How Impact Investing Can Change Our Relationship with Money
About five years ago, I had a conversation about finance with my friend Anna. She told me, “I want to tell you something I haven’t told anyone else before.” I thought she was going to spill some big family secret, but she said “A few weeks ago, I walked into a branch of my bank where I had my first and only checking account. I approached one of the bankers there and explained that I wanted to open up an investment account—he came back with a stack of papers and brochures, passing the pile to me he said, ‘go home, read it and come back.’” My friend paused. “I went home but I did not come back.”
Embarrassed, Anna admitted to me, “I tried to look at the materials, but they were overwhelming. All the fine print, disclosures, financial lingo—it made me feel dumb.” Which was surprising coming from such a sharp person, one who had majored in business and now is an HR executive at a big technology company. She continued: “I don’t think investing is for me. I guess I’ll just leave things the way they are, keeping my money in cash.” The only thing I could squeeze out, “Believe me you are not dumb and I am sorry people, like me, in finance, made you feel this way.”
At that time I worked on Wall Street in product development and risk management and was heavily involved in creating products and explaining them in the way that made my friends feel “dumb.”
Understanding Why Millennials Have a Strained Relationship with Money
This conversation with Anna was one of many that I had with my friends, mostly millennials, about money and their limited interactions with the financial world. Sadly, there were not many bright spots. What I heard were concerns about student debt, credit card debt, and distrust towards a system that had failed them and their parents. The last recession and market crash had left real scars. The fear of loss never disappeared and there was an external pressure to invest because ‘it is what you’re supposed to do as an adult’ and yet most of my friends felt like they weren’t equipped. If I had to summarize my friends’ attitude towards money in a few words it would be “intimidated”, “overwhelmed”, and “embarrassed.”
I grew up in the Soviet Union, in a family where we had to be strict with our money because we did not have debt available to us. We could only spend what we had. We never had enough and we were always operating in scarcity mode. I was raised to be very careful with money. What I discovered to my surprise when I moved to the U.S. is that even though we think of the U.S. as this universally prosperous country, the discrepancy in wealth is drastic.
The access to financial services and products is not equally distributed and is influenced by biases involving gender, race, and even location. Access to financial products is like entering a high-rise building—most of us only have access to the first few floors. For example, when my friend Anna tried to get in the elevator up to the investments floor, she was handed a stack of papers and effectively turned away at the lobby. Can you blame her for feeling intimidated?
Searching for a Better Way
While difficult at the moment, the conversations with my friends about money inspired me to explore a different path. Conversation after conversation, I started to chip away at what felt wrong about money, and we would talk about their “wish list” when it comes to finance. What came up again and again was the desire to feel smart about money decisions – “whatever I do should be easy to understand, available to all, convenient to do, and make me feel good and empowered.”
I discovered that for many of my millennial friends, money decisions are not about high returns and becoming rich. Their goal is to have enough money to support their lifestyle and feel empowered about the decisions they make. They also had strong views that “how” they make money matters. Indeed, millennials are two times more likely to make investments that target specific social goals than your typical investor. They already buy fair trade coffee at local cafes, shop for organic produce at farmers markets and avoid clothing that isn’t sourced from an ethical supply chain. So, why can’t they request that same transparency from their banks and other financial institutions?
Call it “impact investing,” “aligning your money with your values,” or “socially responsible investing,” — what they wanted to do was to make a difference with their dollars. The challenge is that impact investing is generally unavailable to the masses and often requires a big bankroll or “being in the know.” Even if you just want to buy an ESG ETF, you need to have a brokerage account, which is a non-starter for many. What if we made it easier? And, what if the ability to connect your money with meaning changed the way you felt about your finances?
Which leads me to why I started my company, CNote.
Knowing that 76 percent of millennials see investment decisions as a way to express their social, political and environmental values, we wanted to make investing simple and impactful. With CNote, our members’ money works hard to revitalize communities around the country; women and minorities get loans to start and scale their businesses; affordable housing gets built in lower middle income (LMI) communities; and new charter schools open their doors — all because someone like Anna opens a CNote account and invests.
Small Investments, Big Change
We tend to underestimate the collective power our money can have. Even just a few hundred dollars from a few hundred people can drive significant change. That’s why I named my company CNote; it’s slang for “$100 bill” and short for “Community Note.” Together, our $100s become $millions, and these millions have tremendous power. To illustrate, CNote members have already helped create and maintain over 2,000 jobs in America, and that’s just the beginning.
When friends ask me for money advice, what I typically say is, “Whatever unfortunate experience you’ve had so far with finance, don’t get discouraged. Reflect on the goals you have, your ideal lifestyle and balance that with the social outcomes that matter to you. That will be your compass.” And, remember, every $100 matters. Whether you invest with CNote or somewhere else, make sure your money is working for you in a way that makes you proud. If you do, your feelings about money and finance will likely change drastically for the better.
Article by Yuliya Tarasava, the COO and Co-founder of CNote
mycnote.com, an impact investment platform delivering competitive returns by investing in women, minorities and low-income communities across America. As an experienced financial professional with expertise in risk management and product development, Yuliya focuses on leveraging financial tools to increase economic opportunity for everyone.
Previously, Yuliya led the quantitative due diligence for over 20 mutual funds across multiple asset classes for AMG Funds. Later at Summit Rock Advisors, she co-developed the proprietary analytics and risk management framework for a portfolio of over $10B in assets. She was one of 12 individuals selected for Acumen’s Global Fellows program, which led to her running strategy and operations for Juhudi Kilimo, a micro-financial institution in Nairobi that supports farmers and small-to-medium agro-businesses throughout Kenya. Yuliya was born and raised in Belarus and moved to the United States in 2004. She is a CFA charterholder.