The Secret Behind Louisville's Economic Boom

Bryce Butler
SourceCourtesy of Bryce Butler

The Secret Behind Louisville's Economic Boom

By James Watkins


Because what plays in Louisville doesn’t have to stay in Louisville.

By James Watkins

Bryce Butler has the sort of résumé that you’d make up at a party and nobody would believe you. At the age of 35, the Oklahoma native is already a military veteran, a former pastor and a university lecturer. He has co-founded an iOS app company and produced a documentary about Guatemalan breakdancers that premiered at the United Nations. He even holds a couple of degrees, in economics and theology. These days, though, he’s focusing on his role as a leading figure in America’s local impact-investing movement.

Butler describes his four-year-old company, Access Ventures, as a “community investment fund that integrates grants, debt and equity as a way to reimagine a community.” It invests in social enterprises, facilitates loans to entrepreneurs shut out of traditional financing, redevelops rundown real estate to provide affordable housing and makes grants to local programs. The holding company is technically a nonprofit, so returns on investments are “recycled” back into the community, says Butler. The fund concentrates on Louisville, Kentucky, with major interests in Columbus, Ohio, and an equity portfolio that extends across the U.S. Over the past two years, Butler has tapped into his $20 million war chest, which was largely raised from a few prominent local families, to invest in a dozen businesses and offer loans to another dozen. Last year the Global Impact Investment Rating System rewarded Access Ventures’ good works by naming it one of the 50 best-for-the-world funds.

Butler traces his commitment to social enterprise back to his Christian faith, which helps him to “think about the injustices of this world and say this isn’t how it should be,” he says. He graduated from Iowa State University on an ROTC scholarship after spending most of his childhood moving from city to city, following his father’s military career — the line of military officers in his family stretches back to the Civil War. The Army shipped him off to South Korea, where he spent 18 months as leader of a tank platoon near the North Korean border. He was 22 years old and his second-in-command was his father’s age — “kind of a weird dynamic,” Butler recalls, but it also was “a real opportunity to grow as a leader.” After traveling around southeast Asia and witnessing the effects of poverty and war firsthand, “I came back [to the U.S.] and said, ‘OK, the world is not as it should be. So what can I do to help?’ ” It was a mission that called him to the ministry and would later encourage him to adopt a daughter from China — the middle of his three young daughters. After realizing that preaching wasn’t for him, Butler employed his military experience to do strategic planning in a number of short-term projects — a friend’s tech startup and that film project in Guatemala, titled BBoy for Life.

Now that we have a Republican house, senate and governor, the idea of harnessing the power of the private sector to meet social needs is very appealing.

Jerry Miller, Kentucky State Representative

After working with a family office to manage social-impact investments, Butler saw an opportunity in real estate in the Shelby Park neighborhood of Louisville, where 40 percent of residents live in poverty and poor-quality housing is controlled by “slumlords” charging exploitative rents, says Butler. To date, Access Ventures has purchased 14 formerly vacant or abandoned homes and also owns commercial property, including a local coworking space.

A couple of years in, the company expanded into microloans and direct investment, extending finance to companies like Hot Chicken Takeover, a Columbus-based restaurant and food truck that, aside from selling Nashville-style hot chicken, is also about “building job opportunities for people who just need a fair chance at work,” says social entrepreneur Joe DeLoss. Seventy percent of its 50 employees are formerly incarcerated. “A huge part of the value of Access Ventures has been their network of others similar to us,” says DeLoss, who met the founders of Scarlet’s Bakery, a Louisville-based cupcake shop that employs women out of the sex industry, through Access’s portfolio. The funding and support from Access, as well as Butler’s personal mentorship, have been “pivotal to the success of the business,” says DeLoss.

Butler is among a small group steering social entrepreneurship and impact investment into nontraditional geographies. “The stigma of Kentucky is that it’s backward, it’s poor and public benefit [corporations] are a coastal thing,” says Republican State Representative Jerry Miller, who has worked with Butler to garner support for a local bill that will legally accommodate social enterprises. “Now that we have a Republican house, senate and governor, the idea of harnessing the power of the private sector to meet social needs is very appealing,” he says.

While some remain skeptical that below-market funds can provide sustainable and long-term solutions for entrepreneurs, these programs can help to “graduate entrepreneurs who are currently excluded into the financial mainstream,” says Jonny Price from Kiva, a crowdfunded impact-investment platform that works with Access Ventures to extend microloans to entrepreneurs in Louisville and Columbus.

Impact investors like to talk of a spectrum between unadulterated capitalism and pure charity; Butler likes the term venture philanthropy to describe where his company fits on that scale. While real estate investments have outperformed expectations, it’s still too early to assess the overall financial performance of the Access Venture fund. Regardless, “we’ve already seen huge social returns in the community,” says Butler. It may not be the sole solution to anemic economic growth among America’s urban poor, but it’s a start.