An Open Letter to the Financial Services Industry From a Concerned Millennial
As a millennial, I have recently noticed a flurry of studies, articles, and reports about my generation, authored by a diverse range of interested parties. Quite a bit of the pure sociological data suggests that the 80 million of us born between 1980 and 2000 are narcissistic, lazy, and optimistic to the point of being delusional – it’s enough to make me want to delete that selfie!
Interestingly, the selfish characteristics so rampant in the sociological studies seem to dissipate when researchers start looking at how we Millennials spend our time and money. We want our work to have meaning for ourselves and the world, and we place a higher value on consumer goods that have some sort of beneficial social or environmental impact. Climate change is not a debate for us, and we probably still nag our parents about separating the trash from the recycling. Although we are generally more conservative in our investment decisions than previous generations (can you blame us?), we are willing to take on more financial risk if it increases exposure to ESG impact. Impact Assets recently authored this excellent Issue Brief (http://bit.ly/1usAobt) outlining many of the attitudes of millennial investors.
There is little doubt in my mind that the plethora of studies on Millennials, and particularly the way they intend to invest their money, will continue to multiply, for underpinning nearly every report is one essential, ubiquitous fact: Millennials will inherit over $30 trillion from the baby boomers in North America alone. This is the largest transfer of wealth the world has seen to date, and it could present an enormous opportunity for the financial services industry. If only advisors knew what these selfish, self-less Millennials wanted to do with their assets…?
To add anecdotes to data, my own motivations as a millennial investor stem from a few formative experiences that fundamentally shaped my worldview. I grew up in a very wealthy family, but one that valued hard work and giving back. I was brought up with a firm understanding that I had an obligation to help leave the world a little better than I found it – with great fortune comes great responsibility, to misquote FDR and Uncle Ben from Spiderman. When I inherited control over my assets at age 21, I wrestled with what to do. Like many who inherit wealth they did not create, I view my role as a steward – though I may be making decisions regarding its management, this wealth is not “mine”.
Rich White Girl Goes to Africa
Confused and curious, I decided to start reading and traveling. I read Amartya Sen while volunteering in India, Jeffrey Sachs and Muhammad Yunus while working at a microfinance institution in Tanzania. It was the first time I really witnessed that level of extreme poverty, and it made me feel even more unworthy of all the wealth I was born into.
More than anything else, though, I was moved by the people I met and the complexity of their lives. Examining daily cash flows, asking women how they thought about savings or paying school fees, how they made decisions when emergencies arose – I was humbled by how complicated it all was. And markets were everywhere – even in the most impoverished places, I saw clear evidence of financial problem solving and ingenuity. I know how cliché this sounds: Rich White Girl Goes to Africa, Has Life-Changing Experience. But alas! There it is.
I returned from these experiences, energized and eager to help. So I took a portion of my assets and started a foundation, because that’s what rich people do when they are energized and eager to help. Under my mother’s leadership, the IDP (Innovation, Development, Progress) Foundation has become a leader in the low cost private school movement, focusing on expanding educational opportunities in Ghana and other parts of the world. And while I am very, very proud of the work the foundation has done, over time I found myself feeling constrained by the limits of philanthropy and aid. Many of my experiences and frustrations have been corroborated by the work of economists like Dambisa Moyo, who cites compelling data about the ineffectiveness of some aid-based development. Programs start and stop, funding agendas change, and many well-intentioned “interventions” are designed halfway around the world from the very communities they aim to help. Oftentimes, aid reduces systemic issues into technical problems that can be “solved” with two-year interventions. There didn’t seem to be much space for dignity – or the indigenous problem solving I had witnessed.
What I found to be particularly bizarre, however, was the disconnection between the talk and the action. At many philanthropy conferences, I would hear the buzzwords: We should be engaging in “strategic”, “catalytic”, “venture” philanthropy that seeks “measurable”, “scalable”, “operationally sustainable”, “market-based” solutions to the world’s problems. It seemed odd to me… If there was a growing consensus that aid should be administered like business, well, why don’t we just simply do business?? Let’s stop talking like first year MBAs and just do it.
This was the real light bulb for me. But let me be clear – I don’t think all philanthropy is bad or ineffectual. Indeed, philanthropy can take risks and prove concepts. It can fund research and pick up the pieces when disaster strikes. And philanthropy can “buy down” risk in order to attract market-rate capital to help address chronic social problems. Some very important parts of society, such as the arts, will always need at least some philanthropy to recognize meaning and value where the market does not.
What I realized, however, is that philanthropy simply isn’t enough. I needed to use all the resources I had at my disposal to help scale solutions for a broad set of stakeholders. So I set out to learn as much as I could about how to leverage business and finance as a means for social impact.
Profit with Purpose
Luckily for me, there were already many, many examples of how good business practices can generate real value for communities all over the world. People were experimenting with creative ways to share that value, through innovative ownership structures like the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) and new corporate structures like Benefit Corporations. There were financial products that cater to these types of businesses through funds or debt facilities. I can barely keep up with all the new reports and conferences about impact investing. Even the large banking institutions seem to be in an arms race over new Social Impact Bond issuances!
As I began exploring these exciting new products and started to reinvest my portfolio in alignment with my beliefs and interest in impact, there was another experience that would fundamentally reshape my profile as an investor – the financial crisis. I was 24 in 2008, and my peers and I stood stunned as we watched markets collapse, risk assumptions crumble, and “uncorrelated” asset classes suddenly all…correlate—in the wrong direction!
This experience has had a profound effect on my generation. Some studies on millennial investors point out that we prefer to invest in physical assets over the stock market. And we are less trusting of advice from financial advisors – we will seek out many more opinions on financial decisions than previous generations did. The financial crisis occurred early enough in our lives that we haven’t really experienced anything else – this is our normal.
Some Friendly Advice for Financial Advisors
All of these experiences – as an inheritor, a philanthropist, a millennial, have deeply shaped how I think about investing and the ultimate purpose of capital. Several years ago, my husband and I formed Blue Haven Initiative, a family office managing a diversified international investment portfolio. We invest with high standards, always seeking to optimize financial return together with social and environmental performance. And though I do not deign to think I am speaking for my generation, I do believe some of these thoughts might be helpful for those who hope to advise a piece of the $30 trillion coming down the pike.
Stop talking about trade-offs.Like many in my generation, I want to do good and do well; I want profit with purpose. We don’t have to settle for one or the other. I know Milton Friedman didn’t think it was possible. Spoiler alert: Milton Friedman is not our idol.
We want to create value, real value. I want my investments to help improve livelihoods for communities. I want to help improve the land we live on. I want to help reduce waste or carbon emissions. Sustainable, long-term financial return can only be generated by improving social or environmental value, not extracting it.
We have to broaden our definition of risk. Investors like me are not satisfied with the traditional definition of risk – standard deviation and variability of returns. I think that is way too narrow. Hopefully, we will still be alive in 50 years, and that smog-filled, diabetes-riddled world we are creating sounds awfully expensive to me, regardless of how much my portfolio outperformed its benchmarks in Q3 2014. When we decide not to price in the negative impacts of our investments today, we are creating more risk (that someone will have to pay for) down the road.
And most importantly, let’s finally acknowledge that every investment we make has an impact on the world around us. Let’s make it a good one!
Article by Liesel Pritzker Simmons, Co-Founder and Principal of Blue Haven Initiative (bluehaveninitiative.com) a family office dedicated to investing for-profit and non-profit capital to solve social problems. BHI looks across asset classes and capital types to find solutions-oriented opportunities both in the US and in developing markets.
She is the Co-Founder of the IDP Foundation, Inc. (www.idpfoundation.org )a private foundation with a mission to mobilize resources and strategic support to increase educational opportunities. Established in 2008, the IDP Foundation has supported and developed a wide range of programs in the education sectors most notably the innovative IDP Rising Schools Program in Ghana, which leverages microfinance networks to empower nearly 200 low cost private schools with trainings and financial services. Pritzker Simmons is a Co-Founder of Opportunity International’s Young Ambassadors for Opportunity (YAO), a global network of young professionals who are passionate about microfinance. She serves on the boards of Waste Enterprisers, Eco-Post, and Synergos. Pritzker Simmons attended Columbia University, where she studied African History. She lives in Cambridge, MA with her husband, Ian Simmons.