Amherst Magazine

Edward Woody Tasch 73
For Edward "Woody" Tasch '73, organic gardening and angel investing are two means to the same end: environmental sustainability.

Slow Money

By Mark Cherrington

1 | 2 | 3

In terms of nerve and risk, investing in the stock market is like high-wire walking. You might fall, but if you know what you are doing and keep your wits about you, the chances are small, and there are safety nets built into the system. By that same standard, venture-capital investing is like wire-walking blindfolded and without a net. And then there's angel investing, which is like walking blindfolded on a wire strung between skyscrapers, with the wire set on fire and a pit of rabid crocodiles below.

Angel investors are wealthy individuals who put their money directly into startup companies, the vast majority of which will burn up the investment in a hideous and rapid death without paying any returns at all. To be an angel, you have to have millions of dollars you can live without and the moxie to risk it against the remote chance of an enormous payoff. Angel investing requires extensive business knowledge, of course, but it also helps to have a surfeit of confidence and a Kevlar heart.

Edward "Woody" Tasch '73 is not only an angel investor, but the chairman of the largest angel network in the country, so I thought I knew what to expect when I went out to visit him at his home on Chappaquiddick Island, next to Martha's Vineyard: He would pick me up in an Aston Martin Vanquish, wearing shoes that cost more than my stereo, with a boutique haircut, imported clothes and an attitude that could clear a path through a crowd of drunken rugby fans. And his house, of course, would be a stunning 10,000-square-foot showplace, with walls of glass, an Olympic-size pool in the bedroom and appliances made of unobtainium.

It was a little surprising, then, to meet the actual Woody Tasch, who showed up at the dock wearing beat-up boat shoes and old shorts with a rumpled, unbuttoned shirt; and a 5 o'clock shadow at 9 in the morning. And somehow the Aston Martin I was expecting had morphed into a muddy 1970-something Volkswagen convertible held together with baling wire and karma.

Tasch's estate, too, was not quite what I had envisioned. His home is at the end of a long dirt drive through the woods, and though handsomely designed and comfortable, it is surprisingly small—he calls it his "trophy hut." It's made entirely of parts salvaged from other houses, with slightly mismatched windows and an abundance of different materials and textures. All of the house's electricity comes from ranks of solar panels on the roof, and the food comes from a large organic garden or from clamming on the beach. The plumbing is of a piece with the rest: I feel confident in asserting that Woody Tasch is the only venture capitalist in the world who uses a composting toilet. He is certainly the only one who has written an epic poem about manure.

Clearly, Tasch is something of an anomaly. Tall and athletically lean, with a long, narrow face and piercing eyes, he projects a raptor-like sense of absolute purpose. This is a man who knows exactly what he wants to do and will not stop until he achieves it—precisely the kind of venture-capitalist attitude I was anticipating. And despite his casual attire at home, he is a serious and formidable businessman. He has been an entrepreneur, investor, corporate board member, portfolio manager and financial consultant for a wide variety of companies and foundations, and when he speaks of business, you can hear the scars of hard experience. Yet there is no hint of jadedness, no trace of the world-weariness one might expect with such experience. Woody Tasch has found religion.

As his lifestyle dramatically demonstrates, Tasch is a true believer in environmental sustainability. For him this is more than a philosophical position, more than mere cultural or social statement. It is a calling, not a choice-beyond morality or debate—and he lives his life on that basis.

Hard-core capitalism and hard-core environmentalism normally exist on opposite sides of a police barricade, of course, but they sit comfortably side by side in Tasch. In his office—a separate building from the house—you will find both the composting toilet and the state-of-the-art laptop he uses to track various deals, and on the desk that faces the organic garden, Finnegan's Wake and The Wealth of Nations are comfortably stacked one on top of the other.

It's a theme carried through Tasch's house and office, where the many bookshelves hold equal proportions of volumes on organic farming, capital investing, nature and poetry. (While a student at Amherst, Tasch won the Collin Armstrong Poetry Prize. He says that the prize opened a lot of doors, but that he was a "conscientiously objecting poet," or, as he notes wryly, "someone who was so screwed up by the '60s that he didn't even become a poet when he had the chance.")

Tasch's philosophical duality reaches its apotheosis in his occupation: He is the chairman of Investors' Circle, a nonprofit organization for angel investors who share an interest in addressing environmental and social issues through investment in companies that emphasize sustainable practices. The organization has approximately 130 members located all over the United States and in many other countries. The membership includes people who have inherited fortunes, former dot-com employees who cashed in their stock options, entrepreneurs who sold successful businesses, fund managers and current business owners. Together they have provided $100 million in startup money to environmentally minded entrepreneurs. Their investment interests are broad, but there are several areas of special focus, including renewable energy, organic food and health.

Continued >>

Photo: Cheri Whitted