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“When I talk to my children about what I do with my work, I talk with pride and passion”

Jessica Robinson, Associate Director in International Affairs, Abu Dhabi Global Markets talks to Responsible Investor about how she got into ESG and her career to date.

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

 I have just started a new role as Associate Director in International Affairs at Abu Dhabi Global Markets, the financial regulator in Abu Dhabi. It is an exciting time as the organisation is becoming increasingly active on sustainable finance, having launched its Sustainable Finance Guiding Principles earlier this year. Prior to this, since moving to the UAE a couple of years ago, I worked as a consultant for various clients, applying my sustainable finance and responsible investment expertise to both private and public organisations. And of course, I have continued with Moxie Future, an education and information blog site for women who want to learn more about sustainable investing. Excitingly, my big ‘Moxie’ project last year was writing my book, ‘Financial Feminism: A woman’s guide to investing for a sustainable future’, an easy and accessible read for any woman keen to learn more. I loved writing it and cannot wait for it to hit the shelves in early 2021.

Who else is involved in Moxie Future?  

The wonderful thing about Moxie Future is that so many women want to get involved. We have a number of women who we call Ambassadors. They support our outreach in local markets, write blog posts and help us figure out how to empower women in becoming active responsible and sustainable investors. We also have an Advisory Committee that is not a governance body, rather a collective of experienced and exceptional professionals who provide energy, inspiration and time to Moxie Future.

Why did you launch Moxie Future?  

Over the years I have done a lot of speaking at conferences on climate, sustainability and green finance. I was always struck by the number of professional women that would come up to me after speaking and say to me: “I've never heard of this before. This is so important. What can I do?” Then I started researching what women think about sustainable investing and how increasingly women are prioritising impact and outcomes. At that point, there wasn't a huge amount of concrete research out there, but it was sufficient to indicate to me that there was a genuine concern from women across the world about the non-financial impacts of their financial and investment decisions. 

At that time, I was working with the PRI and I started Moxie Future really just as a hobby, as a blog to test the level of interest and uptake by women. We undertook a big piece of research (2,500+ participants) surveying women in five markets (Australia, China, Germany, UK and USA). We interviewed them about their role as investors – in particular, what did they think about sustainability, what impacts were important to them when making investment decisions, what was holding them back. We came up with some great numbers: for example, 83 per cent of women surveyed care about where their money is invested and 60 per cent feel a sense of urgency to invest responsibly. When you take that glaring motivation and combine it with the very unique financial challenges that women face (whether it be the wage gap or the completely different pension needs that women have) it’s obvious something needs to be done to address women’s investment needs specifically.   

The other issue that I feel very passionate about is the mindset of the financial industry itself. Many women report being condescended to by (largely male) financial advisors. When you look at the marketing and communications that comes out from asset managers and banks, it just makes you cringe. There is some fascinating research that confirms some of these differences – for women, talking about money is confined to how to cut household bills or budget for shopping. On the other hand, men are encouraged to invest to be ‘more of a man’, it’s all about wealth and power. All of these things made me mad and I just wanted to do something!

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

My new role at ADGM means that I am having to be more organised than ever! I am just beginning with the organisation so still navigating things – but one discipline I learned a long time ago, is not to get distracted by emails and admin tasks first thing in the day. Focus on the big tasks first. This was also an important discipline when writing my book – I found that the best and most productive time to write was first thing in the morning, for two to three hours at a time – then to get on with emails and alike.

I also play an advisory role to various organisations so I like to make sure I am top of what they are up to and adding value where I can. Every day I try to read some industry-related articles and listen to podcasts. Quite often I will read Responsible Investor, though interesting enough, it’s good to see that mainstream press is now covering a lot more sustainable investment issues, particularly on climate finance which is my big passion.

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

I actually started out in politics and policy because I loved the policy arena. However, I also wanted to travel which made me realise that if I was going to stay in politics, I was quite restricted to being in the UK or Europe. 

As a result, I moved into management consulting, working with a Big 4 in governance and risk management for financial service clients. But about 13 years ago I decided to do a second master's degree in applied environmental economics – at the time I was living in Beijing, the pollution was getting really bad and I was completely overwhelmed with worry about how we were going to deal with the impending environmental crisis. At that point, I just couldn’t face working in the mainstream financial industry when so much was going wrong in the world around me. My new direction took me into the carbon finance space and I spent the next few years running a carbon trading company, with offices in China, Hong Kong and Vietnam. 

After a while, having moved to Hong Kong, I got approached about leading the Association for Sustainable and Responsible Investment in Asia (which subsequently merged into the PRI in 2015), which was Asia’s leading think tank in sustainable finance.

Under the auspices of ASrIA, we launched the Asia Investor Group on Climate Change (AIGCC). It was very exciting to be involved in the climate finance discussions, particularly in Asia, because it was at this point that we saw China get serious about green finance. I was privileged to be involved in those early discussions. I was also invited to join the Green Finance Working Group of the Financial Services Development Council, making recommendations to the Hong Kong government on how to build Hong Kong as an international green finance centre.  

Having been always fascinated by policy and government action and how we can use policy to move markets, coupled with my knowledge of the financial markets and the financial services industry, I loved this work – I genuinely felt like we were having a transformative impact. Just last year the Hong Kong government launched a $1 billion green bond and I am proud to have played a role in creating the impetus for that to happen.

After ASrIA became part of the PRI, (UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment), I then worked as Head of Asia (ex Japan) and senior adviser to the organisation, before leaving Asia after 12 years and heading for the Middle East!

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

My favourite thing is working with some of the most amazing people in the financial industry. I have met some real soulmates, and when you work as a team there’s something unspoken about values and passion. I guess because we all know we're headed in the same direction. We are all trying to steer a ship towards something bigger and greater than us as an individual. I didn’t have that in previous careers. Most people that work in sustainable investing and the ESG field genuinely want to play an active part in building a better world. When I talk to my children about what I do with my work, I talk with pride and passion, and I know they are proud of me. That’s a special feeling, especially as I know so many of my friends in other industries don’t come close to that feeling.  Being proud of the work that you do, feeling like you are role modelling, driving real change – to me, these are the most important things in my career. 

On the negative side, it is really hard to find good career opportunities because it has gone fully mainstream yet, although this is changing. I think that could be quite frustrating for young people moving into the industry today as well as for more experienced people like me. You have that frustration that you want to bring your energy and your expertise to the market, but the market is not ready.  

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

When I decided to shift from management consulting into the sustainable finance world, I was very lucky to meet someone who quite literally took me under her wing, guiding and supporting me in so many different ways. She is an amazing woman and has had so much success over the years, in many different roles and industries.  She’s a bit of a legend and it boosted my confidence a lot because I felt like I had a voice and there were people who have so much experience but who still wanted to hear what I had to say. I think that having those people in your life and career is so important, they don't come along very often and they probably don't even know the impact that they have on you. I keep this in my mind always – it is so easy to support and uplift people in their careers. I try to do the same now that I am older (and hopefully wiser!).

What is your understanding of a sustainable work culture? 

 We're definitely in need of a shift and that shift is certainly starting to happen. I think it’s important that we move towards flexibility that enables people to have true work-life balance and can include things like the work they do outside of the traditional workplace. 

Another factor of course is having more women in the working environment. This is not just about women on boards or the number of women in the senior management team. It's right the way across the organisation: creating cultures and policies that truly reflect the needs of working women, and genuinely ensure that they can stay part of the workforce. This has to include the encouragement and support we also give to men, to be more hands-on parents if they have a family. I think we know what the key steps are, we're just not doing it yet. We need to have a wholesale rethink on diversity, equality, value and so much more. I’d also say that this extends to questioning our current obsession with capitalism and the systems that sit around that. They are clearly not working and, at some point, we have to be bold.

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? 

I wish someone had told me at the beginning how important it is to identify and work with two or three people as informal mentors, to stay with me through my professional life. When I started working, I was in a very male-dominated financial services management consulting environment. The whole concept of mentors didn't exist at that time, especially if you weren’t part of the boys’ club.

I've been a mentor to the Women Foundation in Hong Kong, for example. They have a fantastic program where they take 50 women and match them with local ‘proteges’. Your role as a mentor is to guide and advise them on their career path but I found I also learned so much from my protégé. It’s completely a two-way relationship.

Another issue I struggled with was my perception of success. In the early days, I thought that success was all about the job title, the company I work for and the remuneration package because that's what we were told at university, that’s what our parents are told and so on. I wish I'd been told that job satisfaction has nothing to do with all that. This is the message I give loud and clear to my own children – define what you love and, as long as you make the world a better place than when you arrived, you are on the right track!

What advice would you give to someone starting out today? 

First of all, I would identify people who you can develop a relationship with, who you can ask for advice and guidance, and who are willing to stick with you for the long haul. It doesn't have to be very formal, but find one or two people that you can then lean on and they can help guide you through your career. If you have older, more experienced people to talk with, you will make more savvy and strategic decisions. 

Secondly, never stop learning. Formal qualifications matter not because of what it says on paper, but because it's important to take time out, to go through formal education to expand the way you learn, the way you understand information, the way you research. But informal learning matters too. Never stop.

Thirdly, build a solid network. Now with LinkedIn, it's so much easier to reach out to people. And as someone who has lived all over the world (London, New York, Beijing, Hong Kong and now Dubai) I love the fact my network is so global, so expansive.

Last but not least, develop the ability to listen. You don't have to be the person that speaks loudest at the table. Focus more on listening, watching what is going on around you, finding your place. Don’t be intimidated by those loud people – trust me, active listening is far more important than talking the loudest!

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

It now sounds like a cliché, but it is going mainstream. It is obvious. I envisage that there's going to be a need for this skill set at every level of business across the financial industry. And I am so pleased to see that happening. It’s been a hard career track for those of us who have been plugging away for over a decade. But it’s going to get easier so seize those opportunities! My biggest worry is that there is a lot of greenwashing going on already. It is critical we stay authentic to ourselves and to what we are trying to achieve, no matter what.

CV at a glance:

  • Abu Dhabi Global Markets, Associate Director in International Affairs 2020 – present
  • Moxie Future, Founder, 2018 – present
  • Sustainable finance consultant /advisor, 2018 – 2020
  • United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment, Head of Asia (ex-Japan), 2015 – 2018 
  • Association for Sustainable & Responsible Investment in Asia (ASrIA) and Asia Investor Group on Climate Change (AIGCC), Chief Executive Officer, 2013 – 2015
  • Enecore Group, Company director and Head of Advisory Services, 2010 – 2013

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