(Amy Cavenaile/The Washington Post; iStock)

The last time Nathalie Molina Niño set up a retirement savings account, she wanted to stash her money in an ethical portfolio, one that could improve the planet — and her net worth. She clicked a button that would attach her 401(k) to companies that rejected, say, pollution and sweatshop labor.  A message appeared: Expect lower than market returns.

Molina Niño, a serial entrepreneur, recalls frowning. So, doing good amounted to charity?

She had noticed a similar quandary with investing efforts meant to boost women-owned enterprisesThe reason why, she said, boils down to math: An investor who exclusively backs female-run start-ups, a slim minority in the business world, is less likely to reap jackpot returns than someone who puts their money behind a broader range of companies. 

"The pool of possibilities is just smaller," Molina Niño said. "If you have good intentions, and you say, 'I only want to help women founders,' you're less likely to hit the next unicorn, the next Google."

Molina Niño, 40, just unveiled a project she believes will lift women and yield profit: a holding company called BRAVA Investments. She hopes it will become the new model for socially responsible investing, a way to do good while making money. BRAVA aims to create a billion-dollar portfolio from scratch by bankrolling start-ups on one condition: The businesses must disproportionately benefit women.

Research shows gender bias stymies female founders in Silicon Valley and beyond. Women led only 8 percent of the 205 companies that received between $3 million and $15 million in the San Francisco Bay area last year, according to the Female Founders Fund. Molina Niño, who launched her first web company at 21 and has worked in technology for the past two decades, said the scene is a boy's club.

"Most of the venture capitalists are white men," she said, "and they tend to give money to people who remind them of themselves."

That's why funds that target women-run firms have popped up over the years -- to help right a social wrong, and to toss cash at good ideas that might be otherwise overlooked. They've helped entrepreneurs get off the ground, Molina Niño said, but they don't exactly generate billions.

Her method targets women at the bottom of the economic ladder, who might not have resources to pursue corner-office aspirations. Making women wealthier as a gender, she said, would give them more cushion to explore their passions and hone their skills. Sustained profit, she's betting, could attract non-social justice warriors to her cause.

BRAVA’s structure borrows from Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett's monster conglomerate that owns Dairy Queen, Fruit of the Loom and Helzberg Diamonds — the roster is long and diverse. Buffett, 86, has said he built his fortune by backing businesses “forever,” as opposed to supplying shorter-term funds. As the companies grew, so did shareholders’ pockets.

Molina Niño envisions building similar relationships. Here’s how it works: BRAVA will pick up companies that already churn out profit but need a serious cash infusion to reach their potential. The average investment would be between $10 million and $15 million, she predicts, though the company could occasionally give smaller amounts to newbie enterprises with special potential. (BRAVA is currently accepting money from friends-and-family investors, Molina Niño said, and aims to pick a handful of investments next year.)

Nathalie Molina Nino. (Photo courtesy of Brava Investments)

One start-up on the shortlist digitizes medical-device prescriptions, a process that often relies on handwriting, and is therefore prone to error. Molina Niño said she realizes this concept is not sexy. But she’ll consider backing it if the founder can prove the majority of people who use crutches, for example, are women, and that they'd ultimately save money because of his business.

Another contender for BRAVA funds updates factory conditions so that manufacturers can meet the standards necessary for green certifications, the kind that would help them ink deals with brands like Nike. The firm would be eligible if the founder can show most of the workers are female, and that they make a living wage.

In the United States, women on average earn less income than men and hold fewer leadership positions across virtually all industries. Last year, female workers in full-time jobs typically took home 79 cents for every dollar paid to men — a figure economists say can be explained by both career choice and discrimination. Disparities persist even among men and women in the same roles.  And women slip into poverty at higher rates than men, often when they’re responsible for children.

Molina Niño drew inspiration for BRAVA from her childhood and her two-decade career in technology. She grew up in Los Angeles, where her mother pushed aside college dreams to work as a supermarket cashier; their family needed the health insurance. She started her first web company at 20.

Molina Niño wonders what women like her mother could achieve if they generated as much wealth as men. Even those with Ivy League degrees and promising business models, she said, struggle to attract as much capital as their male counterparts in Silicon Valley. Progress crawls, a 2014 study found. Over the past 15 years, the amount of early-stage investment in companies with a woman on the executive team has grown from 5 percent to 15 percent.

BRAVA has found support from financial and philanthropic juggernauts. One partner is Howard Buffett, grandson of the Berkshire Hathaway billionaire. Another is Trevor Neilson, co-founder of the Global Philanthropy Group, which advises charity-running celebrities, including Madonna and Angelina Jolie.

Molina Niño met Neilson at a Utah technology retreat a couple years ago, as he worked with Buffett to develop (i)x, a socially conscious holding company with a focus on clean energy, water scarcity and sustainable agriculture. They discovered their values aligned and decided to work together on BRAVA, with Molina Niño at the helm. 

“We wanted to take a step back and invest in what we thought actually creates meaningful change,” said Neilson, (i)x’s chief executive, “with the belief that change will create top-tier returns.”

Both entities harbor world-changing ambitions. Whether they will pay off for humanity or investors remains to be seen, though. Neither Molina Niño nor Neilson will disclose how much money they’ve raised.

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