RI Careers Interview: “It can be challenging to stay current because the list of topics under the ESG banner continues to grow and expand”

Shami Nissan, Head of Responsible Investment at Actis, talks to Responsible Investor about how she got into ESG

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

I am Head of Responsible Investment at Actis, a private markets investor with an exclusive focus on emerging markets (Latin America, Africa and Asia). We invest across different asset classes, including infrastructure, energy, real estate and private equity. Actis itself is about 15 years old and it was spun out from CDC, the UK development finance institution. My role is focused on strategic issues such as looking across the firm and thinking ahead in terms of what responsible leadership looks like in three to five years. The team I lead is charged with assessing how ESG issues can be material to our investments and managing those issues to enhance value creation and deliver positive, measurable impacts to society.  I also sit on the risk and executive committees at Actis and am a trustee of Actis ACTS, a charitable foundation linked to Actis. 

Who is on your team? 

We are a team of four that's based between London and Johannesburg. Between us we have more than 50 years’ experience in the ESG industry. We work very closely with colleagues from within the different asset classes and across the central functions. For our firm, a team of four is quite a significant investment and that's a signal of the importance that we place on sustainability and ESG issues. 

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

It's a diverse role and there isn't a typical day – which makes its very interesting and exciting. Broadly speaking the focus areas will be, for example, undertaking ESG due diligence on target companies so that we can pinpoint if there are risks to mitigate or opportunities to capture. There are always a variety of ESG workstreams that are being implemented in partnership with portfolio companies – these could relate to climate change, human rights, diversity and inclusion, health & safety, community relations or governance/integrity. There may be sessions with our investors to explain our approach and provide updates, and I try to participate in cross-industry working groups to share the Actis approach and learn how our peers are tackling similar issues.

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

My entire career has been dedicated to sustainability in one way, shape or form. My first degree was Biological Sciences, I then completed a Masters at Imperial College London in Environmental Technology.  

After my graduation, I spent some time working in Imperial as an academic, doing research on sustainable forestry and various other topics. After a while, I worked at the UN Development Programme in Guatemala and Mexico for a year or so, focusing much more on social- and community-type of projects. One of the projects I was involved in was the Small Grants Programme, which issued grants to communities based on proposals that they submitted. So instead of the UN policymakers deciding how to disperse those funds, it was for communities to self-identify their development needs and the right solutions. As a field officer, I spent a lot of time on the ground visiting different communities to see how projects were being implemented, whether the funds were being spent in the way that was envisaged and whether the objectives are being met. 

Shortly after that, I worked at Innovest – a sustainability rating agency – which has since been acquired by MSCI. I ran the London office of Innovest for a few years and, after that, I moved to PwC where I spent 10 years in the sustainability and climate change team in London.

Why did you choose a degree in Environmental technology? 

I was attracted to the Masters at Imperial as it was one of the very few at that time that sought to bring together the environmental discipline with business.  

Are you happy about your choice? 

Absolutely. I am now in a role where I spend time thinking about improving environmental and social benefit to people in emerging markets, and that is exactly what I wish to be doing it and I find it very impactful and rewarding. 

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

What's interesting about it is that it's very dynamic, continually evolving and you have to work to stay informed and abreast of the developments in the field. You have to be a very multi-disciplinary person: embracing technical issues like carbon reduction and then thinking about fostering diverse and inclusive workplaces along with everything in between. 

It can be challenging to stay current because the list of topics that fall under the ESG banner continues to grow and expand. For example, since the outbreak of COVID-19, we’re seeing a renewed focus on ‘Social’ factors and greater awareness of issues such as supply chain, workers’ conditions, community engagement and employee wellbeing. Companies have a duty of care and we’re starting to see businesses recognise their responsibilities. 

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

I don't think there was a single person or a thing. I stayed with what interested me from day one and that served me well. It's gratifying to see that what I chose to dedicate my career to is much better understood now by the private sector and society. 

What is your understanding of a sustainable workplace?

There are various dimensions that one could highlight in answering this question. One area which I think is very important is inclusion and diversity: making sure that you are bringing the absolute best talent through the door and that that talent is able to flourish and achieve its full potential, that you are mitigating risk of ‘group think’, sparking innovation and giving people an opportunity to be active contributors.  

How do you recruit into ESG? 

If we do look to strengthen the team, we're looking for experienced people with technical skills and industry experience. We don’t hire graduates on a continuous basis. 

If you knew what you know now, what would you have done differently when you started your career. What advice do you wish you’d been given when you started out?

What I've learnt is that the best preparation for doing this job is to learn on the job. Relevant technical training is important to be successful but there's no real single degree or discipline that gives you everything that you need. A lot of your toolkit is learnt on the job. 

What advice would you give to someone starting out today?

On the ground, practical experience is really valuable. Some grounding in investing in capital markets, finance is helpful as well. As for the soft skills being persuasive, influential and an excellent communicator are essential for gaining traction and delivering results.

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

Sustainability is a huge macro trend and it's only going to get more important. It’s a massively growing area of importance to investors and millennials as consumers and individuals who are thinking what they are buying and where they are working. I think that ESG roles are going to continue to multiply and there are huge opportunities for people that want to get into the space. Climate and gender are probably the two big topics that I see as potential growth areas over the next few years. 

To access other interviews and Sustainable Finance Careers Report follow the link: esg-data.com/careers