-to-day work for the foreseeable future.

Spiffy: That’s amazing! Tell me about an inspiring startup that your organization has helped to advance its impact.

Joanna: One fund that Illumen invested in focuses on education technology startups aimed at improving education access for under-resourced students. Illumen helped advance the impact of this fund by supporting them in building a more equitable investment process. For example, in introductory conversations, the fund developed standardized questions to ask every founder. Research shows that men and women get asked different questions by investors, where men are given more opportunities to talk about upside and potential, while women are asked disproportionately about risks or downside. Creating a process of standardized questions gives founders the same opportunities to share about their company.

Spiffy: Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?

Joanna: Outside of my work at Illumen Capital, I serve on the board of my undergraduate scholarship, the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program, which paid for me to attend college at both Duke University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The Robertson is also what exposed me to my work in the Mississippi Delta and I’m grateful to the program for continuing to center values-based leadership at the core of its mission.

Spiffy: Thanks for speaking with me today, Joanna—it’s been an honor!

Joanna Kuang is the SVP of product development and impact at Illumen Capital. She has dedicated her career to expanding access to capital in pursuit of inclusive justice for and alongside under-resourced people of color and women. Joanna has worked at various impact investing organizations, earned a BA in mathematics from Duke University, and is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who loves reading, pickleball, and art. (First published on the Ladderworks website on November 27, 2023.)

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Ladderworks LLC.

© 2023 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Sujit Kunte. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Launchpad: Creative Entrepreneurship Workshops for K-3 Kids and their caregivers here.