Introducing the Belonging Fund

Being born to a single mom on welfare, the odds were not in my favor that someday I’d have enough money to invest in startups. But at every turn I have irrationally bet on myself and the future I want and envision to be true — so here I am, doing it again — by putting my money on the line to help move some big ideas forward through a new angel investment entity called the Belonging Fund.

In a world full of pessimists I remain an optimist.

Despite the challenges we face, never in the history of humanity have things looked brighter. As an example, we’ve managed to double life expectancy in just the past 100 years.

Everything that’s amazing in our entire universe is the result of the improbable actually happening. The great arc of history from the Big Bang to today is proof that even in a sea of entropy and heat death the most spectacular things can and will occur.

The beautiful and challenging thing about early-stage startups is they are full of uncertainty. Most won’t make it but the few that do literally change the world.

My goal with the Belonging Fund is to unlock more human potential by enabling entrepreneurs to test out solutions within 3 key problem spaces that deeply matter to me:

1. How can humanity heal itself?

2. How can we build and maintain meaningful connections?

3. How can we ensure greater economic equality?

Visionary artist Android Jones — a leader in multimedia psychedelic art

1. The Future of Healing: Psychedelics

Humans suffer from so many mental and emotional ailments including depression, anxiety, and trauma-induced behavioral responses. The net result is we can’t fully show up for each other or ourselves. In the US alone, recent estimates show 16 million adults had an episode of major depression in the course of a year — and that was before we collectively experienced the trauma of a global pandemic. During June of 2020, the CDC reported the problem had grown to 40% of US adults reporting that they were struggling with mental health or substance use.

We are still very early in understanding and treating emotional and psychological wellbeing, and I’m fascinated by the role that psychedelic drugs & psychedelic experiences can play in resetting the brain.

The research is promising and ongoing:

  • The first of two MAPS-sponsored Phase 3 clinical trials for MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD were statistically significant, and the FDA has granted the trials with a Breakthrough Therapy designation
  • Ketamine is being legally clinician-prescribed by doctors to help relieve depression, anxiety, chronic pain, PTSD, OCD, and other mental health-related conditions because multiple studies have shown it has robust and rapid effects on alleviating depression.

“With most medications, like valium, the anti-anxiety effect you get only lasts when it is in your system. When the valium goes away, you can get rebound anxiety. When you take ketamine, it triggers reactions in your cortex that enable brain connections to regrow. It’s the reaction to ketamine, not the presence of ketamine in the body that constitutes its effects.” — John Krystal, MD, chief psychiatrist at Yale Medicine and one of the pioneers of ketamine research in the country.

In addition to the research, I deeply connect to this mission due to my own life journey. My psychological wounds led to bouts of depression, panic attacks, disordered eating, and deep grief.

In addition to traditional therapies, I intentionally and thoughtfully used a range of psychedelics that provided me with transformational experiences that have undoubtedly improved my life. I’m grateful to friends who helped facilitate those inward journeys by providing a safe container for me to explore within.

What I’m looking for:

  • Psychedelic therapies using traditional or entirely new compounds
  • New delivery mechanisms for enabling mass-market consumption of psychedelics
  • Tools + services this new category of companies will need
Photo by Manny Becerra

2. The Future of Connection

I’ve been working on the problem of loneliness throughout my career because so many of my earliest memories are rooted in abandonment and the feeling of not belonging. The desire for connection has fueled my life’s work.

Loneliness isn’t really about physical isolation because loneliness is a state of mind.

What’s fascinating to me is just how hardwired humans are for connection. Not having enriching social connections may be as damaging to a person’s health as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

My bias as a techno optimist leads me to believe that although technology has undoubtedly created some very real problems in this area, that technology also has a role to play in solving aspects of this issue.

What I’m looking for:

  • Cohort-based products— where you can learn, play, and grow with others
  • Community-led products — where the product is inherently better and more valuable because you’re part of something larger than yourself (ex: Peloton)
  • Consumer products that give people a greater sense of belonging by helping them connect to communities, friends, colleagues, romantic/sexual partners — or even pets + nature
  • Reimagining of personal & professional interactions through gaming, virtual worlds, audio/video, etc.

3. The Future of Economic Equality: Decentralization

I believe many of the most exciting new companies will disrupt the centralized authorities that exist today. Today just a handful of the world’s largest companies control most of the infrastructure of the web and have hoarded a treasure trove of the wealth creation that the internet has enabled.

Economic inequality, whether measured through the gaps in income or wealth between richer and poorer households, continues to widen. In the US, the bottom 50% own just 1% of the wealth. This is not a sustainable trend.

The distribution of $96.1 trillion in American wealth, in 2019

There are two prominent ways to accumulate wealth:

  1. Earn more income, save more income, or both
  2. Own or receive assets that can appreciate in value, such as a home or stocks

Leaving poor and disadvantaged people out of centralized systems of power is nothing new, especially in the finance world where banking and asset management continues to be inaccessible to billions of people. People at the bottom are penalized by the economic system because they can’t afford to even join the system.

It’s not enough to simply digitize assets because if the system itself is still a winner-take-all setup where the distribution model of wealth is skewed, then the wealth gap continues widening. The model itself needs to be upended for real change to occur.

The music industry has proven this because although the distribution of music has occurred, just a few key players including Spotify, Apple and YouTube are profiting — while the artists continue to be left out.

What I’m looking for:

  • Web 3.0 solutions that help capture, grow and share value amongst individual contributors rather than locking the value in proprietary platforms — in particular I’m interested in new models that are built for creators so that they can share in the profit and have a more direct path to monetizing their fanbase
  • Teams working to decentralize finance and solve some of the hard problems surrounding it (like scalability & cost)
  • Picks + shovels that enable mainstream consumer adoption of crypto products and services

If you’re building something ambitious or have a startup to recommend in any of the categories above, drop me an email at esther@belonging.fund. I’d love to chat! ☀️

Right now I’m just angel investing from money I’ve set aside but I’m exploring how to grow the pot. Specifically, I’m considering scout opportunities and/or turning the Belonging Fund into a micro fund ($3m — $5m) with outside investors so I can write bigger checks and back more startups. If you’ve got advice or ideas about either of those options feel free to ping me — and thanks to those who have already spent time answering my questions.

A rising tide lifts all boats. 🌊

Follow me on Twitter to stay in touch.

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Esther Crawford

Esther Crawford

3.6K Followers

Product at Twitter. Life story: “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Optimist. Technologist. Wearer of many hats.