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“Working in the industry makes me feel that my competitors are also my colleagues”

Amara Goeree, ESG Strategy, Integration and Rating Consultant, founder, Blue Phoenix talks to Responsible Investor about how she got into ESG and her career to date.

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

I am self-employed, I set up a consulting firm, Blue Phoenix, focusing on the ESG integration and data value chain. The core aim is to help all the stakeholders across the investment value chain to get through the complexities of ESG integration by focusing on translating the needed and available ESG data. 

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

I don’t have typical work weeks yet because I’ve started this at the beginning of October. I wonder if I’ll ever have a typical week in this profession, I don’t think there will be and I think that’s what I like about it.

To give you an idea, the first few months I had mostly spent focusing on a big project with one client where I worked three days a week building an ESG rating methodology for private companies receiving private equity investment. It was a very interesting exercise, applying something I know very well (rating companies on ESG topics relevant for investment) to an asset class that was relatively new to me. What struck me the most was that the private equity market is still largely untapped in terms of structural ESG integration approaches, at least in comparison to the public investment space. I’ve often heard the argument that it is even more difficult to get good company data. That is true if you look at public availability, but the beauty of private equity investments, particularly the general partners who manage the investment, is that they have much more direct ‘access’ to be able to request certain information.

Alongside the project, I’ve set up my website and spent a lot of time talking to my network to kick-start business development. Now, since the beginning of March, I am still splitting my time between business development, product development and a few client projects in different parts of the value chain.

 Have you always worked in RI/ESG? Can you please tell us about your career path? 

I got interested in sustainability, or CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) at the time, during my bachelors. I did a Bachelors of International Business Administration in Rotterdam where we had a second-year course called ‘Business Society Management’, which was basically about corporate sustainability. At one of the lectures, the Dow Jones Sustainability Index was mentioned. I liked the idea of a sustainability standard or ranking very much at the time, as it made performance measurable. On the other hand, I was still learning much more towards working for an NGO or a corporation to focus on sustainable development issues such as education and inequality. I didn’t plan to deep dive into finance, that only came when I started researching topics for my master thesis (I did a Master’s in Sustainability, also at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University). During my studies, I came across a book called ‘Dead Aid’ by Dambisa Moyo. She writes about how donations and charity will only slow development and how it makes the receivers “addicted” to aid and demotivate some communities from working at all. Instead, she wrote, we should invest in those areas as we invest everywhere else in the world. When I read that, I realised that if I wanted to have the highest impact on sustainable development, I needed to influence financial decision making. 

That’s when I started thinking about ratings and applied for a graduate internship with RobecoSAM’s rating team (now SAM, part of S&P Global). I stayed for nearly 5 years and was gradually promoted to a deputy team head, overseeing the majority of the rating process including the data collection and verification. I couldn’t have wished for a better first job, team and company. 

At some point, I started to feel an urge to try out some other jobs. This is how I ended up at Julius Baer where I supervised Corporate Sustainability and Responsible Investment. I told myself: let’s see if I can practice what I have been preaching. An interesting experience, with some success stories like setting up an Executive Board-level sustainability committee with whom I developed a new strategy; writing two Sustainability Reports that then helped the company increase its ESG ratings. I think now that some time has passed I can pinpoint that at the core I missed ‘helping’ multiple organisations at the same time and I wanted to start creating products. That's then how I came up with an idea of setting up Blue Phoenix.

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

I think what I struggle with is how some people still don't see why it is important. As responsible human beings, but also because it makes business and financial sense. I find it difficult to get my head around why people focus too much on numbers, without looking into the factors that influence those numbers. Aren’t we trying to predict the future in finance? Then shouldn’t we try to make judgements about what influences future success instead of only looking back at numbers that might be synthetic (e.g. cost-cutting programs to meet financial targets), of which we don’t fully know what they are based on without knowing how the company is managed (heavily simplified)?

On the positive side, working in the industry makes me feel that my competitors are also my colleagues, being part of some sort of ‘resistance’ movement full of optimistic, energetic and creative people. Also, lately, there has been a huge increase in the supply of people that want to make a career change into sustainable finance, this is encouraging to see.

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

The book I mentioned earlier had a big impact because it made me realise I should go into finance. 

What also helped me for sure was having mentors from the beginning. For example, a professor that I worked with as a student assistant happened to write to me twice exactly at the moment where I started looking for internships, asking me if I was available, then linking me to organisations that in the end helped me to get hired at RobecoSAM. 

Have you ever worked in conventional finance? 

I haven't had a pure investment role, but I have worked in finance since I left university and to add the formal credentials to my CV, I am in the process of getting my CFA credentials (level 2 candidate). 

Why did you decide to do CFA vs MBA? 

I feel like an MBA will repeat a lot of what I learned during my International Business Administration degree. Also, after my Master’s degree, I considered a second Master’s in Finance. In the end, I decided to put that on hold and start working. So when I started to consider ‘going back to school’, the CFA credentials seemed like a logical step. I’ve enjoyed it so far, it has taught me more about how a pure financial analyst thinks and thereby helped me level my arguments for sustainable investment to them.

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

I think it’s equally important to have all sorts of people on board: natural scientists, sociologists, psychologists, governance professionals, etc. For example, having someone with an environmental science background in my team can help me understand how carbon emissions are being measured, what impact they have, what sort of carbon footprint do different industries have and how to translate them into financial terms. Diversity in gender, age, education, culture, etc., it all adds value to performance and will be key in managing the challenges we have ahead of us. Even as a consultant I rely on my diverse network and regularly call someone with a completely different profession or background to get their view on a topic.

What is your understanding of a sustainable workplace?

It depends on the average age of people in the organisation, though I feel like millennials and gen Z have a different attitude to work. They need to like the job to ‘sit it out’, otherwise they would just get a part-time job to pay the bills and spend the remaining time doing what they love. Or they’ll start their own company. 

We all need to feel a purpose in what we do, meaning the needs of employees versus the financial bottom-line of their employer (outcome focus) are becoming more important.

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

I wouldn't have done anything differently. I'm happy with how things have evolved so far. 

What advice would you give to someone starting out today? 

My advice would be: start in a role that is rather broad or has the opportunity to move to other areas. Always figure out what your personal and job-related strengths are. Don’t hesitate to think outside the box. Be humble, accept that you have to do some tasks that might not always be equally challenging, but you’d be surprised how much you learn from them. At the same time, do share your opinion if it differs from the other people at the table, it matters!

When I started as an intern I had to do a lot of data mining related tasks that were not interesting at all, but they still taught me a lot about time management, having a certain type of quality and how companies in different industries and regions are being managed. What also shocked me in my first job was how much of the material I had studied at university, that I thought I would never use again, I got to apply.

As for the qualification, if you want to work in finance, it does help to do some advanced finance courses or to have a degree that would include math and statistics. However, don’t underestimate the equal importance of a link to sustainability management if you have the ambition to work in sustainable finance. 

Throughout your career, you worked for different organisations from corporates to institutional investors: how do you feel about it? Why would you move jobs? 

I think that’s the beauty of the early years in a career (let’s face it, I have almost a decade of experience in the field, but that still means I am far from retirement): you can change jobs to try things out before you decide to ‘settle down’. But avoid job-hopping. 

For me, it was nice to start in something like grading companies on ESG performance, because I got to learn about best practices in a lot of different industries concerning sustainability management and what actually has an influence on the financial bottom line and then gradually move to where I felt that best suited me. 

I would recommend trying something broad enough that you could still go in any direction you think you would be interested in. Regularly check-in with yourself: where do I want to be in 3, 5 and 10 years, am I on the right path?

Where do you see the opportunities or growth areas for career paths in RI/ESG? 

Everywhere, especially when it comes to ESG data. There is no single organisation that is the same, so it’s quite important to have someone who can ‘interpret’ that data for investors and companies. And as said, I think it’s a great place to start your career. You learn a lot and are in between multiple important stakeholders.

CV at a glance:

  • Blue Phoenix, Independent ESG strategy & rating consultant, 2019 – present
  • Julius Baer, Head of corporate sustainability & responsible investment, 2017 – 2019
  • RobecoSAM, from graduate intern to Deputy head of the ESG rating team, 2013 – 2017
  • Corio (acquired by Klepierre in 2015), intern and junior analyst CSR, 2012 – 2013
  • VBDO, research intern, 2011 – 2012
  • Erasmus Centre for Strategic Philanthropy, student assistant, 2009 – 2010

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