A concept is not a product. — I spent over a year with incredible passion about the idea of “impacting the world as you impact your bottom line,” before I figured out how to turn the idea into a company.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Ann Hawley.
Mary Ann Hawley is the Founder and CEO of UnifyImpact, a digital platform that empowers millennials to align their investment decisions with their values. The UnifyImpact web app is powered by Environmental, Social, and Governance data that allows users to compare companies’ sustainability performance with financial performance. Members can voice their opinions about potential investments to a community of peers and track their choices over time with a personal watchlist.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started my career in advertising. I began as a copywriter, but most of my time was spent as an account executive. My favorite part of that job was the role of “visionary.” We were responsible for the creative strategy that writers and art directors used to create ads that would either make or break a company’s revenue. I have always been a “big picture” thinker and that has carried through in my work in non profit organizations, building an iconic residence in Bedford, NY, and was what led me to become involved in the finance industry.
After spending years on the periphery of the financial world, as the spouse of a fixed income trader who later became the CEO of an international bank, I suddenly found myself single and managing assets on my own. As I worked with my own investment advisors, I began to follow the markets closely and I remembered feeling disillusioned when I asked about ESG and responsible investing. So I started learning. I took graduate courses at Columbia, attended conferences on socially responsible investing and impact investing in London and New York. My watershed moment was at a CFA forum, “Disrupt 19,” where thought leaders and geo-policists, institutional investors and quants, gathered to discuss the state of the world’s financial health. I was introduced to the ESG data provider, Refinitiv, formerly Reuters, who had developed a platform for institutional investors to look at a company’s ESG performance through many data points. It was riveting and I wondered if this kind of data could help people like me make more informed decisions.
At the institutional level in the ESG space, private equity seemed to be working hand in hand with NGOs, acknowledging the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and had started to consider sustainability factors material. Asset managers were creating funds and publishing papers on new ways that ESG factors can have positive and negative impact on companies’ business models and values drivers, such as revenue growth, margins, required capital, and risk. Yet the mainstream retail investment platforms didn’t include sustainability factors in what it means to create a “balanced portfolio” or make money in the long-term.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
UnifyImpact is really founded on the idea that all people who are investing or considering investing deserve access to transparent information about companies’ sustainability performance. We have a brand new website, and we have created a web app, which is now in beta testing!
The UnifyImpact web app is powered by Environmental, Social, and Governance data that allows users to compare companies’ sustainability performance with financial performance. Members can voice their opinions about potential investments to a community of peers and track their choices over time with a personal watchlist.
Our app is accessible and easy to use for people who are not necessarily financial experts, independent as in we don’t work for asset managers, funds, or corporations, and transparent as we show the good, the bad, and the ugly of sustainability performance. We don’t tell our members what sustainability factors to value, but give them the tools to compare sustainability data to financial data.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, I’m not sure how funny it is, but my biggest mistake in starting my company was confusing a “concept” with a “product.” From day one, I wanted to give my users all the tools they needed to make a positive impact while making money. We have a lot of great ideas and built more features than the typical MVP, so it took a long time! Fortunately, I have an awesome product development team helping me reel in the vision and build the right tools in the right order.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
One person I am particularly grateful for, because he understood me as a precocious kid, is Jim Flaherty. Jim had worked for my dad as a cub copywriter back in the days of Mad Men and inspired me to write like a copywriter — to be clever and ironic and get the messages across. After I graduated from university, he was the Creative Director at one of the world’s biggest ad agencies and he mentored me in my first job in copywriting. He was crazy, fun, irreverent, and just full of joy, and I hope some of that astounding energy sits within me. And I hope the fun, dynamic environment at UnifyImpact helps everyone of our team members feel like an innovator and visionary.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Of course, there are plenty of examples of disruptive innovations that did not pass the test of time. Plastics solved certain industrial problems and replaced other resource intensive materials, but ultimately had a detrimental impact on the environment. Broadly, the internet gives more people access to information and services they would not otherwise be able to access, but also creates privacy concerns and addictive behaviors that can be detrimental.
But when we talk about disruption at UnifyImpact, we are not talking about a new invention, but a new idea. We want to disrupt the idea that sustainability and economics are at odds. We are interested in the idea that those who want to make a positive impact on the world and those who want to make money actually have a shared interest: the idea that a sustainable economy is better positioned for long-term growth. All the elements exist; the research is already there. The real disruptive part is giving people the power to take sustainability into their own hands. This is not something that will be a fleeting new invention, rather it is movement towards longer-term thinking.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- A concept is not a product. — I spent over a year with incredible passion about the idea of “impacting the world as you impact your bottom line,” before I figured out how to turn the idea into a company.
- Stand up for your great ideas. — There will be people along the way who don’t believe in you, but there will also be people who do believe in you, and those are the ones who will be with you for the long haul.
- Know what you don’t know. — It’s what allows you to find your best collaborators.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
This is just the beginning. We have a new website, we have a beta version of our app, but now we are dedicating our entire efforts to refining the tools we have created to make it easier for our users to get access to the incredible data the financial industry has created to track companies’ sustainability performance.
My dream is to give UnifyImpact members the tools to make demands of companies they invest in or to divest from those companies if they are out of alignment with their values, collaborate with others who share their values, and use their voice to drive change.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I have observed two reactions from others in this male-dominated industry. The first are people who believe in what I’m doing. They want to join us. They share the vision that sustainable investing is smart investing. The second are people who have told me that unless I do things “their” way, I’m going to “crash and burn.” When I meet males in the industry, they either dismiss my ideas or embrace them. Either way, I stay dedicated to empowering the next generation to understand sustainability better and make more informed decisions.
One major trend in the business of Sustainable Investing is selling thematic ETFs. Selling thematic funds is an easy way to build a product around the idea of sustainable investing, and the success of these products shows people are interested. But few conventional wealth advisors or fund managers dare to give their clients transparent information about the companies in those funds. Remember, there is no such thing as a “ESG company.” There really isn’t such a thing as a “green company” in the public sector. While companies have worked to limit pollution, few have done it entirely. Without transparent information about sustainability performance, it’s hard for investors to know what they are actually investing in.
I’m different because I’m not an asset manager. I’m not trying to protect my place in the industry, I’m giving people access to the truth.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
We do a lot of reading and listening at UnifyImpact, but here are a couple favorites —
Brian Deese, the Head of Sustainability at BlackRock, did a short interview with Bloomberg that gives a really simple and clear articulation of how sustainable investing is risk averse and how ESG factors are starting to be considered financial value drivers.
I am a huge fan of Andrew Behar’s The Shareholder Action Guide: Unleash Your Hidden Powers to Hold Corporations Accountable. Behar is the CEO of “As You Sow” an awesome non-profit organization dedicated to shareholders’ rights. On a recent webinar, Behar unpacked a decarbonization ETF, revealing the importance of breaking down funds and portfolios to the company level to see all areas of sustainability.
We also like the way David Wallace-Wells articulates the ways climate change and economic change are deeply interrelated in his book The Uninhabitable Earth. His TEDtalk is a pretty good way to get started: (https://www.ted.com/talks/david_wallace_wells_how_we_could_change_the_planet_s_climate_future?language=en)
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If UnifyImpact is going to launch a movement, the movement would be to bridge the gap between economic growth and sustainability. Financial analysts are starting to see the correlation, but there is a long way to go to achieve the broad shift in understanding necessary to build a more sustainable economy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s important to always be gracious, listen to others, and know your soul intimately.
There have been many obstacles to cross in the process of building my company and developing an app. Many people have opinions about the biggest and smallest decisions that need to be made. When we remind ourselves we are all dedicated to the company’s mission, and to each other, we are able to overcome the obstacles and disagreements and innovate. Good leadership requires knowing the people you work with as human beings.
How can our readers follow you online?
Visit our website at www.unifyimpact.com. Click “Join UnifyImpact” to create a free account and try our beta.
Follow us on social media FB, Twitter, LinkedIn: @unifyimpact IG: @unifyimpactapp
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!