A conversation with an ex-financier doing good

January 26, 2023

In this episode, Legislate meets Mani Singh, ex financier doing good. Mani is an investor advisor, but also consults through his firm, Mani Singh Consulting, focused on social inequality and sustainability globally.

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Charles Brecque: Welcome to the Legislate podcast. The place to learn about the latest trends, insights, in property, technology, business building, and contract drafting. Today, we have a fantastic guest Mani Singh ex financier, now doing good. Mani is an investor, advisor, but also consults through his firm focused on social inequality and sustainability globally. Mani, welcome to the podcast.

Mani Singh: Thank you for having me on Charles and thanks for the intro.

Charles Brecque: The Legislate podcast is a place to talk about your experience. So maybe would you like to start by introducing yourself?

The story behind Mani Singh Consulting

Mani Singh: I'll have a funny story too. So my firm is called Mani Singh Consulting with speaking contracts as well. So my funny story is that the reason why it's called Mani Singh Consulting is because of a very rushed contract where I was asked by a client, how I wanted to be referred to on the contract and they put my name and then they just put the consulting on the side. So that ties back into contracts. However, what can I say about me? So ex finance. Yeah. As you said, I used to run a sub fund for a hedge fund group. A very successful hedge fund group. Thereafter I've worked around the world with all sorts of NGOs. In a voluntary capacity or as an advisory capacity, eventually that spun off into its own sort of investment and a consulting firm as of a few years ago. Which is, as you mentioned, is focused on sustainability and social inequality and making systems level changes and investments that can achieve great things in the world.

Charles Brecque: How did you find that transition from finance to sustainability?

Mani Singh: Ooh. So I'd always, alongside working in finance, I had always been volunteering whatever skills I could to the third sector, so to charities. And it was something that inherently was in me and I knew that's what I wanted to do. And I think because I had done it alongside, it was a lot easier, but I could see how it would be perceived by those in the NGO and the charity world that someone who comes in with a very different sort of mindset and they think that you're coming in with a very corporate mindset and very ruthless that it might not necessarily be a skill for that world. However what has happened is that I think that sector has been moving at pace and modernising and is coming to understanding things in a not necessarily a ruthless way to ideation and building solutions, which aren't typical of reliance and philanthropy. And I think these kinds of skills that people from alternative sectors and the cross-pollination of finance and the NGOs, I think is making for a very exciting world when it comes to impact and social inequality and sustainability solutions.

Charles Brecque: So essentially your practical skills from finance are leading to impact.

Mani Singh: Yeah, I would say so. I think that you can achieve more when you have a wide array of skills, as opposed to just one sort of specific mindset, and then you've come in and it's like any sector, there needs to be cross-pollination. And previously people have been so siloed that the cross-pollination never happens. And then solutions always come from one place. And now society is changing and we're not pigeonholing people for their entire lives into one specific sector.

What's been your favourite moment so far?

Charles Brecque: Sure. And so how many years have you been doing this and what's been your favourite moment so far?

Mani Singh: So in terms of the actual advisory with NGOs, I have been doing since, probably around 13-14 years and in again, over that period, I have seen a very wide choice, a wide array of solutions. The number one thing that I think I've worked on and I felt very happy that I achieved was an early on blended finance model of access to water for rural communities in India. But it was quite interesting because we worked with a mining group that was operating in the area alongside the government, alongside the NGO. And I think it was to deliver a rural water access for some 40,000 people in the end but it was just one of those earliest when this was gathering steam as an area, but it was early on in my area of blended finance solutions and a coming together of different industries.

Charles Brecque: Impressive. So you've had a foot in the door whilst you were still in finance. When you jumped over fully, were there any misconceptions or things that you thought you knew that ended up being different?

Mani Singh: It wasn't necessarily misconceptions. I think how I had viewed the sector, looking at it from an outsider was that it was very bureaucratic and it was very difficult to achieve things. And sometimes people weren't willing to think in an agile way to come to a final solution, but. I think as I immersed myself in the sector, as opposed to being an outsider, you understand why these things, why these practices have existed for so long in these arts, certain fashions. And that's because there has been no sort of systems level change to force a change in thinking. Or a change in the way that even governments finance these problems, or even philanthropy is going through a change now, but it's coming quite late because philanthropy tends to not mitigate problems, but tends to just continue to exacerbate problems. Without mitigating through a solution. And I think philanthropy as well as going through a big change in itself.

Charles Brecque: Okay. And in terms of where you see yourself now, where do you see Mani Singh Consulting in three, five years?

Mani Singh: The point of Mani Singh Consulting is that it's ideological and it's supposed to work. As I've said alongside big institutions to force through that systems level change. The ideal goal is that something like Mani Singh Consulting wouldn't exist because eventually everyone would look to the thought leaders that have worked alongside us that have put in solutions into place that it means that someone like us isn't necessary to change a society or sort of corporate level thinking. So that would be my goal. However, in three to five years, do I see that happening? No, because I think we're very slow in this progression towards not necessarily an ideal world, but more so a holistic understanding of development and the economy and various other things. So in three to five years, ideally, it wouldn't exist. But I do think that it's still going to be there. And I think there's always going to be a role of people who bring alternative thought and look at things not necessarily in the traditional management consulting way, or even looking at investments and be able to look at things as both being impact and willing to take the longer term horizons of an investment as opposed to a typical VC and perhaps some haircuts to begin with the investment itself.

What are the key contracts you interact with the most?

Charles Brecque: Interesting. So you mentioned that the original name, which is obviously your name and was thanks to a rushed contract. What are the contracts that you interact with the most today?

Mani Singh: The contracts that I interact with the most are NDAs. And then it's always the sort of, as I've alluded to blended finance contracts which are inevitably very complex solutions. NDAs from all around the world and in an ideal world, you wouldn't necessarily have so many different ones, you wouldn't really have the need for a legal advisor for an NDA in every jurisdiction and to have a knowledge of it and I think that, yes, the NDAs are the number one thing that I interact with all the time in terms of something that I sign which I think could be something that could be of disrupted and made into a much more simplified version and this is where you take your cue Charles to speak about NDAs.

Charles Brecque: At the moment with Legislate. Our focus is on England and Wales. We haven't yet thought too much about how we internationalise or treat each jurisdiction's respective requirements and wants. Obviously, each jurisdiction will have their own form of confidentiality agreement, but we definitely have the ambition to scale globally. One thing we try to do regardless is to keep everything simple and easy to understand. Both because then people will actually read and understand what they can and can't do. And it just makes the whole process much smoother and easier for everyone involved, for both the disclosers and the recipients of confidential information. You mentioned NDAs, are there any common objections or I imagine if you're receiving NDAs from all over the world that there must be some peculiarities, which you've come across?

Mani Singh: Again specifically in different jurisdictions, but there are often some things which stump you or the language that stumps you that you do need to then seek some sort of legal advice if ever some problem arose. I tend to find with NDAs they follow a very archaic language and a pattern in post sort of colonial areas of the world. And they are by design made to be so complex that I think when someone wants to just read and understand, that it's problematic because you couldn't, you know how we colloquially speak. It's just not understandable and it's not feasible. So you do have to then pay for someone to explain certain terms for you and that's why you have to, often in the consulting world, keep a legal advisor on board at all times for that very reason.

Charles Brecque: That makes sense. And you mentioned blended finance contracts. It'd be very helpful if you could explain to our audience what a blended finance contract is, why you would use one and the key terms of one.

Mani Singh: So a blended finance contract is usually one which happens between an NGO, a capital market participant, usually a VC or private equity firm. And they'll usually be some component or consortium of government or philanthropic funding within it. The way that a blended contract is supposed to work is the VC usually has a component of capital, which they are willing to put up, but they're wanting to put it up at a similar risk as they would to their other portfolio investments. Usually when it comes to the social impact space and usually with quite unproven enterprises, especially when they're from NGOs. That's very complicated because you can't deliver on the same returns and trying to be able to offset the risk is very difficult as well. That's when you need to get the lawyers involved to be able to structure a deal alongside obviously people who are structures by profession in finance and allows fair terms for all of the parties involved and to meet all of the different sort of requirements of each of the capital tranches and everyone to come from it thinking, okay, they feel secure enough against the risk to be able to take part in this deal. And they're usually involved in huge sort of civil infrastructure projects and usually we're talking, blended finance contracts- usually, we're talking upwards of $10 million a contract. So everyone does want to feel secure to a certain extent if they're going into that level. And they can go into the billions. That's why it’s very important to have this kind of legal structure beneath them.

Charles Brecque: I imagine the objections in a blended finance contract are mainly around risk and who bears what.

Mani Singh: So they are about the risk, and they're also about the return. So how is the return going to be divvied up between all of the parties and at what point can each one of those parties take whatever sort of dividend or if there's an exit and how it's not all going to be construed. So it's both in the entry and the exit point of the contract, but it becomes quite complex again, to be able to have all these parties, satiated by whatever terms that they want to go in with.

Charles Brecque: And in terms of NDAs blended finance contracts, you've mentioned complexity is one thing that you find to be a problem. Are there any other common patterns that could be solved?

Mani Singh: Complexity. Especially with NDAs. It's the volume of NDAs that surely must go out around the world on a daily basis, if there was a uniform system or someone like Legislate who is able to come in and just standardise a process of NDAs in terms of saving time and capital of everyone involved, that would be a huge disruption. With growth potential, multiples beyond that. So I think volume is very important because a lot of contracts and we've discussed this before, but a lot of contracts tend to be quite mundane and straightforward that they don't need to have legal advice. You don't need lawyers to structure them.

Charles Brecque: At Legislate we go after the unwed people who are not lawyers and people who wouldn't be able to afford a lawyer necessarily for all their legal work and we model the law as rules essentially, so that people can create safe contracts by themselves. So yes, we will get there one day Mani and you'll be the first to know.

Mani Singh: I will celebrate.

If you were being sent a contract to sign today, what would impress you?

Charles Brecque: I’m conscious of your time, we've already taken a lot of it. So I will ask the same question we ask all our guests of the Legislate podcast show. So if you were receiving a contract to sign today, what would impress you?

Mani Singh: Plain language. There's a weird effect that happens whenever. You have people involved with a complex legal contract and that is everyone then starts to speak in legalese. They started speaking and writing in legal language and that inhibits any type of solutionising, that is potentially able to happen. And the best thing that I think that could come about is if it's not regulation that enforces plain language contracting, then I think that there needs to be a disruption that happens that forces plain language contracting so that the best of plain language contracting can exist. So when I see a contract, it would just be nice to not have to pause, think, understand clauses. As an in I would prefer to just be able to read it, understand it, and then go, okay, that's what this says. Blah-blah-blah and so plain language contracting would be the number one thing that I would love to see.

Charles Brecque: That's one thing that we already do Legislate. We present the contract in different views as a set of questions and answers, and in text which highlights the areas which have explanations. But we're also about to introduce a visual representation of contracts, which is something unique to Legislate. And we'll automatically surface those key obligations and responsibilities which are often buried in text in a contract. Again, you'll be the first to know when it's out. That was a great answer. It's great having you on the show, Mani. Thank you for your time and  speak soon.

Mani Singh: Thank you for having me Charles and it's always interesting to discuss contracts.


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