In this month of International Women’s Day, we are proud to have brought to life the Endowus Leadership Forum 2023. The inaugural event gathered top minds from various industries to share their leadership philosophies, career-building tips, and advice on investing in ourselves holistically.
We are recapping the sessions through Endowus Insights. In this article, we feature discussions centred around sustainability and financial inclusion.
On the keynote panel, titled “Rethinking Finance”, we were joined by these panellists:
- Deborah Ho, Regional Head, Singapore and Southeast Asia, BlackRock
- Sabrina Gan, Head of Southeast Asia and Country Head of Singapore, Fidelity International
- Dora Seow, CEO, Natixis Investment Managers Singapore
- Cindy Tan, CEO, GMO Singapore
- Moderator: Min Axthelm, Director of Investment Research, Endowus
The changemakers session, titled “Business Builders”, featured the following panellists:
- Angelene Chan, Chairperson, DP Architects
- Jean Fernandes, CFO, GXS
- Julia Wei, CEO, Edelman Singapore
- Tarini Ponniah, Head of Compliance, Aspire
- Moderator: Jamie Lee, Head of Financial Planning and Editorial, Endowus.
Tackling ESG issues together
Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing has been rising in significance and popularity. It’s reshaping national policies, investment environments, and the challenges that companies face, as Cindy puts it.
Conversations within the finance industry have also been revolving around topics such as climate change risk, the road to net zero, and social inequality, she says. “Climate change will be the most important investment issue for the foreseeable future.”
GMO believes that ESG factors can have a meaningful impact on the long-term success of companies and countries in which it invests. It has committed to align its portfolio of investments with net-zero emissions by 2050 or sooner. “Climate change poses systemic risks… Everyone has a role to play in minimising the rise of global temperatures,” Cindy adds.
Sabrina likewise identified sustainability as one of three major trends in the asset management industry, while stressing the need for collaboration — such as with regulators and industry partners.
“There are many big global issues on the social and environmental front that cannot be solved by any one country, industry, or organisation,” Sabrina says.
Illustrating this point, she cites Physical 100 as an example. The popular Netflix reality series pits contestants with vastly different body types against each other in physical challenges; the team-based challenges require a variety of skills as well as cooperation and teamwork.
Sabrina says: “Just like in Physical 100, no one body type is universally superior… We should leverage each other’s strengths and push each other to be better at what we do.
“We are stewards of capital and have the ability to direct capital to the right places. That also means we need to uphold ourselves to higher standards than the companies we invest in.”
Cindy points out that investors play the key role of financing and ultimately profiting from innovation and technology required to fight climate change.
“GMO capitalises on the trillions of dollars of investments needed to transform our economic and energy systems… We’re also working to develop new climate and net-zero alliance strategies for our clients, and looking at ways to partner with the Grantham Foundation on climate solutions,” she says.
The ultimate goal for GMO is to contribute to getting the world to net-zero emissions, beyond just achieving net-zero in its portfolios.
“For us to go far, we have to go together,” Cindy adds.
An equitable sustainability transition
As sustainability efforts ramp up around the world, it’s important as well to ensure a globally equitable transition. Not all nations have the same historic responsibility for emissions as well as the same environmental and economic vulnerability to emissions. The impact of climate change tends to disproportionately affect developing countries.
For Deborah, one of the key gaps in finance relates to the transition from brown to green. “It’s not an immediate transition, and developing-market economies are asking why they have to pay the price… In order for the transition to be equitable, it takes time — we all have to move in the same direction, but just at different speeds.”
What this means is that investors ought to relook at the way they construct their portfolios. In particular, many investment managers currently organise their pockets of capital according to funds, asset classes, and public versus private markets.
But asset management companies should now also look across the various stages of financing and the different kinds of assets that need to be financed. “Some of it will require equity, some will require debt, some will require the help of governments and supranationals, and so on… It’s basically a game changer. That’s a discussion that needs to happen,” Deborah says.
For Julia, purpose needs to be at the heart of the business. This starts with the talent within the company, and extends as well to the clients.
At Edelman, a compliance team looks at every client that the public relations consultancy firm onboards. It has also conducted a review of its climate portfolio and energy clients.
“What role does our brand, our company, and our team play in this world today? And looking at who we’re working with — are they also doing right in this world?” Julia adds that purpose helps not just with the employer brand but also the firm’s value proposition. Moreover, “it helps us then decide which areas we don’t want to play in”.
Angelene notes that over the last few years, many companies have been giving more thought to topics such as the green economy, climate crisis, and sustainability. “It’s the same topic we’ve been thinking about as well in our office (at DP Architects), because, ultimately, we are creators of the environment.”
She says: “For every space and building that we live in, we have to make sure that it is sustainable and that it is built with good carbon considerations.”
A holistic view of money for everyone
In the realm of personal finance, more needs to be done to improve financial literacy and investor education. Dora finds it concerning that many people are not appropriately planning their finances for their objectives.
For instance, some individuals are over-insured — spending too much on more insurance coverage than they need — while others have too much exposure in a certain mutual fund, or may be holding too much cash on hand.
They may view insurance for their family versus their personal investments as silos or in too specialised a manner, instead of looking at their money holistically and thinking about whether it will bring them closer to their goals.
“There’s still a very big gap in basic money management… Your financial plans may not make sense. We need to educate a whole lot more in this aspect,” Dora notes. “It should be back to basics — how do you approach life and investing?”
At digital bank GXS, financial inclusion is the goal. Jean highlights the “invisible barriers” that many individuals in Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries face in getting access to banking products and growing their wealth.
“We need to be both socially savvy and tech savvy… To remove the barriers of someone feeling like, ‘I don’t know if I clicked something wrong in the app’, ‘Will my money disappear’, or ‘I don’t understand all this jargon and conditions’.” That means GXS has to ensure that the experiences it creates for its customers have to be simple, intuitive, and easy to use.
While still a new entrant in the industry, GXS will at some point have to scale up. “But what we don’t want to do is sacrifice quality, sacrifice our obsession with customer service, sacrifice our innovation, just to achieve scale,” Jean says. The digital bank’s overall strategy is to drive financial inclusion, be socially responsible, and in that process also generate the right returns for shareholders.
Within a company, it’s vital to have people who think differently from the leaders — this sharpens the leaders’ thinking and brings out the best strategy, Jean says.
She surrounds herself with people who have “completely complementary” strengths. That has enabled GXS to continue to innovate — with the help of passionate colleagues who want to change everyday banking by ensuring the products are easily understood by people of different backgrounds and ages.
This diversity in thinking brings about a sense of inclusivity across the organisation, which then builds on the overall mission of financial inclusion, Jean adds.
As part of our community impact initiative, Endowus Empower, we have established a Women & Investing community to empower women with the choice, confidence, and community to kickstart their investment journey and work towards their life goals — with exciting partnerships and engagements to come in the following months.
To explore our curated section of investing articles dedicated to women, follow this link. To get started with Endowus, click here.
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