Luni Libes’ Fledge accelerator takes flight as socially conscious investing keeps growing

Michael “Luni” Libes, founder of Fledge. (Fledge Photo)

Michael “Luni” Libes did not want to launch another tech company.

Over two decades, he’d been involved with five software startups, founding or co-founding four of them. When his Seattle-based mobile analytics company Ground Truth underwent a merger in 2011, he decided to try something else. Libes had been involved with Bainbridge Graduate Institute (now Presidio Graduate School), a program focused on how to use capitalism for social and environmental benefit. He saw a different path for himself.

“Carnegie and Gates did it wrong,” said Libes, citing two of the world’s most famous business moguls turned philanthropists. “You don’t have to first get rich before you do good in the world. You can do both at the same time.”

So in 2012, Libes launched Fledge, a startup accelerator that focuses on socially conscious, mission-driven, for-profit companies. The format is similar to the Techstars accelerator, but eschews the tech focus. Selected companies, known as “fledglings,” enroll in a two-month accelerator program and receive a $15,000-to-$20,000 investment in exchange for revenue-based equity. The startups are expected to buy back the equity from the program over time.

Libes, who is also an author, additionally operates a nonprofit called Realize Impact that allows people to make philanthropic investments in socially conscious companies. The organization recently announced a partnership with Decarbon8, a new effort to support startups combating climate change. Libes also co-founded, which help impact investors network.

Map illustrating the reach of Fledge and locations of affiliated organizations. (Fledge Image)

Fledge, which started in Seattle, now operates in 10 locations internationally and has raised and invested more than $3 million. While there aren’t readily available metrics around socially conscious investing, Libes said the sector keeps growing with no sign of slowing down. In the latest round, Seattle’s Fledge had 842 accelerator applicants from 45 countries. Nine made the cut.

Fledge was nominated this year for GeekWire’s Geeks Give Back Award.

In a surprising twist, most of the current applicants to Seattle’s Fledge are businesses from developing countries, with many based in Africa. Participants include a startup in Ghana offering a digital vaccine subscription service for farm animals, an East African fruit and vegetable processor, and Briotech, a Woodinville, Wash. business that sells an environmentally friendly disinfectant.

“There are all these amazing companies in the world that can make good things happen, and there is more need for that in Africa than in Seattle,” Libes said. “They need everything in Africa; we only need some things in Seattle.”

We caught up with Libes for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: I live on Bainbridge Island, west of Seattle. I run the Seattle accelerator (when it comes to town) and (when it was possible) fly around to the other cities to help teach the “fledglings” there, too.

Computer types: I learned to code on an Apple ][+ (the stylized spelling of Apple II Plus), bought my first Mac in 1985. My three screens are an Air, iPad Mini and iPhone.

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: When I started my first startup in my Queen Anne apartment in Seattle in 1992, we had a dial-up modem and an account at Halcyon for email. Coming from Carnegie Mellon, it was a culture shock to not have a 24/7 internet connection and everyone on email. No commercial web yet. No cell phones. We did have a fax machine.

Fast forward 30 years, and now it’s possible to build and operate a global company from my couch at home. WordPress and Mailchimp make that possible. Adobe and its Creative Cloud make it look professional. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn help spread awareness. Gusto is so much better than paper forms for paying payroll.

Until recently, Libes did some of his work out of Seattle Impact Hall, formerly known as Impact Hub Seattle, one of the city’s early co-working spaces. The space recently closed, due in part to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Luni Libes Photo)

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? Pre-pandemic, I had three workspaces: my living room, Impact Hub Seattle and the ferry in between. Except for the surroundings, they don’t really vary much as 80% of my work is online, in email or Zoom or reviewing Word or PowerPoint docs. The rest of the time is face-to-face mentoring entrepreneurs or sitting in an airplane on my way to do the face-to-face time in another city or continent.

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Between Fledge and my nonprofit and a handful of other side activities, I have at least a dozen email addresses. All but my personal email flows into one Gmail account. Work and life blend together as I work my way through that incoming stream of conversations. More often than not, that stream flows while I sit in my living room, interacting with my wife and kids as they physically walk by.

In short, what I’ve found isn’t a work-life balance, it is instead an understanding that some tasks are required for work and some for home, and some for self, and they can all be blended together (most of the time, with the exceptions being when too much has been promised in too short a time).

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? LinkedIn. A lot of my work is networking. A lot of that is connecting investors with graduates. A lot are incoming introductions. Trying to do that without LinkedIn is like trying to be an airline pilot without air traffic control or runways.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? 49, but at least one third of those are emails from me as to-dos. I’ve never managed to find a to-do list I like, but instead just let my inbox serve that function, too.

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 12. That is pretty quiet.

Everyday work routine? No two days are the same. My job is to help entrepreneurs. Hundreds of them. There is always a new problem someone is dealing with, and often a new opportunity someone is working on. Then the year has a rhythm, with Fledge Seattle each spring, The Land Accelerator in Nairobi each fall, and a few other cities to visit in between. This year the rhythm has changed, with online weekly classes, but that is reminiscent of years past when I was teaching MBAs weekly while running two Fledge Seattles per year.

A beach on Bainbridge Island, located west of Seattle in Puget Sound. (Photo courtesy of Luni Libes)

How do you make time for family? I make it a priority to eat with my family nearly every day, even when I’m not working from home. I don’t work Saturdays and historically don’t start my workweek until Sunday night after the younger kids go to sleep.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? I read economics books and try and understand how money really works. Or I stop at the UW engineering library and take out 20 pounds of books on topics I have little-to-no-knowledge of. For me, unplugging involves thinking about problems unrelated to those at work and life.

What are you listening to? Podcasts. For a bit of fun, check out “Searching the Closet” on iTunes.

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? New York Times, Washington Post, Flipboard, Quora

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? My nightstand suffers from Tsundoku (a Japanese term that refers to accumulating reading materials that pile up, but go unread). The top of the pile is “Americana” by Bhu Srinivasan. Under that is Sam Zell’s autobiography “Am I Being Too Subtle,” Hans Rosling’s last book, “Factfulness,” and a UW book on low energy lunar transfer orbits.

Night owl or early riser? Night owl, but adjusted to parenthood with a midnight-8 a.m. sleep schedule. Pre-kids it was 2-10 a.m.

Where do you get your best ideas? 2 a.m. insomnia, half-asleep in the morning, in the shower, or walking to and from the ferry.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? I like what Apple’s Steve Jobs accomplished, but not how he accomplished it. Similarly, I like what Tesla’s Elon Musk makes, but have no respect for how he manages others or his lack of humility. If I’m forced to choose someone, I’d pick John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods and founder of Conscious Capitalism. But that again is based on his accomplishments. I’ve no idea his actual management style.

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