Leila Zakhem: 'Believing in business with a social mission'

Iranian-born Next Gen Leila Zakhem.
In an exclusive interview, the Iranian-born Next Gen talks about family history, the importance of private sector experience in the field of philanthropy and aligning multi-generational values.
By Glen Ferris

Despite being born and raised in Houston, Texas, Leila Zakhem holds close to her Iranian roots, with an ardent belief in the strength of family and the power of education – and the impact of combining the two.

It’s with this surety of support, knowledge and experience, that this driven Next Gen is working with other families and businesses towards achieving maximum social impact.

Having studied at Georgetown and Columbia Universities (the latter being where she achieved an MBA), Leila relocated to London in 2017 to work with Goldman Sachs, meanwhile continuing a decade-plus working relationship with UNICEF and other NGOs. Her experiences in the corporate and philanthropic worlds led Leila to found Full Impact Advisory, a boutique consulting firm working with ultra-high-net worth individuals (UHNWIs), family offices, foundations and corporations to apply private sector business principles to the world of philanthropy and impact investing.

Intent on using, in her own words, “my privilege” to make a positive effect on society using creative solutions and innovative thinking, Leila is helping to reenvisage philanthropy as no longer an ‘add-on’ to family business activities but rather an integrated solution, that brings positive outcomes across the entire value chain.

In an exclusive interview with Campden FB, Leila Zakhem talks about family history, the importance of private sector experience in the field of philanthropy and aligning multi-generational values…


I do think that my philanthropic path is very different from the majority of my family’s.


How did the family business come about?
My grandfather, Akbar Ladjevardian, who sadly passed away last month, wrote a book about a decade ago and in it he recounted how he and his brothers started Behshahr Industrial Group. It was a conglomerate that started with commodity trading and grew into Iran’s largest private employer (without any government ownership whatsoever) prior to the Islamic Revolution… At their height, they had about 24,000 employees and 52 subsidiary companies.

How important was the education and work path you followed to get you where you are today?
After the Islamic Revolution, my grandfather lost about 97% of his wealth. The impact of that loss has made education one of the core pillars in our family. Education was viewed as an asset you could never lose.

My father was one of the first Iranians to go to Deerfield, which is an elite boarding school in the US. He then studied at MIT for his undergraduate degree and went to Harvard Business School. My mother attended Georgetown University where she achieved her undergraduate and Masters degrees.

It goes without saying, education is highly valued in our family. The academic rigour bred a work ethic that then allowed me to compete in professional environments, like Goldman Sachs. It’s the work experience at Goldman that gave me a new level of confidence, professionally. The experience showed me that you can learn anything you put your mind to.

With the Islamic Revolution having decimated Behshahr Industrial Group, how did your family rebuild its wealth?
My grandfather eventually made it to the US after escaping from Iran via horseback through Turkey. He settled in Houston, Texas, where he, his sons and his sons-in-law started anew in real estate and later diversified into manufacturing. Leveraging their entrepreneurial spirit and high caliber education, the family eventually co-founded the largest manufacturer of PVC vertical blinds in the U.S.

UNICEF was Leila's 'Gateway' into the world of impact.

You also have more than a decade’s experience working with UNICEF and NGOs such as Global Citizen, how have those experiences shaped your approach to how you do business?
UNICEF has changed my life. It was my gateway into the world of impact. My first engagement was in support of my mother’s fundraiser when I was 16 years old. Years later, after I joined UNICEF’s NextGen programme and went on my first field visit, I was hooked. I had found my passion and it was to help those in need.

After working with UNICEF for more than a decade and serving as the Global Chair of NextGen, I realised I wanted to continue my work in impact but wanted to approach it through a different lens; the slow-paced nature and bureaucracy of the public sector had me hungry for a more private sector environment. This decision led me to getting my MBA focusing on social entrepreneurship and impact investing. I worked at Global Citizen while getting my MBA - I chose Global Citizen due to its hybrid nature, it’s a non-profit yet it functions as a convener, a production and media entity.  I learned a lot about how varied non-profits could be.

What drives you to work in the field of impactful philanthropy and what makes you the ideal Next Gen to push things forward?
I am driven to work in this space for two reasons: First, I developed a passion for it through my work with UNICEF. My first field visit to Burundi completely opened my eyes to the positive impact one could have on another’s life. I wanted to be able to give this same gift that UNICEF gave me to others. That’s why I work with families and UHNWIs – I want to share my passion with them and help them unlock theirs.

Secondly, I saw an opportunity in the market. I realised the narrative around impact and philanthropy was changing. Philanthropy wasn’t anymore the afterthought to generating wealth. It was no longer a ‘nice to have’. There is a demand around sustainability and impact unlike before and I believe I am well equipped, with both the private and public sector experiences, to support individuals, families and organisations to think about their impact in a more strategic manner. 

This led you to establishing Full Impact Advisory. What were your aims in setting it up?
The goal of Full Impact is twofold: The first is to work closely with our clients and help them achieve the impact they want to have on society, through strategic philanthropy or impact investing. The second, on a macro scale, is to connect our clients to the appropriate players and changemakers to advance their impact on a much-larger scale.

One of the biggest problems in the world of philanthropy is that there are millions of organisations trying to solve very similar issues. My vision for Full Impact is to be able to bring authentic changemakers together and enable them to double down on the impact they're already having through partnership.

For example, we've worked with the WHO Foundation and we're now in conversation with a number of global health corporates to help take their work forward in partnership with one another.


It's no longer enough for a corporation to be focused on the bottom line.


How has your family business embraced your ideas and values?
They haven’t. I believe in integrating my business with a social mission. And that is exactly what I do for our corporate clients. Our family business, however, didn’t combine the two. My grandfather, above all, focused on creating jobs. And separately, the family conducted philanthropic endeavors like building schools in Iran. That was their positive contribution to society. But to be fair, our family business was built in a different time. Business and philanthropy didn’t necessarily go hand in hand. Now, things have changed. In the past two decades, for profit entities must have purpose tied into their mission. It is no longer enough for a corporation to be focused on the bottom line. They need to stand for much more than profits. Their stakeholders, whether it be employees, investors or consumers, are demanding it.

How do you align the aims and values of generational wealth between the older and Next Gens?
It can be very difficult, especially within families of significant wealth and privilege. Unfortunately, money complicates everything and brings a handful of heavy topics to the table, expectations, responsibilities, respect etc. I think philanthropy is a great space to engage family members of different generations. There is a lot of positivity in philanthropic work; it provides a safe space to align, connect and collaborate, leaving behind the wealth-related topics. 

Leila firmly believes that Next Gens are the drivers of the impact movement.

Campden Wealth and BNY Mellon Wealth Management’s 2022 report, The Next Generation Of Wealth Holders In The United States, found that more than half (56%) of Next Gens currently invest sustainably, while 68% assert that sustainable investing has become a permanent feature of the investment landscape. Are Next Gens the primary drivers for impactful and sustainable investment within family business investment?
One thousand per cent… Next Gens are the drivers of the impact movement. What I'm seeing more is not only Next Gens making decisions based on sustainable investment, but many are also starting social entrepreneurial ventures and impact funds. Next Gens are really putting their money where their mouths are.

The same report found that 64% of Next Gens confess that they have an increased awareness of the importance of sustainability, while 56% want to demonstrate that family wealth can be used for positive outcomes. Is this the generation to help turn a corner towards a truly sustainable society?
Again, yes. As mentioned, this generation is fully committed to the impact movement, driving its existence. They are channeling their funds towards it and using their voices to demand it. For example, impact investing is no longer a trend, it is here to stay. People are investing their funds into enterprises that have a positive footprint. In addition, this generation is comprised of the consumers, investors and employees that are demanding corporations to have a social mission and to take a stand. However, I think a ‘truly sustainable society’ will take some time. Despite coming a long way in a short period of time, it will depend on a lot more than just this generation. It depends on government and corporates’ ability to achieve their commitments.

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