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11 young professionals on the future of sustainable finance

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With ESG gaining more attention and more companies committing to reaching net-zero emissions in the coming decades or otherwise pledging to do better by people and the planet, it’s inevitable that the next generation of professionals in the field will define the future of sustainable finance.

"Finance professionals make up a fraction of the global population but are positioned to make and incentivize decisions that can shape the trajectory of the global economy," observed Ogechukwu Anyene, energy consulting manager at PowerAdvocate, who was part of the Emerging Leaders cohort at GreenBiz Group’s inaugural GreenFin event.

The Emerging Leaders program aims to foster a community of sustainability professionals that is diverse and representative of the world in which we live.

“The Emerging Leaders program provides a forum where environmentally focused youth can explore and learn about climate solutions and sustainability efforts across public and private sectors,” said Alex Liftman, global environmental executive at Bank of America, which sponsored the program at GreenFin. "These students [and young professionals] are the next generation of both workforce and problem solvers. Their creative thinking and perspective will help build more sustainable solutions for the future."

During GreenFin, Anyene was one of 12 students and young professionals who joined the conversations about the transition to net-zero, the need for more action when it comes to social and environmental justice, and the role of artificial intelligence in sustainable finance and ESG reporting.

When the conference wrapped up, we asked them what they had learned about the power of finance in advancing a clean, more just economy.

Below are answers from most of the latest cohort of Emerging Leaders.

Alfre Wimberly headshot

Alfre Wimberley

Legislative analyst at the North Carolina Conservation Network

An overarching theme that I learned in multiple sessions is that the private industry can only do so much on its own. There needs to be a standardized regulatory framework to clearly label what is sustainable and what is just behavior so that firms can respond to that and reconfigure their client offerings and portfolios to reflect those standards and progressive benchmarks. Financial institutions are powerful in fueling these changes, and many already are in that process. Nonetheless, additional education from leaders in the equity and sustainability fields can clarify the practical steps needed to assist players in the financial sector in meeting their organizational goals in these two areas while ensuring their behavior has the intended impact of making our world more equitable and sustainable.

Marjan Kris Abubo headshot

Marjan Kris Ramos Abubo

Blank scholar at UC Davis School of Law

With the current social and political climate and the broader push for sustainability across all sectors, it is without a doubt that sustainable finance is integral to propelling us into the greener future. Participating in this conference challenged me to think outside of my silo, learn about how different mechanisms work hand in hand, and pushed me to reimagine what it means to use existing (albeit imperfect) economic tools to prioritize equity and justice in the finance sector. This event has also made me realize the overlapping goals that both public and private actors possess and how integrated decision-making can really push society in the direction toward environmental equity, even if the approaches we offer may not be the same. 

At the end, I have the privilege to participate in these processes and remain involved in this green transition. Ignoring the realities of climate change — and recognizing the disparate impacts that environmental harms have on systemically vulnerable populations — compels me to continue finding collaborative solutions and frameworks that can work for us all, the "tide that lifts all boats."

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Betty Cheong

Associate, Corporate Engagement at CDP

Finance has a lot of power in advancing a clean and more just economy through providing the capital for companies in order to transition to the low-carbon economy. In regards to GreenFin, I was particularly impressed with the amount of times that carbon pricing was brought up. There are challenges in terms of getting the right price, but I think that it’s a very powerful tool in mitigating climate change. It is definitely something I will keep my eyes on. There was also a lot of talk on incorporating ESG in emerging markets, and I completely agree with that. We must ensure that when capital is redirected to the low-carbon economy, that emerging markets are incorporated as well. All in all, I really enjoyed the sessions put on by GreenFin, and can’t wait to attend next year's conference.

Ogechukwu Anyene headshot

Ogechukwu Anyene

Energy consulting manager at PowerAdvocate

My experience as an Emerging Leader at GreenFin 21 was engaging, insightful and inspiring, to say the least. The conference truly contextualized the power of finance in promoting a clean, more just economy from a variety of vantage points. For example, within the investment value chain, investment managers can work with stakeholders such as asset managers and corporations to identify opportunities to financially back innovative and potentially transformative startups in the market aiming to advance a green and fair economy.

My biggest takeaway from GreenFin21 is the responsibility that comes with a powerful, mobilizing force such as finance. Finance professionals make up a fraction of the global population but are positioned to make and incentivize decisions that can shape the trajectory of the global economy. That being the case, it is incumbent for the finance community as a whole to ensure that colleagues, portfolio companies and more hold financial viability as well as ESG factors, in equal parity when doing business.

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Vanshaj Verma

Energy markets, Procurement & Sustainability Consultant at E&C

Project appraisal is one of the key elements in the feasibility analysis of any initiative, which means that the financial health of any project or initiative is crucial for its forthcoming success. Tying in this analogy to our present-day world means that any economy’s progress in the coming years would be driven by practices, policies and programs that are sustainable for our neighborhoods, our cities, our countries and our Earth. Therefore, an immediate conclusion that can be drawn from here is that financing a cleaner and greener economy is extremely essential. The plausible threats posed by changing weather patterns, melting glaciers, increasing emissions and declining animal and plant species can no longer be brushed under the carpet. And to reverse and prevent these phenomena, a lot of corrective initiatives and programs would have to be created and executed, which in turn are based on a strong financial foundation — hence highlighting how powerful can "finance" be.  

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Bryanna Briley

Advisor support associate at Horizons Sustainable Financial Services

GreenFin21 provided a wealth of information and resources about the present and the future of sustainable finance. In a society that is hyper-focused on capital as the primary way people support themselves and engage with the world, it is only logical to surmise that there must be a way to employ financial power in transforming the economy. Over the two days of keynotes and breakout sessions, I learned that data is imperative for the success of bringing ESG values to the forefront of the economy. Businesses and financial institutions need to be convinced that there is equity in making sustainable choices. The pandemic spurred new energy and action into emphasizing ESG, which is encouraging. It was inspiring to hear about an acknowledgment that gender is relevant in all facets of finance, especially as a woman of color trying to find my place in this field. It was also exciting to hear about the work the Dallas Fort Worth airport is doing to make commitments to sustainable changes, because this kind of modeling will be imperative in making similar changes with other municipalities. This conference made me certain that brilliant strides are being made in environmental and climate concerns, and these strides are financially backed which will make all of the difference.

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Gabrielle Xu

Investments Leadership Development Program at Columbia Threadneedle Investments, U.S.

Finance is essential for advancing a clean, more just economy. Many have cited the past year as an inflection point for sustainable investing. Institutional investors and individuals alike are displaying unprecedented interest in ESG due to a convergence of factors including the global health crisis and accelerating climate events.

Coming face to face with inequalities exposed during the pandemic has forced leaders to address DEI in the workplace. Intensifying climate events like wildfires and rising sea levels have affected more people than ever. It is time to act — and to act, we need finance. The financial sector touches all stakeholders, from businesses to consumers, and is the backbone of the economy.

Sustainable finance can create long-term value by managing risks and returns, as well as by building more resilient systems for the future. Investors can intentionally invest in companies that have a positive social impact and exclude companies that do not. Investors can engage with businesses about their ESG practices. Investors can commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Finance spans all sectors and can be used in countless ways to advance a clean, more just economy.

It is apparent that any organization that doesn’t consider ESG will be exposed to future operational risks. The business case has been made, and stakeholder interests are now aligning. Finance is a powerful tool that can (and should) be actively used for good, to serve the communities in which we live and work.

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Sheryl Owen

Global sustainability expert at SDG Advocate

Financial institutions can unlock opportunities for under-resourced communities to join the fight against climate change, while supporting their bottom line. Through GreenFin 21, I have learned that investors that are best poised for the future are those that actively engage with companies through the "power of purpose." Utilizing private funds that are funneled toward bridging the gap between social impact and environmental goals is key and has been demonstrated to be profitable for companies. The current green bonds used to offset GHG emissions can be expanded to identify a roadmap that supports individuals within a corporation’s community or supply chain. Active engagement with your purpose means that there needs to be a development of thoughtful metrics, a roadmap for how to get there and constant reassessment of strategies implemented. The problem of how to tackle a just transition to a green economy can only be solved through reevaluation and is key in any ESG portfolio that wants to continuously see progress that serves a local or global community need. 

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Richa Agarwal

MES candidate at the University of Pennsylvania & ESG Intern — Artisan Sustainable Emerging Markets Team

GreenFin 21 was a great reminder that this is a fantastic time to be part of the sustainability realm and play a part in building and assuring a just, sustainable and inclusive economy worldwide in this decisive decade. The opportunity to meet such stellar emerging leaders and industry leaders was comforting as these remarkable people are leading and fighting the battle for a cleaner and equitable world. With such great minds at work, the hope is that it is only a function of time that sustainable finance will become mainstream.

With the pandemic having aggravated income and social inequality globally, from the conversation at GreenFin 21, it is clear that many practitioners, financiers, regulators are slowly but progressively aligning and transitioning to a clean and just economy. My main takeaway was that in order to expedite action and transition, we must focus on ESG transparency and engagement. While finance can unlock many opportunities, stakeholders must actively initiate collaborative conversations and actions that consider the voices of the entire value chain, especially with those previously underrepresented and in the emerging world. Along with the focus on better disclosures, we must come together on action globally.

GreenFin 21 validated that tremendous environmental, social and fiscal opportunities exist in redefining capitalism which can address social inequalities, injustices and climate change. Overall, it was reassuring to hear prominent not-for-profits, banks, asset holders, insurers and businesses talk about the power of finance that can support a value shift, turn pledges into progress, and that ESG is here to stay!

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Mecca Luster

Impact Investing and returned Peace Corps Volunteer

I've learned that finance professionals can no longer sit on the sidelines and lean on our counterparts in the social sector to do the heavy lifting. It's time we reframe our thinking about investing as more than an opportunity to create individual wealth. Sustainable finance is an opportunity to give our counterparts in the social sector the financial support they've needed for decades. It is about amplifying the voices and leaders that have been fighting for clean energy, civil rights and equitable healthcare for decades. Looking to these activists for technical assistance should be the norm in all ESG investing. I hope the finance industry will finally shed the vestiges of extractive capital creation and instead push to be boldly and unapologetically impactful.

Anjali Sindhuvalli headsot

Anjali Sindhuvalli

Sustainability Across the Curriculum intern, University of Georgia student

I once thought that utilizing finances in order to stabilize the circular economy relied on purely individual efforts — after all, each dollar spent is a choice that supports particular global supply chains, initiatives and resources. However, I have learned about the power of collaboration and of taking into account the differences between stakeholder and investor preferences in order to create a cleaner economy. Although interests may not align, the purchasing power of these groups can be harnessed to pinpoint cleaner financial decisions. As large investment firms push for the expansion of the green bond market, the public, private and nonprofit sectors may all benefit from cooperative efforts and linked supply chains when manufacturing and distributing products. I hope to see an increased push for carbon-neutral investments and economic structures that are available to people of all financial and social classes.

I am honored to be selected as an emerging leader, and I had a wonderful time attending the sessions and the breakouts.

Are you a student or young professional interested in advancing the circular economy? Applications for the Circularity 21 Emerging Leaders program are open until May 14.

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