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How impact investing and shareholder engagement can help fight the gender gap in business

A conversation with Lisette Cooper

Lisette Cooper, founder and chief investment officer, Athena Capital Advisors
Lisette Cooper, founder and chief investment officer, Athena Capital Advisors, will present at the Revolution Within: Women's Week at Kriaplu

Especially in the last few years when I’ve made a few pivots of my own, I’ve become practically obsessed hearing about how women change it up. Of course Michelle Obama’s Becoming is kind of the guidebook on the topic because as she points out so eloquently it is all about the journey. For any of us who may not feel content that we’re where we want to be, this notion of “becoming” is, in fact, a comfort.

The pivot for Lisette Cooper, founder and chief investment officer of Athena Capital Advisors, came after years of following her passion for traveling, languages, math and science, particularly geology, even getting her PhD from Harvard University.

She had met her husband when she was in graduate school. He was an astrophysicist, and together, Lisette says, they were steeped in science and were both extremely athletic. Then he had a terrible accident, suffering from a traumatic brain injury. She started reading about psychology and spirituality, picking up a book on Buddhism, and began to explore yoga and meditation.

Eventually he recovered, but for Lisette, that’s when she began to pivot, advancing in the world of finance, which she says can be just as scary for women as science and math. She’s an emerita trustee of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Mass., and a former Kripalu board chair. Now an author, researcher, meditator, mentor, and entrepreneur, Lisette is a pioneer in guiding individuals and organizations to integrate their social values into their investing, and she believes cultural and social change begins with personal transformation, including financial empowerment.

I heard Lisette was planning to present at Kripalu’s upcoming Revolution Within: Women’s Week at Kripalu, so I reached out to her to find out more.

Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.

Carolee Belkin Walker: I make a conscious effort to separate my personal life from my professional life, but you’ve written that you’re not so sure that’s the way to go. Could you say more about that and is this something you plan to touch on in your program at Kripalu’s Women’s Week?

Lisette Cooper: Part of the whole point of the program that I’m offering at Kripalu is about the integration of your personal and professional life. For a long time, those two things were separate for me, and they have come together in my life today. I founded an investment management firm over 25 years ago in the early 90s, initially working with institutional investors and later with wealthy families who were institutional in size and who adopted the principles and practices of institutional investment management. But as I became involved with Kripalu, I began working with clients who wanted to integrate their personal values and ethics into all aspects of their life, including their investment portfolio. And today that is something we’re known for at Athena Capital – impact investing and the alignment of whatever it is that’s your life’s purpose throughout all aspects of your life, including your investment portfolio.

The world of finance can be just as scary for women as science and math.

CBW: What is impact investing and does it play a role ultimately in addressing some of the inequalities that we still see pretty much everywhere, and especially in the workplace?

LC: Absolutely. There are so many ways to address inequalities for women and for people of all kinds of diverse and underrepresented backgrounds, including racial inequalities and sexual orientation. But, it’s not only the public sector and law or the nonprofit sector and philanthropy where we can address these inequalities. It’s in public companies and private companies, through the capital markets, where we can implement changes that you really can’t achieve elsewhere.

And that’s what’s so exciting about impact investing because you can help with the supply chain, you can help influence company policies, and you can create the opportunity for girls to have role models about things that they could do when they grow up that might not have been the case when I was a little girl.

Some people believe you do good with philanthropy and your investments should be your investments. But most people would say, if I can do just as well in my investment portfolio while I take my values into account, of course I want to do that.

CBW: So is the idea behind impact investing from the investor point of view? That as an investor, you decide what’s important to you and then find companies that meet that interest?

LC: It’s exactly that. In traditional investing it’s all about the financial return and risk. But what about social returns? What about the things that are important to you? A whole economic theory evolved over the 20th century that translated the pursuit of happiness down to just, “Is one thing worth more than another thing financially”? It really cut off a whole richness that people have in their lives. And so we’re bringing that back in through impact investing. People can pick what’s important to them and then express that in their investing.

CBW:  Do you meet with your clients and talk through what it is that they’re animated about or engaged in and then go from there? Is that how it works?

LC: We look at the big picture first, at the 30,000-foot level. Who are they as people? What do they care about? What are their goals and objectives? How do they spend their time? Are they volunteering? Are they interested in or have a religious affiliation? Are they interested in alleviating poverty? Are they parents? Do they care about education? Where are they giving money away? Are they worried about the planet and climate change? And from that we help them understand whether they want a portfolio that is going to take those things into account.

Some people, particularly people over 70, believe you do good with philanthropy and your investments should be your investments. But most people would say, if I can do just as well in my investment portfolio while I take my values into account, of course I want to do that. And then some people will say they’re actually willing to pay a little more for the opportunity to make a difference and do something good for women or for the environment. And so we kind of take them where they are and then show them what are the avenues for making a difference.

Cultural and social change begins with personal transformation, including financial empowerment.

CBW: Are most of your clients women?

LC: No, but we have a lot of women clients and about half the leadership of the firm is women. But I would say that pretty much all of the women who are clients do want to align their values in their investing.

CBW: That’s so interesting. One of the other things that I came across when I was reading about your work is that you use the phrase shareholder engagement and access to capital. Could you talk about that?

LC: Shareholder engagement is really shorthand for two things. One of them being what you can do when you own stock and being an activist and taking a stand on issues that you care about. It turns out that with only $2,000 worth of a stock that you’ve held for a year, you can file a shareholder resolution.

CBW: I did not know that.

LC: Isn’t that amazing? You don’t have to be a big wig of some kind. You can get together on a grassroots basis with a group of your friends and talk through what you’re interested in. I’ve held women’s groups in different parts of the country, and here in the Boston area we decided we wanted to co-file shareholder resolutions at companies that were headquartered in New England. Mine was against Verizon and it was about fighting childhood sexual exploitation online.

CBW: Wow, that’s amazing.

LC: And it won a really big percentage of the vote and put pressure on the company to increase its efforts to protect children online from sexual abuse and grooming.

CBW: I don’t know that I would naturally think of introducing a shareholder resolution in a company that I hold shares in. So it’s incredibly interesting.

LC: It’s just amazing that the bar is not prohibitive to file a shareholder resolution. And then the other way that I also think of shareholder engagement is simply aligning your values with your wealth. For example. if you favor women’s rights, investing in something like the SHE ETF instead of investing in the broad S&P 500 allows you to preferentially invest in companies that have more women in leadership.

CBW: Are there many women in leadership? Are we still seeing a great disparity here?

LC: We’re still seeing a huge disparity in leadership positions. At entry level positions, there are plenty of women. But for both women and minorities the proportion falls dramatically, while the percentage of white men rises dramatically, as they rise up through the corporate ladder. One of the big things in shareholder engagement is around the median pay gap. And as you might imagine, if there’s a lot more men in high earning positions than women, then there’s going to be a big gap between the average earnings of men and women.

CBW: Can you talk about some of the systemic issues, then, that women are continuing to face right now in that kind of business scenario? And I know you talk a little bit about unconscious and conscious bias.

LC: Both are present in the workplace. Absolutely. And one of the things they’ve discovered is that mandatory training in the workplace around equal opportunity doesn’t work very well. It tends to backfire. It tends to crystallize people’s conscious bias. That is, it brings into conscious the bias they always had. So things that do tend to work are voluntary training, mentorship, or task forces that customize to a particular company.

CBW:  What is unconscious bias? Can you give an example of unconscious bias in the workplace?

LC: There’s a study where there were identical resumes from men named Joe and men named Jose. And the men named Joe got way more interviews than the men named Jose. And likewise if it’s Dan and Dana, Dan gets a lot more interviews than Dana. That exemplifies unconscious bias. There’s something going on with the same qualities and criteria that people are still preferring white men. In short, unconscious bias is bias that you have that you don’t know you have.

CBW: How would you describe conscious bias?

LC: Conscious bias is bias that you do know you have and are deliberate about expressing. So conscious bias is when you say, I am not going to interview any women for this job because, say, women can’t do math.

CBW: Okay.

LC: Or because, she’s in her 30s and she probably has kids and therefore she won’t work as hard. So conscious bias is literally putting a group of people down on purpose. This is exemplified in what we typically think of as being racist. When people deliberately make racist remarks that’s a conscious bias.

CBW: Are you seeing companies or businesses addressing unconscious bias in the workplace?

LC: We’re seeing them address both conscious and unconscious bias. In my lifetime, conscious bias has been handled by the legal system quite a bit from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to Title IX. In my lifetime of working as a woman, there are fewer pinups and things like that that used to be on the trading floor or having really overt sexist things happening in the workplace. And now I think we are working much harder on the unconscious bias.

In the 1970s almost all violinists in major U.S. symphonies were men. In a well-known example, when orchestras used a screen to hide the sex of the musician, then suddenly more and more women were placed in these roles.

In my lifetime of working as a woman, there are fewer pinups and things like that that used to be on the trading floor or having really overt sexist things happening in the workplace. And now I think we are working much harder on the unconscious bias.

CBW: And I think they even placed down a carpet so you could not hear high heels.

LC: That’s right. And it matters. It shouldn’t matter. But it really matters.

Now people are employing similar measures with resumes – like taking away identifying characteristics, such as names, and having numbered resumes, for example. And what’s really important is for the job advertisement to be de-gendered because there’s certain qualities associated with gender. If you’re talking about compassionate and caring, women tend to gravitate toward these job descriptions. If you talk about competitive and aggressive, men tend to gravitate toward those job descriptions. So, you actually have to de-gender the job description.

CBW: That is so interesting.

I know that you have a great emphasis in your own work on personal transformation and you talk about impact at scale. So maybe if you could break that down that would be helpful.

Impact at scale is taking what we do individually in any way that we can do it and having that multiplier effect.

LC: When I talk about impact at scale or social transformation, it does start with personal transformation because our culture is made up of all of us and our interactions with each other. So, on the side of gender, it comes down to starting to understand your own bias, both conscious and unconscious, and what different steps can help reduce bias and reduce inequality. And just taking those actions in your own life, like mentorship, is huge. For example, being a role model for young women, helping young women, or supporting curriculum on math and science for young adults. There’s a lot you can do individually as an adult that can help those in your community around you.

There’s a book by Cass Sunstein called How Change Happens. Some people see something wrong and go immediately to do the right thing. And then other people who see that are like, oh, now that I’ve seen him do it, I’m a little more empowered. Or now that I’ve seen her do it, I could do that, too. And then there are the people behind them. The people in the first group of helpers are what he calls the zeros, the first actors, and then there are the twos and threes and fours.

So what I love about the Revolution Within at Kripalu, there are people who are already leading revolutions in their own communities and there are people who want to be part of that revolution and who can be part of that revolution and their individual actions, like ripples in a pond, are going to spread out increasingly into societies.

So impact at scale is taking what we do individually in any way that we can do it and having that multiplier effect.

CBW: Oh I love that.

Thank you so much for taking time to chat with me.

LC: Thank you. I look forward to seeing you there.

Carolee Belkin Walker, author of Getting My Bounce Back, is a wellness blogger and freelance journalist whose work also appears in the Washington Post, Women’s Running, the Chicago Tribune, the Toronto Sun, the Huffington Post, and others. She is the host of “My Brain on Endorphins” podcast, which is available on Stitcher and iTunes. Walker lives in Washington, D.C. http://caroleewalker.com/

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