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June 2021

Ethics and ESG Investing

By Green Investing, Integrity, Principles No Comments

The first time I learned about ESG investing was during a social impact course my freshman year of college, one required by our university for all of us future business leaders to learn about the way corporations influence the communities around them. It was a concept that brought together environmental, social, and governance factors under one investment thesis. I remember thinking: “This is the future of finance that I want to be a part of.”

 

Accelerated by the many socially impactful events that have occurred since the start of 2020, it seems that the trend towards ESG has only been moving forward. Demand from both consumers and investors for more transparent and responsible business practices is louder than ever, and financial institutions are offering an expanding line of ESG products that just a decade ago hardly even existed. It’s a promising turn towards a more sustainable future for business and capital markets. However, with that seems to be coming a slow dilution of the true values that underlie ESG. 

 

ESG stands for environmental, social, and governance. It encompasses the way that businesses interact with society, measuring their impact and the ways that they give or take away from the good of the whole. In practice, ESG can be a tool for investors to screen for companies that don’t align with their values. Is this business negatively influencing changes in our climate? Does this one have unethical labor practices? Do they take advantage of any marginalized communities, or are underrepresented backgrounds not welcome at this firm? These are some questions that may come up when deciding how “ESG friendly” a company really is. Part of the reason that ESG has been growing in popularity as an investment thesis is that it isn’t just a feel good tactic. Studies have shown that ESG factors have a direct impact on a company’s long term sustainability and profitability. For example, an article written by Credit Suisse’s Global Head of ESG Strategy references a study done on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on ESG and non ESG indices in European markets. Those that were ESG focused fared better than those that were not. If a company doesn’t take into account the implications of real world events on their business operations it adds a layer of risk for an investor. 

 

The problem is, there is no standardized way of measuring a company’s level of ESG integration. Every financial institution does their analysis differently, and so the criteria of the research can vary. Not only this, but currently the information that firms themselves report isn’t standardized in the United States. ESG disclosures are optional, making it hard for investors to perform their due diligence, and hard for people to really understand what they’re buying into. It also makes it easy for companies to greenwash – as in, build up an image of being socially conscious or environmentally sustainable through clever marketing and branding, when in reality, their operations say otherwise. ESG seems to have become a buzzword, along with “sustainable”, “green”, and the like.  Ultimately, there needs to be a way to strip away the fluff down to common measurements and metrics of a company’s ESG integration. Although it’s a challenge to figure out how to translate something as complex as the societal impact of a firm into comparable data, it’s necessary to help consumers and investors like myself navigate their way through the weeds and decipher who is really taking action to back up their words. 

 

On one hand, it pains me to see some businesses use ESG as a profitable tactic. Although there are many profitable companies driven by values of corporate responsibility, there are some that use ESG in a way that seems artificial, motivated by money rather than morals. On the other hand, I ask myself, does it matter why a company is doing it as long as they are? The argument can be made that even greenwashing brings awareness to the importance of a business’s impact on the environment, and ESG factors, even if only lightly taken into consideration, are better to be seen as a business tactic than not seen at all. 

 

I chose to pursue a career in finance because I see that money has the power to create change. In my short time as a student in the industry, I’ve met people, some with a lifetime of experience and some who have only just begun their careers, who give me a lot of hope for the future. They motivate me to hold on to my values in such a competitive space, whether it be understanding the impact of my actions or doing my best to work with integrity. My time at Scholars of Finance has also influenced the way I approach my career. I’ve become more sensitive to the motivations behind my decisions and the way I interact with others; this month’s value of humility has really reminded me of how much more I have to grow. However, I’m worried that there may be a balance that needs to be made between staying true to what I believe in and working alongside the motives of others in order to make progress towards a future I hope to see. 

 

As much as I’d like it to be so,  I don’t believe ESG measures will be implemented in every company simply because it’s good for society. Often, they will be implemented because they help a business appeal to consumers, or standardized requirements have been passed, or future costs of climate change, government policy, or dissatisfied workers make it too expensive not to in the long run. 

 

I can’t say if I think the implementation of ESG measures are a good or bad thing. All I can say is what I do believe: In the end, this earth, along with the people in it, are what support a business. With the ESG movement comes more visibility for this relationship, more pressure for companies to put their money where their mouth is, and more movement towards standardized regulation and reporting in the ESG space. We’re entering an age where companies can’t ignore their dependence on all of their stakeholders, and today, these stakeholders have more power than ever to hold companies accountable. It may be a necessary evil to accept that some won’t be motivated by the common good. Some may not even care to make changes past the surface level. But ultimately, that’s okay, because eventually, those will be the ones left behind.

Humility

By Financial Leadership, Humility No Comments

At Scholars of Finance, we have six core values that are at the center of what we teach: Integrity, Compassion, Humility, Curiosity, Impact, and Courage. Each month, our members vote on the “Value of the Month”, which helps focus our discussions on topics pertinent to that value.

Humility was our value for May and we spent a lot of time thinking and talking about it as a community, so I wanted to share some thoughts on this value as we enter the summer. Here are our epithet and principles for Humility:

Humility

Know thyself

  • Serve a purpose greater than yourself
  • Cultivate gratitude for what you have 
  • Recognize both your strengths and limitations
  • Ask for and share honest feedback regularly

In today’s society, “Humility” is often synonymous with “Modesty”. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, Humility is “the state of being humble.” Both it and humble have their origin in the Latin word “humilis”, meaning “low.” The definition of “humble”, in the dictionary, is “not proud or haughty: not arrogant or assertive”. Many people think it means having a “low” opinion of oneself – that it is the opposite of “arrogance”.

The Scholars of Finance view of humility, however, which we have been taught by our mentors and leading thinkers, philosophers, and spiritual teachers, actually places humility at the center of a spectrum between modesty and arrogance. It’s not thinking too highly or too lowly of oneself. That said, we believe humility can be summed up in two practical ways: 

  1. Accurate self-appraisal; and 
  2. Overcoming our ego. 

David Brooks captures both points beautifully in his book The Road to Character, when he writes, “Humility is accurate self-awareness from a distance. It is moving over the course of one’s life from the adolescent’s close up view of yourself, in which you fill the whole canvas, to a landscape view in which you see from a wider perspective, your strengths and weakness, your connection and dependencies, and the role you play in a larger story”. We view humility as overcoming our ego so we know the truth about ourselves holistically. I’ll unpack this using our epithet and principles.

Know thyself

In order to know ourselves, we need to see ourselves clearly. Our egos can be fragile, and fragile self-perception often gets in our way in life. 

When we read David Brooks’ writing, we see a few ways in which it is difficult for us to know ourselves. It is difficult to face our strengths and our weaknesses. We hear people say they are “self-made”, having difficulty acknowledging how everyone in their lives leading up to that point played some role in who they are now. Often, when we see “the role we play in a larger story” it can throw some of us into an existential crisis, facing how infinitesimal our lives may be in the grand scheme of things – in a world of eight billion people and in thousands of years of recorded history. 

The principles of Humility outline four critical components of a “system” that helps us to know ourselves, empowering us to overcome all of these potential obstacles. 

Serve a purpose greater than yourself 

To diminish the ego, we need to work against self-centered tendencies. The primary way we can do this is by focusing on serving a purpose greater than ourselves so our daily life is not “all about me”. Doing so keeps us focused on the bigger picture, so we don’t become self-obsessed or begin to think we are the center of the universe. When we focus on ourselves too much it can feed our egos. Conversely, a focus on others reinforces altruism and selflessness. It is the antidote in (and through) action. 

Cultivate gratitude for what you have

Greed, as we often discuss, is one of the largest risks to our character that we face in the finance industry, and the cause of many of the problems in the system we have seen throughout history. We do not believe “Greed is good”. Greed is thinking “I need more” or “I don’t have enough”, when we have more than we actually require. On the contrary, Gratitude is feeling, thinking, and/or knowing “I am content with what I have” or “I have enough”. Gratitude empowers us to experience contentment – this repels fear and anxiety, which can often be self-centric. Gratitude is our day-to-day shield against a relentless pursuit for more.

Recognize both your strengths and your limitations

Our ego – our sense of identity – often needs to protect itself, so we run from the less convenient realities about who we are. However, being open to even the hard truths about ourselves keeps us attuned to reality. Embracing these hard truths stops us from falling into a fragile-ego-protection trap, where we are blind to our own limitations. By recognizing both our strengths and limitations, it keeps us in the center of the spectrum we opened this post with and allows us to have an accurate sense of self. It ensures that we don’t become too modest or arrogant either. We have a full and balanced view of ourselves. 

Ask for and share honest feedback regularly

Lastly, we can only see a part of the picture of ourselves. Because we are an interdependent social species, how others perceive us is also important. While our self-esteem should be intrinsically sourced, others can and will often see strengths and limitations, realities about ourselves, that we won’t see on our own. They help us see blind spots and tell us how our behavior impacts others. By asking for and sharing feedback, it creates an environment where others will help us to stay in touch so our egos don’t blind us to difficult truths.

Conclusion

At Scholars of Finance, we need to take a wider perspective because of the impact investments have on the world. There are several truths about ourselves we need to remain constantly aware of. 

  • If we achieve our goal of instilling stewardship and integrity in the finance leaders of tomorrow, we will be managing billions of dollars one day and have great influence. We need to take this very seriously. 
  • We are in a culture and society that venerates wealth – in a system that has perpetuated increasingly divergent socio-economic disparity – and we can easily be influenced by our environment. 
  • Focusing on our own needs is healthy inasmuch as it equips us to be our best, but too much self-centric focus can stop us from seeing the bigger picture.
  • In Wall Street, greed can easily creep in, slowly, gradually over time, almost imperceptibly, and can undermine our better intentions and desire to help others. 
  • Our success in finance can get to our heads, our egos can get inflated as our sense of self swings toward arrogance, making us more prone to selfish behavior, greed, and ethical lapses.

Preparing for those risks is at the core of our mission at SOF and Humility is a value that requires a lifetime of constant cultivation. We never “arrive”, we only constantly improve (sometimes face setbacks), and continue to develop humility. It’s a plant that needs to be watered regularly to grow and thrive. So, our community encourages you to test the four principles. 

As we begin to enter the summer season and many of you begin new internships, or for the investors reading, you prepare to close deals, go back to the office, and continue to advance your careers, we invite you to join us in thinking about how you are exemplifying humility in your life and work. 

  • Revisit your mission and values – are they bigger than yourself? Do you have them written down and does your greater purpose resonate and feel real and personal?
  • Express daily gratitude, whether it be alone, with friends, or even asking others what they’re grateful for; list 5 things you’re grateful for today.
  • Take an inventory of your strengths and your weaknesses, perhaps with 15 minutes of journaling time this week.
  • Ask 10 people in your life for 360 feedback. Find out what your mentors, family, friends, and other peers think about you holistically. 

Doing these things will help you play to your strengths and manage your weaknesses, will strengthen your relationships, and will help you to do more good and make a greater impact on people. And in the spirit of humility, these practices will help us know ourselves so that we can overcome ourselves and be true stewards. 

As we venture into June and our value of the month is “Curiosity”, I would love to hear what you learn. Feel free to reach out and share your thoughts or questions. At SOF our greater purpose is to inspire character and integrity in the finance leaders of tomorrow. We’ve made progress but still have so much to learn. We would be grateful for your honest feedback.

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