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Climate Tech Startup Cultivo Adds Mintz Levin Lawyer as First GC

Oct. 28, 2021, 9:31 AM

Cultivo Land PBC, a financial technology startup that helps clients navigate issues such as climate change, hired its first-ever general counsel in Benjamin Stone.

He’s one of 20 employees working for a company that uses clean technologies like satellite mapping and proprietary algorithms to pursue land restoration or “natural capital” projects in farms, forests, grasslands and wetlands around the world.

“There is a demand for companies to not only generate profits for shareholders but provide a public benefit for all stakeholders,” Stone said. “It’s a tipping point moment for society to be focused on growing companies like ours.”

Cultivo’s recruitment of Stone in August comes as investment giants like BlackRock Inc. tout the importance of companies delivering on environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) goals. Bloomberg News reported this week on the Goldman Sachs Group Inc. teaming up with an investment firm founded by former Vice President Al Gore to form Just Climate, a decarbonization venture.

The Pleasanton, Calif.-based public benefit corporation, founded in November 2019, has raised more than $6 million in seed funding from angel and institutional investors under the company’s co-founder and CEO, Manuel Piñuela.

Stone said Cultivo, which often does joint ventures with local partners, finances its own projects and sells any carbon, biodiversity, or water offsets generated by them to other companies looking for net-zero strategies. Cultivo’s goal is to make money for investors and create a more sustainable planet, he said.

Stone said Cultivo is in negotiations to partner with several major companies, but he declined to discuss them, citing the tentative nature of the potential deals.

Cultivo is relatively young in its lifecycle to add an in-house legal chief, Stone said. But the company depends on several legal components—from being a public benefit corporation to negotiating customized land agreements with stakeholders in various jurisdictions—to run its business.

“They really needed someone like me to see across all those areas and who has been an operator and run businesses,” Stone said. “A huge part of my role, in addition to general counsel, is looking at our operations and systems, while also helping on marketing and communications.”

Stone’s desire to work with a mission-driven business arose out of a sudden job switch more than a decade ago that changed his career trajectory.

A New Mission

Stone spent the past four years as a senior corporate associate at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo in Boston.

Prior to joining Mintz Levin, Stone spent almost four years as a managing director and general counsel for nonprofit investment firm MCE Social Capital. Before that he was a director of startup development at American Express Co., a role that saw Stone oversee the company’s U.S. entrepreneurship programs.

But it was Stone’s decision to leave his roughly $200,000 per year position as a managing associate at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in mid-2008, at a time when the U.S. economy was teetering on the brink of collapse, which set him on a path that he said demonstrates his commitment to social innovation.

Stone, along with former Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld associate Matthew Mitro, left their respective Big Law posts to help start and build the Indego Africa Project, an economic development organization for female artisan entrepreneurs that reinvests its profits in education programs in Ghana and Rwanda.

He went on to become general counsel and CEO for Indego Africa, which appointed former Merrill Lynch investment banker Karen Yelick to succeed Stone as leader. Stone remains an emeritus board member for the nonprofit.

During that time Stone grew close with Thomas Burton III, the Boston-based chair of Mintz Levin’s energy and sustainability practice, who he said offered him the opportunity to return to private practice and work on his “nuts and bolts” legal skills.

Stone, who was a litigator at Orrick, said he spent his years at Mintz Levin doing transactional work, meeting CEOs, and getting to know companies in the ESG space. An itch to work again with an outfit starting from scratch spurred Stone’s decision to return to the in-house world.

In one of his first acts as legal chief, Stone tapped Burton and Mintz Levin to be Cultivo’s outside corporate counsel. Burton said in a statement he’s excited about the partnership and to be working again with Stone, whom he called a “trailblazing practitioner at the intersection of business innovation and social impact.”

Stone said Mintz Levin’s expertise in advising companies focused on natural capital and climate technology will help Cultivo “achieve its ambitious objective of regenerating 1% of the planet’s total land surface area.”

Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati was previously corporate counsel to Cultivo. Mintz Levin will now work with a handful of other firms representing the company, Stone said. Winston & Strawn handles funds work for Cultivo, which also employs firms to advise on jurisdictional issues related to its subsidiaries in Mexico and the U.K.

Stone said Cultivo is currently exploring opportunities to integrate blockchain into its platform as a means of bringing “additional trust and transparency to nature-based restoration projects.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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