Meet the Partners of Ascension Fund III

Jean de Fougerolles

Jean de Fougerolles

21 Jun 2023

Ascension is led by Jean de Fougerolles, an exited entrepreneur dedicated to finding the UK’s best seed startups since 2015 and Emma Steele, a former banker and impact consultant.

For the past 5 years, this duo have worked together and built an extensive track record backing leading Tech4Good businesses, such as Wagestream and Credit Kudos (exit to Apple). One of Ascension’s key superpowers is the 300+ founders and hundreds of angel co-investors, which form a highly supportive community that share, access and assess the UK’s leading early stage deal-flow.

Describe your fund in two sentences

Emma: Ascension Fund III is a £50m fund backing the most talented founders leveraging tech to build more resilient societies by tackling the cost of living crisis.

Jean added: Ascension Fund III finds exceptional founders building for profit and for purposes businesses that are leveraging technology to reduce social inequalities at scale.

What gave you the inspiration?

Emma: ever since my Masters in Development Economics, I’ve wanted to build a career that pushes for social and economic change using commercial tools. Joining Ascension in 2018 was a very exciting new chapter in my professional life that has given me the opportunity to do just that, through the Fair By Design fund. Jean & I have been working on Fair By Design for the past five years and the Ascension Fund III thesis has grown from these learnings and insights.

The Fair By Design fund was specifically designed to tackle the poverty premium and we quickly discovered that it is possible, through being very thesis driven, to achieve impact and returns hand in hand. The companies we invest in have highly scalable tech enabled business models led by founders that are equally ambitious in their drive to scale commercially, whilst changing the world for the better.

Jean: the inspiration for Ascension Fund III is our Fair By Design Fund as the thesis is very similar, except we’ve widened the scope into more mass market solutions, given that the cost of living crisis is severely impacting roughly 40% of UK households. For Fair By Design, the challenge was finding great founders leveraging technology to build new businesses that could fix some large market failures around the poverty premium. Low income households, that can least afford it, pay more (£3.8bn/yr) for a number of household essentials, simply because they are poor.

What has been your greatest success to date? And your greatest challenge?

Emma: the most successful company from the Ascension portfolio is Wagestream, which comes from our Fair By Design fund. Wagestream has the type of founders and business model with the potential to become an ‘impact unicorn’ and we want to double down on this strategy with Ascension Fund III. We’ve also had our first two exits from Fair By Design, already paying back over 30% of the fund to our investors, whilst building a very deep impact framework that has already saved over £200m off the poverty premium having reached c.2m low income households. So we feel we’re really starting to ‘walk the walk’ and prove to investors that being thesis driven and solving deep social challenges can be done, whilst delivering venture returns.

The greatest challenge has been around some sceptics in the venture world not really seeking to understand the commercial opportunity behind our impact thesis, and placing us in a ‘bucket’ that isn’t reflective of the funds’ returns potential.

Jean: our greatest success is the Fair By Design portfolio that Emma and I have built over the past 5 years. It’s a varied group of 25 businesses, all rolling out different products and business models that each tackle at least one poverty premium across energy, financial wellbeing, fair credit, access to the property ladder, insurance, better health, economic opportunity, or digital inclusion. The greatest challenge is managing the 3,000+ investment opportunities Ascension sees every year and weeding out the 8–10 we want to do, and doing those well, while treating those we pass on with as much transparency and consideration as time allows.

What kind of impact is your fund having and how do you measure it?

Emma & Jean: we are creating more resilient societies by closing the poverty gap and tackling the cost of living crisis through tech enabled solutions. We are investing in opportunities that either:

  • enhance income generation opportunities (here we measure wages enabled)
  • reduce costs of goods and services (here we measure costs reduced)
  • reduce health inequalities (here we measure health outcomes and estimate the economic impact of those on an individuals’ wages and/or costs)

What’s pretty unique for an impact fund is our very focussed thesis, which allows us to build an overall portfolio impact measure that calculates how much we are moving the dial on someone’s financial position.

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Emma: pre 12 years old: a ballet dancer, 12–18 I was very driven to be the next UN General Secretary!

Jean: when I was little, I wanted to be an ice hockey player but was not nearly good enough; later I was very keen to get my first proper job at UNESCO and ended up getting close as an economist in New York for a Non-Profit Think Tank.

If you weren’t doing this, what would be your plan B?

Emma: there is no Plan B in venture. This has become a vocation for me and I will never stop striving to prove that impact and returns can be achieved to change the world for the better.

Jean: I started Ascension so this is my Plan A & B, but if Ascension did not exist, I would continue working with impact founders to help them scale but on a more personal basis.

What would you save in a fire?

Emma: my cat & family memories/photos.

Jean: apart from family and dog, a painting my wife and I jointly bought from my uncle in Paris very early on in our relationship (without ever agreeing who would keep it if it hadn’t worked out between us).

Who is your role model/ greatest influence? And why?

Emma: Sir Ronald Cohen, a pioneer in the philosophy of impact investing. I fundamentally believe that approaching issues with an ‘inclusive’ capitalist mind is a way to enable effective change quickly.

Jean: my dad had a big influence on me from his entrepreneurial spirit and endeavours, which always kept him busy and working on interesting projects.

What is your happy track?

Emma: Bonne Idée — Jean Jacque Goldman.

Jean: so many but I was a massive Clash fan (12–15) and happy London Calling is back in my life through Fulham FC.

What’s your motto?

Emma: “Faites que le rêve dévore votre vie afin que la vie ne dévore pas votre rêve” or Let the dream devour your life so that life does not devour your dream. From Le Petit Prince — St Exupéry.

Jean: act with integrity, which means doing the right thing when nobody’s watching.

What are you most looking forward to in the next year?

Emma: so many things! Seeing that some of the founders and models we’ve backed have created real social change, with people being confident about building their future. Closing our fund and starting to show investors how quickly impact can scale by backing the right mission driven founders.

I’m also excited to continue building Ascension with Jean, it’s a joy and privilege to be part of such an amazing team. It feels that what we are doing is pioneering, and it’s a very exciting feeling.

Jean: closing Ascension Fund III and getting going making our first few investments.