Mary Ann Hawley of UnifyImpact: “Shareholders have rights”

My hope is that investors won’t let the fear that the world is ending be a reason to cash out investments. Panic often causes people to miss out on opportunities that may help them retire sooner or improve their long-term financial well being. As a part of my series about “Investing During The Pandemic”, I had […]

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My hope is that investors won’t let the fear that the world is ending be a reason to cash out investments. Panic often causes people to miss out on opportunities that may help them retire sooner or improve their long-term financial well being.

As a part of my series about “Investing During The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Ann Hawley.

Mary Ann Hawley is the Founder and CEO of UnifyImpact, a digital platform that empowers millennial 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 for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the finance industry?

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 share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Well, I’m not sure how amusing 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.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

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.

My goal in starting the company was to allow the next generation of wealth holders to choose what impact they want to have on the world while investing in their own financial future.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

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.

Let’s shift a bit to what is happening today in the broader world. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty and loneliness. From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to our families and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

There are more than enough reasons to be anxious about the future. I hold space for those emotions in all the communities I am part of. And I’ll be honest, I feel them too.

But as a business owner, I am looking for all the ways I can take uncertainty and turn it into action. I have been encouraged by the financial news and new research that suggests many people took the dip in the stock market in the spring as an opportunity to reorganize their portfolios. We’ve read that people are making moves towards more sustainable investing strategies, changes that they may have been afraid to make in a bull market.

Though the negative impacts of the pandemic have been immense, I try to see it as a wake up call to look at the bigger picture of how society works. My hope is that we also see the opportunities for improvement and justice through the support of our communities, finding our voices, voting with our dollars.

Internally, UnifyImpact has definitely been pushed in new directions by the pandemic. Even in our startup days, we have learned to adapt to remote working and have built a team that is spread all over the world. The opportunities for international collaboration and the incorporation of new ideas are very exciting!

Ok. Thanks for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. As you know the stock market and the economy in general have become extremely volatile and uncertain. Many people “dollar cost average” and put aside a monthly sum into a long term savings plan for retirement, college, or a home purchase. If a loved one or a client came to you and said, “I have been saving and investing 500 dollars every month in an S&P 500 index fund. Over the next few months until the dust settles, should I be doing something else with my money?”, what would you say to them?

First of all, I’d like to clarify that I am not in the business of giving investment advice. UnifyImpact is about giving people the tools to understand companies’ sustainability performance so that they can make more informed decisions for themselves. We provide data, we provide news, and we make it a lot easier to access than it is on the platforms designed for finance pros.

We don’t recommend our members fire their financial advisors, rather we encourage them to dig deeper: unpack their portfolios, unpacks the ETFs and mutual funds they are investing in, break it down to a company by company approach and understand what impact each company is having on the world. We believe that sustainability and financial well being go hand in hand, especially in the long run, and provide tools to help our members ask better questions and learn more.

Eventually the economy will recover and rebound. Certain sectors, like travel and hospitality might be hurting for a while. But other sectors, like technology and healthcare, might do very well. If someone wanted to prepare today to take advantage of the future recovery, what would you suggest they do?

Again, I’m not an investment advisor, I’m not going to make specific recommendations about companies to invest in. I am in the business of empowerment. We want to give people better information that helps them identify which investments are aligned with their values and their vision for the future. I believe that millennial, the next generation of wealth holders, deserve to choose what world they want to live in, and investing is one opportunity to do so.

My hope is that investors won’t let the fear that the world is ending be a reason to cash out investments. Panic often causes people to miss out on opportunities that may help them retire sooner or improve their long-term financial well being.

Are there sectors that provide exciting and lucrative investment opportunities today, specifically because of the volatility and uncertainty?

I’m not going to point members towards a certain sector or investment, but it is very important to me to remind people that they have more power than they think.

One reason is: materiality is changing. Because of the internet and because people are becoming more aware and vocal about the issues that matter to them, they are starting to have the power to shift the markets. Public perception is becoming more and more material in determining value. As a result, ESG factors, which used to be non-financial, are being integrated more and more in financial analysis.

Second: shareholders have rights. If you own as little as 2,000 dollars of a company for a year, you have the right to make demands of corporate boards and executives about how that company is run.

The short story is, uncertainty is no reason to be passive. You have the power to decide what impact you want to have with your money.

Are there alternative investments that you think more people should look more deeply at?

I encourage people to look at investments on a company to company level. Every company has an ESG story to tell, and the more you learn, the more control you have over your impact and financial health.

If a person in their thirties and forties came to you today and said that they have 10,000 dollars that they want to put away today for a long term investment what would you advise them to do with it?

Sustainable investing is not an alternative to traditional investment strategies, rather it is an added layer that helps us think about our impact on the world and long-term risk aversion and to learn more about how companies are run and what future they are planning for. ESG data is a tool every investor deserves direct access to.

Ok, thank you! Here is a more general finance question. You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive essentials for smart investing, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?

The biggest message I am trying to share with the next generation is that they can be as active in understanding the implications of their financial decisions as they are in other parts of their life. We’ve seen a lot of research that suggests many millennial who invest do so through 401K plans or financial advisors and don’t always have the financial literacy to understand what they are investing in or the tools to make more informed decisions. The reason I am not creating a fund or thematic portfolio, rather giving new investors the tools to choose their “holdings” for themselves is that I believe in them. I believe the next generation has a bigger view of how the world works and will make more sustainable decisions with their money. All I’m trying to do is give them the power to take the reigns.

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.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest 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.

Thank you for the interview. We wish you only continued success!

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