Elevate Inclusive Fund Scores a Big Win With a Portland Software Startup

The exit by RFPIO is a success story for an ambitious investment program.

Wildfang (Emily Joan Greene)

Portland's only minority-focused venture fund has seen monumental returns from its first round of investments.

Elevate Inclusive Fund invests in startups founded by women, minorities and veterans, with backing from Portland-area government agencies and private entrepreneurs.

The decision by Prosper Portland and Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith and other local agencies to invest in venture capital raised some eyebrows, but Elevate Capital has seen rapid success.

Take, for example, RFPIO: a request-for-proposal automation software developed by Ganesh Shankar. The startup received $50,000 from Elevate Inclusive Fund and $500,000 from Elevate Capital Fund in 2016.

In July, RFPIO received $25 million from Los Angeles-based private equity firm K1 Investment Management, giving Elevate an early exit with significant returns.

RFPIO's software is now used by companies including Adobe and LinkedIn. "It's a dream come true," says Shankar. "It's not common for a company for a company to grow this much in two years. It shows how needed the product is."

The exit is a big win for an ambitious investment program.

Prosper Portland, the economic development agency for City Hall, launched the Inclusive Fund in 2015 with $500,000 from the agency, $500,000 from Multnomah County, and a $250,000 commitment from Governor Kate Brown and Business Oregon.

The agency selected Elevate Capital, led by Portland financier Nitin Rai, as the management team for the Inclusive Fund. The group made their first investments in 2016 with $3 million in public and private funds for Elevate Inclusive Fund and $10 million in Elevate Capital Fund. Elevate has now invested more than $5 million in 23 startups.

"A lot of the work [of Prosper Portland] stems from a major shift we made three years ago in our strategic plan," says Tory Campbell, Manager of Entrepreneurship and Community Economic Development. The shift made equity a central priority for the agency.

The county funds came from an amendment Smith had added to the county budget, which earmarked funds for minority-run startups. At a summit hosted by Elevate Capital on Oct. 12, Smith spoke about the lack of second chances given to minority entrepreneurs.

"Women and people of color, we don't get to fail," Smith said. "We gotta get it right the first time."

Elevate Capital's 23 other investments include salad shop chain Garden Bar; clothing brand Wildfang; cosmetics company Hue Noir, which focuses on makeup for women of color; and PacLab analytics, which tests cannabis potency.

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