CEO of Wakopa Financial Workers’ Co-operative
Richard Tuck is the CEO of Wakopa Financial, a financial services company focused on social finance and investment readiness. He has started or helped start over 150 organizations from environmental non-profits to mom-and-pop shops to multinational tech companies and uses that experience to teach entrepreneurship and mentor startups across Canada.
Work and impact
How is sustainability/social impact integrated in your work?
That’s what we focus on. We’re a financial services company, but at the heart of it, social finance is our domain expertise. We’re all about impact, specifically. The organizations that we work with are other social entrepreneurs or social ventures, but also marginalized entrepreneurs. In the world of impact and social innovation where we want to see systems change, what we’re looking at is for the next generation to have a little bit more agency over their futures. That agency really comes from entrepreneurship. The reason why we believe entrepreneurship is the key to changing the system is that it’s really the only way that we can create intergenerational wealth and community wealth. Those are the two types of wealth that end the cycle of poverty, nothing else.
What are your past and current areas of focus in a few words?
It’s not just one thing. It’s a whole host of things. But I will say that my two Master’s programs are what prompted me to devote myself to this. The first was an MBA from the University of Alberta. To them, sustainability meant “clean coal”. It was a farce. And I got really mad. So I decided to do another Master’s degree because I was epically disappointed. So I went to France and did what they call Masters of Science in corporate finance. And while the education was fantastic – it was one of their Ivy League “Grandes écoles” – the French professors said, after graduation, if you don’t work for Goldman Sachs you’re doing a disservice to yourself and the school. This was post-2008. I did about 10 years of work experience before I went back to graduate school so I was about 10 years older than the average person and I was just like “Why are you telling these people to do that?” Goldman Sachs is the devil. They shouldn’t exist. They got bailed out. They’re the ones that caused this collapse. So, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we need to stop chasing those metrics, and we need to chase other metrics. And so then I thought: “Okay, I’m smart enough to do a Ph.D. I am going to do this from within. I’m going to change business education from within it.” And so I started doing my Ph.D. in social entrepreneurship. My theory has won awards, but I did not finish my Ph.D. because I was asked to be CEO of a tech company that was impact-based. So I quit my Ph.D. and moved on to that. But that’s where I think the fire came from. My passion started from anger. I was really angry with the U of A. I was really angry with the French professors. Again, the education was really great, but their contextualization of “what is good” was not.
How did you enter this space?
I have a Bachelor’s degree in international business, and one of the professors in my last year took me aside and he said: “You’re not taking my course in the second semester. You’re a Master’s-level student stuck in an undergraduate class. So I’m going to put you in the equivalent at the Master’s level to see what you can do.” And so I did that and learned a lot and loved the experience. It was a great course. I then wrote a paper that was sponsored by the Chilean government. I was asked to go to the Summit of the Americas pre summit in Montreal and represent Chile because I had done this project for them. They loved it. However, I received a grade of 75 on that paper. I was upset because I poured everything into that paper. I was expecting something higher. And my professor said: “Richard, you thought of international business as only being good. And I thought: “My degree is in international business. All you do is talk about the good of it. You’ve never once talked about the bad of it. I haven’t even been exposed to the bad of it.” So that rocked my world because I felt like I was indoctrinated. So I graduated pre-DotCom bubble in 2001, and I applied to nine jobs. I got eight of them. And so then I was trying to figure out which one to take. I took the lowest-paying one, and it took me to Nicaragua. I ended up spending three and a half years there. That changed my life. In conclusion, I just had that feeling of indoctrination. I didn’t want to be indoctrinated. I wanted to see the effects of international business firsthand. And so that’s when I went to Nicaragua and when I knew I wanted to be making a positive impact in the world.
What are you most excited about that has been happening in your industry/field for the past few years?
I think there’s more acceptance of “business for good” in general. A couple of years ago, the Government of Canada announced a social finance fund of $755 million, and that was going to leverage another $1.5bn. And so there are lots of things coming down the pipeline and there’s growing acceptance. What really gets me excited is that there are new ways of thinking about old problems. I sit in a weird crux where I’ve been trained in “traditional finance”, but I look at finance for good, right? When I did my masters thesis, I was looking at dual returns, and I was trying to find a thesis advisor, and everybody said: “Why would you do that?”. I was the first one at school to even talk about it and I had to convince one of my professors to be my thesis advisor. Again, this was way before it began to become mainstream and now I think it is becoming mainstream. For example, instead of looking at affordable housing, because that’s renting that pays off other people’s mortgages, we looked at affordable homeownership, and we asked the question: “How can we leverage already-existing market metrics and mechanics to then provide something a little bit different, but still earn returns for everyone?” So that’s super awesome, and I think there are a bunch of examples like that. Also, we get to see that impact, and we get to see the house being built, and we get to see all that. I think that kind of reality is super cool.
Are there any misconceptions about your profession or industry?
Our biggest problem is the misconception of: “social finance equals philanthropy” And it’s not. It’s, in its own right, making returns and being a good vehicle. For instance, my thesis looked at the economic fall after 2008 and looked at how the dual returns compared to the traditional financial indicators like stock indices. Prior to the collapse, the traditional indicators were outperforming, but during the collapse, the social finance indicators were outperforming. And so if you look at that from a traditional risk management perspective of finance, you could put that into the mix. Don’t look at it as philanthropy. I think some of that needs to happen.
Furthermore, we have community foundations across Canada that raise money and build up a fund, and then they use the returns of that fund to give to charities and nonprofits. I think there’s a misconception that the impact that those funds have is bigger than it actually is. For instance, here in Winnipeg, I think there’s a $1.3 billion fund. So, $1.3 billion is sitting in a fund that is not doing anything good for impact. 1.3 billion dollars. From that $1.3 billion, they give out $90 million or something like that. But if they took the $1.3 billion and put that into impact investing or “shop with their dollars” instead of investing into oil & gas, instead of investing in – and I’m not even joking – in arms manufacturers or other things that contribute to negative initiatives. I think that’s wrong. I think that there’s a misconception that the community foundations endowments are actually a source for good when they’re just as evil as Goldman Sachs.
Life and aspirations
What does a typical workday look like for you? What’s your work-life balance like?
So we have four day work weeks. And while on that fifth day, you can do whatever you want, we, as part of our culture, look at it as a volunteer opportunity. So work-life balance isn’t only work and life, there’s also a volunteer component. I sit on a bunch of boards, I offer free mentorships, and I do a bunch of stuff like that. We’re very flexible with what time you start and end the day. It’s really up to the person. I think this idea that nine to five is what people should be working through is insane. For example, I get up at 5:00am and need to be working by 6, because that’s when I’m productive. On the opposite side of that, at 2 or 3:00pm, I’m done. Right? So there’s lots of flexibility. In terms of a typical day, it includes client meetings, preparing clients for investor pitches, due diligence, and even creating new financial models. It’s mixed between sitting there plugging away at Excel, and talking to people.
What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
Right now, we are really at the forefront of everything. Because of that, when you go and try to talk to people, most of the time it’s over their head. There are just not enough people that get what we do, so that’s difficult. Once they get it, they get it, and it’s awesome. But it takes some time for people to understand. Secondly, it’s been struggling to find people who are more like me. Because of that, and because we’re so busy, it is really difficult to train people. God, if I could solve that one, that would be awesome.
What’s next for you, what are your long-term goals (if you have any)?
We’re trying to build a fund here in Manitoba. Winnipeg doesn’t have one. Manitoba doesn’t have one. And so we’re trying to build one right now which would be really interesting. Again, we are doing unique things using existing market mechanics in order to create an impact. I think that’ll be really interesting if that gets off the ground.
Advice for the next generations
What are 3 key skills required in your position?
You’re going to get hired for your strengths, and I think it’s really important to know that. So, part of me wants to sit there and say, whatever skill you have, it’s probably applicable to my industry, as long as you’re the best at that skill. Then, let’s talk. With that said, you do have to have some competencies in things like Excel. That would really help. However, my partner was a CFO of a big billion-dollar project, and he has no finance background. Just look at what your skills are, try to beef them up, and try to be the best at those skills. You will have somewhere to fit into any company or any industry.
Whether it’s from your own path or the ones from your colleagues and friends who have a similar profession, how important is it to have a specific degree to be able to work in your industry/profession?
Is it easier? Yes. Is it a must-have? No. Especially if you’re young. Unless you have a company that will invest the time to train you on something, then the easiest way is to learn that discipline from education. So, at the end of the day, do I think you have to have a degree? No, do I think it’s a little bit easier? Yeah. It gets you through the door. It’s one of the checks. There’s a basic competency that’s needed. I don’t care how you get the competency, as long as you can prove you have it.
What are some personal characteristics that you value in someone you’re interviewing/working with?
Authenticity. I think that is one of the biggest problems with young people. You get nervous and overthink. It’s almost like we’re programmed through school to think there’s only one answer. You’re either right, or you’re wrong. And then we start believing that that’s the way the world is. So then, you’re coming into interviews and you’re thinking: “I have to say what I think that they want to hear.” Don’t do that. Just be authentic. Be yourself. I think you’re fit for it or you’re not fit for it, and that’s fine, but if you’re not being authentic, you’re never going to get the job. Of course, there are competencies, but you have no idea what the manager, the President, or the CEO is thinking when they’re hiring. Right? You have no idea what their needs are. They could be thinking: “in two years, someone is going to be retiring, I need to find someone.” You have no idea about all of that. Right? So, you’re thinking: “Do I have the answers to fill this one box?” You already got inside the box with your resume. Right? If you’ve gotten to an interview, then you are already inside that box. So concentrate on getting outside of that box.
Knowing what you know now, would you have done something differently with respect to your career? If not, why and what is your best life or career advice for youth?
I will start with career advice. It’s not mine, it’s the advice of the same professor that put me into the master’s level and then gave me 75 on that paper. The professor said:
“Don’t try and rush to be your future self.” He continued: “You know what, Richard? Your degree is going to be there 10 days after you graduate, 10 months after you graduate, and 10 years after you graduate. Do not waste your 20s in consulting. You’ll travel to different countries, and you’ll never see a different city because you’ll be inside a cubicle. They’ll work you 18 hours a day. Yes, you’ll get paid more. But you’re also going to spend more, too.” And I ended up in Nicaragua with the least-paying job. Would I change it? No. I wouldn’t change any of it. Do I have a perfect life? No. Am I happy? Yeah. I like where I’m at. I like the impact I am making. So I think, yeah, don’t try and rush being your future self.