Doughnuts to Dollars: How a Business Scion's Son Went From Burning Man to Angel Investing

In 1981, a score of well-to-do twentysomethings congregated in Estes Park, Colorado for a new-age pow-wow on how to use their inherited wealth toward social good. They called themselves the Doughnuts. The gathering was organized by Joshua Mailman, son of famed New York philanthropist and investor Joseph L. Mailman. "We were part of the generation of people interested in meditation, Buddhism, Shamanism, rainbow gatherings, and Burning Man," he tells Fast Company. "It was a mystical, non-western way of looking at the world."

Today, Mailman has moved beyond the Doughnuts to become a veteran angel investor and philanthropist through three organizations he founded: the Threshold Foundation, the Social Venture Network, and Serious Change.

Josh's father, Joseph Mailman, never finished college; instead, at the age of 18, he and his brother founded a knife and razor company after selling razors door to door, and later turned that into one of the first North American conglomerates, the Mailman Corporation. Josh is keeping his family's entrepreneurial legacy alive through his own work and through an endowment to Columbia University's School of Public Health, which is named after his father.

Josh's eye for success was innate and started at an early age—like his dad's. In 1983, two years after the Doughnuts meeting, Mailman made a grant to a young man named Samuel Kaymen, who had the idea to create a company that would bring economic benefit to farmers in New England. Kaymen started making yogurt with a couple of cows in the neighborhood, and that was the beginning of Stoneyfield Farms, the biggest organic yogurt brand in the United States.

"I love finding businesses that can address social problem and make money, thereby having the ability to more easily scale than groups dependent on the largess of the rich," he says.

In 1987, he and fellow philanthropist Wayne Silby founded Social Venture Network, a coalition of business leaders who gather at two annual conferences and other informal settings to talk about best practices in building a socially and environmentally sustainable world. SVN has spawned other similar and successful ventures specializing in investments for social good, including Investors' Circle and Net Impact.

The Doughnuts became the Threshold Foundation, a network of philanthropists that has raised over $40 million in grants for progressive grassroots organizations all over the world. Now, with his socially conscious mutual fund Serious Change, Mailman is ramping up toward a $50 million portfolio of ventures that tackle issues like health and environmentalism. Many of the ventures are owned by women of color. "I have a great commitment to feminist values and to the global women's movement as the core for social change," he says.

His portfolio includes a company largely owned by Liberian women which produces fair trade clothing, a company that provides healthy food for day care centers in NYC, a Wi-Fi network in Bangladesh, and a pharmaceutical company that makes drugs for AIDS patients.

Mailman tends to look at existing prejudices in society and in the marketplace not as barriers to change, but as opportunities. "The toxic chemical business is a giant industry ready to be tackled by companies that can perform the same tasks without toxic chemicals. Junk food is a giant opportunity for companies that want to create healthy food for reasonable prices. That's how I like to think about things."

"It wasn't what my father did in business that influenced me; it was how he lived as a human being," Josh says. "So many people spent time trying to make a lot of money, but once they have it they don't know what to do with it. I hope that, when I get to the end of my life, I can honestly say I did my part."

[Image by Joi]

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3 Comments

  • Nadinethompson

    This a wonderful acknowledgement of Josh Mailman and his work. He has been a visionary leader and deserves the recognition and accolades. SVN is a great organization.
    Nadine Thompson, CEO and Founder of Soul Purpose and author of Values Sell( an SVN publication).

  • Gregg Keesling

    SVN is a good organization. Winning a 2009 Social Innovation Award has been beneficial for our nonprofit enterprise Workforce, Incorporated. Josh Mailman deserves much credit for the whole social enterprise movement.