Meet Geeta Aiyer, 2020 Academy of Women Achievers Awardee
On October 29, 2020 we will join together and celebrate the achievements of five unstoppable women who demonstrate YW Boston’s mission of eliminating racism and empowering women at our 25th Anniversary Academy of Women Achievers Luncheon. Please note that due to COVID-19 concerns, this event has been postponed from June 2 to October 29.
Since 1995, as part of our mission to promote and celebrate the achievements of women, YW Boston has held the Academy of Women Achievers luncheon. Through this event, we recognize and honor some of Boston’s brightest, boldest, bravest, and most influential women. Leading up to the event, we are sitting down with each of the 2020 awardees for interviews and releasing one each month.
YW Boston cannot wait to induct Geeta Aiyer into the Academy of Women Achievers. She is the Founder and President of Boston Common Asset Management, where she has built a practice dedicated to sustainable investing. She is also a former YW Boston board member. To learn about Geeta, read our interview with her:
We are thrilled to honor you at our 25th Academy of Women Achievers on October 29th. Can you please tell us about your history with YW Boston and what about our work resonates with you?
My involvement with YW Boston has been one of the most rewarding roles in my life, as its mission is fully aligned with my personal beliefs and my life’s work.
Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, then President & CEO of the organization, for whom I had the utmost admiration and affection, invited me to join the Board. I was originally asked to serve the YW to help strengthen the revised mission of this leading institution. I am very committed to YW Boston’s mission under Beth Chandler’s leadership, to stand against racism and gender inequality. I strongly support the work with youth, in community, and with corporations, to highlight inequality, and begin the process of change. In addition to my role on the Board, I am proud to advocate for and support the YW Boston’s work, organize antiracism training at our firm, and regularly bring my family to march behind YW Boston banner! I am also a loyal Bostonian – I came here for graduate school in 1983 and have lived here ever since. Our beloved city needs a strong and effective YW Boston, standing against gender inequality and racism in order to realize its full potential as a leading 21st century city!
As Founder and President of Boston Common Asset Management, you provide clients with socially responsible investing. What inspired you to create Boston Common Asset Management?
At Boston Common we actively seek to invest in companies that create solutions and enable society’s transition to a more just and sustainable future through their products and practices. We are experienced, active, global investors engaging directly with portfolio companies to promote transparency, accountability and long-term thinking.
When I founded Boston Common, I was inspired by the belief that our chosen asset class, Public Equities, is the most efficient and effective vehicle for Impact because equity ownership gives investors unique access to corporate management. This belief continues to drive our efforts. Environmental, Social, & Governance risks are, in many cases, systemic risks that pervade all sectors and regions and cannot be diversified away. Climate change and historically high inequality are examples of such systemic risks threatening the well-being of many, and particularly the most vulnerable among us. Equity investors have a unique opportunity and duty to use their capital and voice to hasten society’s pivot away from harmful activities and short-sighted practices, and towards better solutions for people and planet.
For many years, we have challenged the institutional racism that is built into products and services offered by corporations. These are the foundations for lasting racial disparities in wealth and income. Examples include racial bias in lending or credit scoring, predatory lending, participation in the prison-industrial complex, and operations with exploitative models that offer precarious jobs in dangerous conditions. We have testified and written against private prisons. We have pursued accountability on corporate lobbying, to end membership support for ALEC – authors of the Stand Your Ground legislation infamously used to exonerate George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin.
Since 2003, we have voted against corporate boards without at least one person of color in the US. We now plan to escalate this effort by filing shareholder proposals if we don’t see progress. We will progressively increase this threshold in the years to come as we have done with gender diversity, where we require at least 30% female representation on boards in the US and Europe.
This year, we are in the midst of a Workplace Equality initiative, targeting meaningful change in racial and gender equality, beyond strong Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies. We will challenge portfolio companies to deliver, by requiring measurable results on hiring and promotion, particularly into leadership teams. This complements our long-standing efforts to seek living wages, equitable access to health care, and robust environmental protections, especially for low-income and communities of color. Going forward, we will actively seek collaboration with civil rights and racial justice organizations in our engagements, to accelerate change by bringing their deep understanding of the barriers and solutions to systemic racism.
You have been honored a number of times for being a leader in sustainable investing. Why is it important for you to consider environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in your work?
As we face game-changing phenomena like climate change and extreme, growing inequality, we have to modify most of our investment assumptions on risk, return and value. I firmly believe that the companies at the forefront of these issues – that see and address the challenges of creating a regenerative economy and inclusive prosperity, will be the better investments, long-term. Environmental, Social, & Governance risks are, in many cases, systemic risks that pervade all sectors and regions and cannot be diversified away. So, we integrate ESG considerations into our investment work in order to manage risk and identify opportunity. And we use our investor voice and reach through engagement to have impact and create change.''Companies at the forefront of these issues – that see and address the challenges of creating a regenerative economy and inclusive prosperity, will be the better investments, long-term.' -Geeta Aiyer, 2020 Academy of Women Achievers… Click To Tweet
We deploy rigorous analysis of financial and ESG factors in order to identify innovative companies that not only offer attractive risk-adjusted long-term investment returns, but also provide products and/or services that positively impact society and address ecological and social challenges. We are looking for companies with sector-leading practices in diversity, human rights, environmental responsibility and corporate governance.
But even such leading companies can do better. Our proactive, tenacious engagement efforts seek to persuade companies to improve their ESG performance on three dimensions (1) products or services, (2) processes and (3) policies – the same factors that we consider in our investment selection. We seek measurable progress on ESG issues such as carbon emissions, energy, water and waste management, diversity at senior management and board levels. Our ultimate goal is to embolden management to focus on positive innovation and long-term, shared value creation.
Despite being a small-sized company, you have championed inclusive leadership at Boston Common Asset Management by sponsoring multiple LeadBoston participants, including one in the current class. Can you please speak to the benefits of inclusive leadership training?
LeadBoston’s mission is to develop inclusive leaders by equipping them with the skills to identify and combat the root causes of DEI challenges. In order to be effective in this, we must all develop an awareness of the various perspectives and voices whose lived experiences must be taken into account if we are to create the type of inclusive environments that we seek. Our society and the financial sector in particular, have a troubling history of disregarding and suppressing these voices and perspectives. LeadBoston provides an invaluable education in the history, underlying issues, and vocabulary necessary to forge effective, inclusive leaders. We have been proud to sponsor multiple employees to participate in LeadBoston, and we have applauded and encouraged their efforts to apply what they learn and to share their enthusiasm for positive change within our organization. Our team members bring back their learnings and experiences back to the broader employee group at our firm, thus expanding the impact of the program. This serves to further cement the practice and awareness of diversity, respect, and inclusiveness into the fabric of Boston Common.'LeadBoston provides an invaluable education in the history, underlying issues, and vocabulary necessary to forge effective, inclusive leaders.' -Geeta Aiyer, YW Boston 2020 Academy of Women Achievers Awardee Click To Tweet
As a woman of color working in a field that is predominately white and male, can you offer any insight or tips for women who are pursuing careers in the financial sector? And any insight into how the industry can be allies to these women?
The lack of diversity in our sector is incomprehensible and unacceptable! Medical and legal professions have made noteworthy strides in recent decades, to address DEI challenges, but investment management continues to lag behind. According to a recent research report from Morningstar, only 11% of U.S. fund managers were women in 2019, down from 13.8% in 2000, even though the number of funds has grown significantly during this time! Fewer women are entering the field, and many get discouraged and leave. The researchers cite structural barriers and implicit bias – not performance – as the reason. To make matters worse, abandoning large firms to start their own firms has not helped either — research by the Knight Foundation found that just 1.3% of assets in the $69 trillion asset management industry are managed by women-or-minority-owned firms! However, there is heightened awareness of this unacceptable skew in recent years and months, and leading organizations, both asset owners and asset management firms have made significant public commitments towards inclusion and opportunity. There are efforts underway to create and nurture a more diverse pipeline, and intentionally seek diverse investment managers. I am optimistic that our industry will improve, and in my opinion, it remains an exciting and rewarding career in which we can succeed and thrive.
I firmly believe we women, and particularly women of color, were made for this type of work – we know all about carefully managing resources, through bounded risk-taking, thoughtful trade-offs, and considering many factors at the same time. Our industry can help by offering internships, job opportunities, and outreach to less conventional places in their hiring efforts. We can offer networking opportunities with investment professionals of different generations. Employers can invest in their teams with training, skill building, professional support, creative benefits, flexibility, visibility and opportunity to advance. Creating an inclusive welcoming workplace with YW Boston’s training for all employees, would go a long way!
You have served on the boards of a number of nonprofits focused on women’s rights and the environment, including YW Boston, the Sierra Club Foundation, the Better Future Project, and DAWN Worldwide, among others. What advice do you have to those who are interested in board service, but do not know where to begin?
Serving on Boards is one way to volunteer and support organizations doing work I believe in, on causes I care deeply about. Environment and climate issues, as well as gender and justice issues are at the top of my list. Board service has allowed me to contribute my skills (finance and investments) to impactful organizations whose work and mission I really want to be part of. I feel connected to their work, and that is really very energizing and satisfying! I have also felt very connected to the community of the NGO – both board and staff – as we share a passion for the organization and its work.
For those interested in board service, I suggest first identifying your area of passion, and then attending a lot of program events and really getting to know organizations doing work you respect, in that area. Networking during events so that you meet NGO staff or board members, ask questions, or otherwise share your enthusiasm and interest in volunteering by serving on the Board is a good start. Getting some online training on board responsibilities and duties can help you feel prepared to step into a Board role. There are organizations that connect corporations with diverse board members; there may be informal networks within the NGO space as well.
Learn more from Geeta Aiyer at our 25th Annual Academy of Women Achievers Luncheon on Thursday, October 29, 2020.