Napoleon Wallace (MBA ’10) is an impact investor and an embodiment of the indomitable human spirit.
He has been using his skillset to create transformative change for nearly 20 years. In fact, when asked about his hobbies, he has trouble recalling any.
“In my spare time, I like to start new ventures,” Wallace says with a contagious laugh.
He has launched, led and advised numerous successful impact finance efforts across public, private and nonprofit sectors.
He is a managing partner and chief investment officer of Southern Reconstruction Fund and FundONE, and co-founder of both Partners in Equity and Activest.
Previously, he served as the North Carolina Deputy Secretary of Commerce, leading the state’s community investment, workforce development and economic development infrastructure, and as the social investment officer at the Kresge Foundation in Detroit, where he guided impact investments related to health and human services.
On the executive staff at Self-Help, a financial institution and policy advocacy organization, he managed community development initiatives, including small-business lending, mergers, portfolio acquisitions and community development real estate projects. Triangle Business Journal named him a “40 under 40” for finance, real estate and nonprofit management in 2014 while he was at Self-Help, citing the pride he took in returning two troubled, cooperatively owned community development financial institutions (CDFIs) to health.
While Wallace is unwavering in his commitment to reimagine markets and reinvigorate disinvested communities, he also is confronting his own heartbreak. In 2019, at age 38, Wallace learned that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.
That diagnosis would slow down most people, but it motivates Wallace to speed up his efforts.
“Without question, it’s a knee-buckling diagnosis,” says Wallace. “Once I brushed myself off and got over the shock of it, I saw it as an opportunity to reassess my talents and reallocate my time to make sure I was being intentional about the moments I have and the legacy I’ll leave behind.”
The power of impact
Sheer determination, his faith in people and a desire to have a positive impact drive Wallace forward in his professional pursuits. The years before his diagnosis tell a similar story of someone unafraid of hard work, willing to take calculated risks and never limited by circumstance.
Before finding his calling in finance, Wallace managed a bookstore, sold shoes, repaired cameras, painted houses, cooked, gambled, bartended and waited tables. The son of a teacher and a small business owner, curiosity and entrepreneurship were in his DNA.
As a rising junior at NC Central University, Wallace spent his summer working as a janitor cleaning the offices of a stockbroker in Greenville, North Carolina, near his hometown of Grimesland. It was there that he read his first prospectus, got an insider’s view of the investment management business, and found the inspiration to swap his double major in biology and mathematics for a BBA in finance.
He counts the part-time teller gig that he started the following fall at State Employees’ Credit Union, where his mother banked, as his first “industry job.” Two years later, he was learning commercial credit as a commercial underwriting analyst at M&F Bancorp, and subsequently, putting his knowledge of credit to work in public markets at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, eventually becoming an institutional investor-ranked sell-side bond analyst.
But it wasn’t enough. Wallace wanted his work to have more meaning. In seeking professional fulfillment, he discovered UNC Kenan-Flagler.
“In every room, there is an MBA that reminds me of my younger self and I know that she or he has a similar commitment to have a positive impact on the world.”
“When I realized that my work was not having the impact I wanted, I went looking for a way to align my knowledge of finance and my passion for impact,” says Wallace. “At the time, there weren’t a lot of schools that had a dedicated presence in social enterprise. I looked around and realized that Carolina was one of the best programs in the nation on social entrepreneurship and sustainable finance.”