RI Careers Interview: Narina Mnatsakanian, Director Impact & Sustainable Investment, Kempen Capital Management

Narina’s career has taken her from consulting to Kempen, via the PRI

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Tell us a bit about your current role and the company you work at?

I am currently Director of Impact and Sustainable Investment at Kempen Capital Management. Kempen is a European asset manager headquartered in the Netherlands. We are active managers with many niche strategies such as small caps, real estate, sustainable strategies and we also have fiduciary management business. 

In my role, I work both with our active funds helping portfolio managers integrate ESG issues into investment decisions and engage with companies. I also work with our clients such as pension funds and insurance companies to help them define and implement sustainability policies. 

Furthermore, I am a portfolio manager of the Kempen Global Impact Pool, a multi-asset impact fund that aims to realise market-based financial returns and a measurable, positive impact on society and the environment linked to five Sustainable Development Goals. 

What does your team do? 

Our team advises investment teams and client teams on sustainability issues, engages with companies and keeps track of the latest regulatory developments. 

There are three of us working full time, and we regularly have a trainee or an intern working alongside us. Each of us looks after a particular issue, so, for example, I am in charge of engaging on the social issues, while my colleagues are doing the ‘E’ and ‘G’ respectively. 

What does a typical working week look like for you? What do you do on a daily basis?

The work we do is very diverse, so every day is different. This is what makes the work very exciting. One day we could talk to our portfolio managers about ESG issues with companies or discuss a specific issue with company management. The other day I could be engaging with external stakeholders and speaking to our clients about setting new sustainability policies related to their assets, or we could be organising education sessions for pension fund boards on say climate change or human rights and other relevant themes. Furthermore, I could be working on impact due diligence for a new investment in the Global Impact Pool. 

Do you have any flexible working hours arrangements? 

There is much flexibility. For example, I try to work from home once a week and, depending on my schedule and the workload, I can choose when I work on what projects subject to the necessary work being done. The same applies to other team members. I think it is more productive when you know what you need to get done and then arrange the day that can enable you to do that rather than having a very rigid schedule. 

Have you always worked in RI/ESG? Tell us about your career path.

I started my career in consulting at Ernst & Young, where I worked for about a year and a half. Then I was headhunted by KMPG, working there for over two years as a strategy consultant. That was the time when I started questioning myself on the purpose and meaning of my work. I felt that that finance can be a force for good if investors embedded environmental and social factors in their investment decisions. 

Initially I started working on a pro-bono basis on a project for the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). After a while, I applied for a full-time job with the PRI and UNEP FI based in Geneva. In my new role, I was heading the emerging markets programme and building PRI investor networks in countries such as Brazil, South Korea, South Africa, and Japan. Gradually I was promoted to a global role where I was responsible for helping more investors sign up to the PRI globally and to set up new signatory networks around the world including in Australia, Europe and the US. It was an exciting time, equally so, very demanding: we worked with signatories to create brand new frameworks for investors to better understand and integrate ESG issues across asset classes. 

After the PRI, I worked for MN, the Dutch pension fund asset manager, for four years where I was responsible for ESG Integration, climate change engagements with oil & gas and mining companies and an emerging markets private equity firm Sarona for two years before joining Kempen.

What qualifications do you have? 

I graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in Law, Economics and Resource Management. I got my Master’s in Financial Economics from Rotterdam University. And later on, I got a certificate from CAIA (Chartered Alternative Investment Association).  

What do you like most, like least about RI/ESG?

What I like the most is the passion and drive most people working in this field have to change the system, the way our understanding around ESG issues has evolved over the time: today companies and investors agree that these changes have to take place and are ready to implement them. On the flip side, it’s tough to see and measure the real world impact of all the engagement and integration efforts that we do every day to get a better world. However, there are always successful engagements and clear cases where we were able to contribute to positive change and that is motivating me to keep going. 

What single thing or person has had the most positive impact on your career, and why?

I would say, James Gifford, the founding executive director of the PRI, he is very inspirational, and it was great to work with James at the early days of the PRI. 

What differences do you see, if any, between Sustainable finance/investments and conventional? 

I think it varies across geographies, but here in Europe, no one would now seriously doubt the importance of sustainability and the need to integrate it across the board. Unlike, for example, in the United States, where the conversation is still about the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’, but it’s gradually changing there as well. 

What is your understanding of a sustainable workplace? 

It’s a place where people are being treated with respect, honesty and transparency. 

In your view, how is the work culture changing to meet the demands and aspirations of a new generation, i.e. millennials? 

It’s partially reflected in what most firms are doing now vs. what they used to do ten years ago around sustainability. For example, when I started with EY in 2005, I had to convince key stakeholders in the firm why we need to focus more on sustainability and how we can do it. Now it would be a very different story. Also, the way millennials (by and large) treat their workplace and what they expect is very different from what it used to be (I am a millennial myself). In essence, millennials seek a job that offers more purpose and meaning to them and that is aligned with their core values. If the job doesn’t offer that, they would often wander off to look for other opportunities that they think are more worth their time and efforts.  

How does your firm recruit into ESG/ Is your firm looking for sustainable finance graduates or any other discipline?

We have a trainee scheme where we hire three or four trainees and then rotate them across the different teams, so they get to know the whole organisation and then if they fit in well and are successful we offer them a job. 

There is no particular discipline or background we are looking for, but we are always welcome graduates who are ambitious and curious. 

How important is it to have someone in a team who has a background in natural science? 

I think they will be a great asset to any team, especially for the environmental part. It can also help to get conversations with companies to a different level: deeper and broader. I have to admit though that it’s rare to see people with a natural science background joining sustainability teams, most people have degrees in finance, economics or law. 

If you knew what you know now, what would you have done differently when you started your career?

I am passionate about my work and I am happy to have contributed (at least a little bit) to moving responsible investment from niche to the mainstream. 

I’m not sure I would do something entirely different. I’m quite happy with this career path that I’ve taken.

What advice would you give to someone starting out today? 

It’s a great time to start your career in the sustainable finance field: it has meaning, you feel like you are contributing, working with a diverse group of people for a higher purpose. I would say don’t doubt yourself: it’s a learning curve, take one step at a time, learn from your peers, learn from your senior colleagues and build that knowledge gradually. 

Another critical skill is change management. You will work with very different people on very different topics, and you have to manage those relationships, you have to persuade people and explain to them why you think they should be doing something differently and what’s in it for them. It’s often a complex environment, and the way you adapt to it will define your career success. 

Looking ahead, where do you see the opportunities or growth areas for career paths in RI/ESG?

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis organisations and governments will hopefully focus a lot more on rebuilding better. The depth and breadth of ESG issues are changing dramatically, hence the roles that become available. Focusing on the real world impact of engagement and impact reporting, true ESG integration, and nature-based solutions are the areas that in my view, are the next big themes.