When advisers attend industry conferences, they can usually expect to be swimming in a sea of white males, given the demographics of the financial services sector. That is, unless the conference focuses on social impact investing.

Then the gender ratio reverses.

“I looked out, and it was an ocean of women,” recalls Matthew Weatherley-White about his recent experience speaking at such an event.

As a managing director of the Caprock Group, Weatherley-White leads the advisory firm’s initiative on impact investing and, in that role, has guest lectured on sustainable business management at business schools nationwide and in Europe.

His audience scans from those stages reflect what is seen on the web pages identifying team members of advisory firms, think tanks, foundations and other asset managers who are focused on social-impact investing: Women lead and populate in this sector, more so than in any other in the financial services industry.

Consider a short roster of women in the social-impact investment world.

There are the women who founded firms focused on impact investing, including Andrea Turner Moffitt, who started Plum Alley Investments; Patricia Farrar-Rivas, a founding principal and the CEO of Veris Wealth Partners; and Erika Karp, founder and CEO of Cornerstone Capital.

There are also the women providing the tools, such as Susan Balloch, the chief operating officer of Global Impact Investing Network, and Jean Rogers, the CEO and founder of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board.

“I looked out, and it was an ocean of women,” Matthew Weatherley-White, The Caprock Group's managing director says.

Then there are the women controlling foundations and pension money and moving it in the direction of socially responsible investing, including Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Cheryl Eason, the deputy executive officer and chief financial officer of CALpers.

“Women are drawn to the broader responsible social conversation,” says Weatherley-White.

The concentration of women raises a perhaps uncomfortable question: Is the social-impact investment advisory sector a haven or a ghetto for women?

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“I love the question,” Weatherley-White says. Ghettos, like havens, are often places that provide mutual support, he says.

But when he used the word in the past to describe the social-impact investment world, “I got a lot of heat,” he recalls. He thinks only the future growth of the social-impact investment sector will provide the ultimate answer to the ghetto-versus-haven question.

“To date, it has been a haven. It’s been a place where their voices are heard. They can work, raise assets and start companies,” he says.

But until the notion of evaluating investments by measuring underlying sustainability becomes mainstream, the social-impact investment sector will remain “cloistered,” and so will the women advisers who dominate it, Weatherley-White says.. That separate –and possibly not equal status--will remain a risk as long as large swaths of the financial advisory world assume, incorrectly, that, with ESG investing, profitability takes a backseat to philosophical and ideological concerns,


Researchers have developed much more evidence about the consistently higher returns possible when investors focus on sustainability and ESG factors, says Jackie VanderBrug, U.S. Trust's senior vice president and investment strategist.

Social-impact investment goals are already gaining mainstream acceptance, and they have gained momentum in the past few years, according to Weatherley-White and others.

“The level of interest is fundamentally different than when I joined U.S. Trust three years ago,” says Jackie VanderBrug, a senior vice president and investment strategist in portfolio analytics at the firm, who is responsible for developing its value-based investing strategy.

During the intervening years, she says, researchers have developed much more evidence about the consistently higher returns possible when investors focus on sustainability and ESG factors. No longer does ESG investing “require a performance trade off,” she says. There have also surfaced a growing number of choices of funds with managers that are ESG driven, she says.

VanderBrug lists the milestones that mark social-impact investing’s movement into the mainstream, including:

  • The credit rating agencies’ alerts, as early as 2013, that they would start considering environmental, social and governance factors when evaluating assets.
  • The October 2015 announcement by the U.S. Department of Labor that it would replace guidance on retirement account rules to remove barriers to investments that promote the public good.
  • The United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment unveiling of a three-year program to engage asset owners, asset managers and policy makers across national and international jurisdictions to harmonize a global understanding of fiduciary duty that incorporates sustainability factors.
  • The news in January that Morningstar had started scoring mutual funds based on ESG metrics to give advisers and investors a way to judge their performance in these areas.
  • “Each year there are new events, and all of these are coming together,” VanderBrug says. Although pioneers in the field were women, “there were obviously strong men standing with them,” she notes. But women are either in the majority or equally represented in the ESG subsectors of financial services.

“I wouldn’t want to say it’s pink, but it has been a field where, philosophically, women have led,” VanderBrug says. “Part of that is because women have a more holistic view of investment. Yes, they do care about returns, but they also care about the role of their investments in society. It’s partly because they are looking for more opportunities to differentiate themselves. And it’s partly because they are looking to meet objectives beyond the benchmarks.”

Should women embrace the womanhood of the social impact investment world, and assume ghetto pride by standing together with their sisters whenever possible?

Hundreds of women in the social-impact investment field are doing exactly that. They have encouraged women to invest in women-dominated companies and to bond with other women in the financial services industry who are focused on social-impact investing.

“Our collective aspiration is to lead ESG into the mainstream and do it with camaraderie,” says Lori Choi, Veris Wealth Partners' principal.

In 2012 Lori Choi, a principal in Veris Wealth Partners in New York, Lisa Scott Trager, executive director of investing with impact at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, and Eva Zlotnicka, a vice president of research, also at Morgan, hatched the idea of creating just such a group.

Back then, the trio started Women Investing for a Sustainable Economy, a professional networking group, and held their first meeting with just the three of them at a Manhattan restaurant.

Fast-forward four years and 800 women have joined WISE, which has branches in Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and London.

“Our collective aspiration is to lead ESG into the mainstream and do it with camaraderie,” Choi says. “That was part of our original purpose, and we have seen progress.”

The WISE groups meet regularly and develop programming for skill-building and mentoring sessions. The sessions have gained enough popularity that men have asked to join.

“We had to turn them away,” Choi says.

Miriam Rozen

Miriam Rozen, a Financial Planning contributing writer, is a staff reporter at Texas Lawyer in Dallas.