As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Robinson.
Jessica Robinson is the author of Financial Feminism: A Woman’s Guide to Investing for a Sustainable Future and founder of Moxie Future, the world’s first education, insights and community platform empowering women as sustainable investors and financial feminists.
Robinson is a leading global voice on sustainable finance — formerly Head of Asia for the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment, CEO of the Association for Responsible Investment in Asia and a leader in the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance. She is now a strategic advisor to institutional investors, think tanks and governments on all things relating to green finance, sustainability, responsible investment and gender.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
My parents are from the North of England but, as avid adventurers, they bravely boarded a boat to South Africa as soon as they were married. As a consequence, I spent the first few years of my life there — before returning to the UK to live just outside of London. But that sense of adventure has had a significant impact on me … I have spent most of my adult life living and working all around the world, first leaving London to set up in New York. From New York I moved to Beijing; then from Beijing to Hong Kong. Now I find myself in the Middle East, where I call Dubai home — at least for the next few years!
In the UK, I attended a small all-girls private school which was just the totally wrong place for me to be. We learned to cook and sew, perhaps in anticipation of finding a suitable husband, and were certainly not encouraged to be game-changers in any way. As a consequence, I feel like I spent most of my school years pushing back against ‘the system’, rebelling at every turn. My defiance shaped me and perhaps is a driving force behind my unwavering belief in gender equality. Perhaps I owe my school experience to penning a book entitled ‘Financial Feminism’! I know that I have structured my life as a direct opposite from everything I was taught at school …
That said, I had a happy childhood — riding bikes, climbing trees, camping in the summer months. Then growing into a mischievous and rebellious teenager, being given the space by my parents to ‘figure myself out’. I was always encouraged to question everything, to be aware of the good and the bad in the world, to understand society and look to make it a better place in whatever way I could. For this I am eternally grateful to my folks.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
Our family joke is that I never picked up a book as a child — despite always winning at Scrabble and being an avid writer (I actually started writing a journal at the age of 14 and still do to this day). When my mother used to force me to read ‘The Famous Five’, I would always skip the first few chapters to get to the exciting bit!
But not reading books does not mean I did not read. My early love of politics and economics meant that I read newspapers and journals, fueling my fascination with the way we organize our societies. At university, I become engrossed in political philosophy and spent a good number of years reading anything from the Enlightenment, with Voltaire and Kant my particular favorites. It is from these books that I built a belief that we can design and construct societies that address the needs of many, not just a few.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
Great question! Unfortunately, the funniest mistakes are probably too embarrassing or rude to share …
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
The primary reason I put pen to paper for the book, Financial Feminism: A Woman’s Guide to Investing for a Sustainable Future, is because I wanted to positively contribute to the growing movements of both female financial empowerment and sustainable investing. There is a critical relationship between the two. I believe we are missing a beat if we only talk about financial feminism in the context of women earning and investing on a par with men. In fact, I think it is much more than this. Financial feminism is about women using their wealth as a lever of change, making investment decisions based on their values and using this to define the kind of world in which they want to live.
Let’s push for financial equality but let’s also enable and support women as sustainable and impact investors. This is where the really exciting opportunity exists. There is overwhelming evidence that women care about the bigger picture and having positive societal and environmental impact when they invest in a company or a fund. This should not be ignored. So, with my book, my intention is to provide the reader with straight-talking, accessible guidance on how to get started as a sustainable investor. When the reader puts the book down, I want her to feel like she can talk to her bank, her financial advisor, her partner about how she can align her investment decisions with her values and priorities.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
While the book includes a number of personal anecdotes, it is primarily a ‘how to guide’ so there are not too many stories as such. However, I have included many quotes and advice from some of the amazing women in the sustainable investing universe. This was important to me, to demonstrate to the reader, that there so many women forging a path forward in this field, working hard to make it easier for us to align our wealth with the change we want to see in the world. For example, I have a chapter on gender-lens investing — a field that is very personal to me. I have included insights and guidance from some of the leading experts in this field because it is important to me that the book is not simply conceptual, rather that it is practical and hands-on.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
My first ‘aha moment’ happened when I became a mother — my journey was no longer about me, but about my children’s future. This coincided with a move to Beijing, back in 2006, when environmental problems were just becoming visible to the masses. Air pollution was a real issue — we’d wake up to unnaturally yellow skies and walking outside would leave our clothes smelling horribly sulphuric. And that’s when it hit me — here we were, consuming at breakneck speed, while quite literally poisoning ourselves because of it. This was the moment I knew I need to make a major change in my work, laying the groundwork for what my future message would be.
As this message evolved and the concept of financial feminism took shape in my mind, I also observed how my children were beginning to engage with the world. A couple of years back, I sat explaining to my now teenage daughters the work I do — both through my engagement with women but my broader work on sustainable finance. Their fascination but also their confusion was very telling — and it was at that moment I realized I could do so much more. There are so many women out there wanting to make changes in all aspects of their lives — and I felt it was my job to use the experience and expertise I have been gathering for many years, to communicate it in an accessible and jargon-free way so that women — including younger generations of women like my daughters — can advocate for change through their money and wealth.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
About 15 years ago I decided to refocus my career, moving from mainstream management consulting into sustainable finance. I went back to school to complete my second Master’s Degree — this time in environmental economics, and then effectively started my career again. This was particularly tough because, at that time, pretty much no one thought about pressing issues such as sustainability, climate change or gender equality in the context of the financial markets or within the financial industry. It was a hard slog as I was moving against the tide. At times, I wondered why I was the only person that got the importance of talking about finance and capital in relation to sustainability.
However, one day I attended an event on climate change and after posing a difficult question to the panelists, one of them approached me afterward to discuss the topic further. This particular woman was somewhat of a rock star — she’d been in politics, had set up a leading think tank and was a formidable force on many fronts. She invited me for coffee to talk further and from that point, she became a mentor, an inspiration and a friend. She genuinely believed that working together collaboratively was the way to create positive change and was always open to my ideas and perspectives. A few years later, when she became the environment minister, we worked together on a task force building a green finance framework — she pushed for me to be on that influential task force because she saw my potential early on. I shall be forever grateful for her unwavering support and belief in me — and I hope that I can support other young women in the same way too.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
My work and the focus of my book is really about two things — first, empowering women to use their wealth to create positive change, supporting them to use their investment decisions as a lever of change; and second, building as much momentum as possible behind the sustainable investment movement so that everyone — not just large institutional investors — can articulate how we use money, as a social construct, to define a world that is aligned with our values.
To this end, I call on policy-makers and regulators to make sustainable investing more accessible to every woman and man. But at the same time, it is imperative that these same leaders ensure that the financial industry does not engage in green-washing — my greatest fear at present. This must not be about marketing or public relations efforts. There must be full disclosure and transparency to ensure that capital goes to where we think it is going. All too often, we see investment funds labeled as, for example, ‘green’ or with a ‘gender focus but when you dig deep you find that these claims are spurious. I believe it is governments that must do the work to ensure that this does not happen.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is the ability to, or perhaps the art of, motivating and inspiring others to work towards a common goal. I often talk about the ‘greater good’, particularly in the context of what a company or organization is aiming to achieve. When I see true leadership in action, it is that rare ability of someone to both understand what that greater good is and then to be able to effectively drive others towards achieving it. I have rarely seen this but when I do, it is quite something to be part of.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Be authentic. Be authentic. Be authentic. Be authentic. Be authentic.
Without being true to yourself, including true your passions and your values, you won’t be happy or effective. I spent the first part of my career believing I had to pursue a version of ‘success’ that was based on societal norms and expectations. It didn’t take long to rebel against this and, while my journey in sustainable finance hasn’t been easy, it has been fulfilling. And I am always authentic in the work I do and the beliefs I have.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Since being a teenager, I have always lived by one simple directive — ‘it is always better to regret something you have done, than regret something you haven’t done’. True to form, I have applied this in all aspects of my life — in deciding to explore the world in the way I have, in my somewhat unusual career choices, in the non-conventional family I have built. I genuinely look forward to continuing to apply this motto as I grow old …
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Mark Carney. I just think that he has used his position, experience and voice to really force the financial industry globally to sit up and listen. I have so much respect for what he has achieved in driving the industry and the markets to awaken to what climate change means. We need to take action on all fronts — and as short-termist and self-absorbed as many players in the financial industry can be, Carney has done an effective job of not allowing this to continue. He’s used his influence to motivate others towards something bigger, and that’s leadership in action.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Website, which includes our various social media:
Where you can buy my book:
And my favorite personal platform, LinkedIn:
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!