She Invests #7: Financial Activism

A photo of a group of activists posing with their signs
©Amazon Watch

Welcome to She Invests, a monthly newsletter on women, money, and investing. This is newsletter #7! If you have not seen the first six, please click hereherehereherehere, or here. Thank you for reading and sharing. So far 16,000+ subscribers and I thank you all! If someone is sending this to you, please subscribe.

If you have been reading this newsletter or any of my other articles, you know that I am all about how you can use your financial resources (what you spend/invest/give) in alignment with your vision and values to create positive change. I call it financial activism. Every person can engage in financial activism, and in fact, you already do. How so? Think about it this way. Each time even a single dollar travels from your possession to someone else’s, it is a transfer of financial power. If you buy a coffee from Starbucks, you are supporting that company and what it stands for. If you shop at Walmart for your food versus your locally owned grocery store, same thing. Of course, it isn’t feasible to research every single thing we do with our money, so the invitation is to just do something. And then do something more. It is all about knowledge and intention.

In time, via this newsletter and a platform I am working on building, I want to help you do more things, especially as it relates to aligning your financial resources around the advancement of women’s rights and gender equity. I also want to highlight other groups, organizations, and people who are doing amazing things to help make our world more safe, sustainable, and equitable. One such group is Amazon Watch. I came to know about this organization because one of my best friends in the world, Kathy LeMay, became their Director of Philanthropy one year ago. Amazon Watch’s mission is to protect the rainforest and advance the rights of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin. I could tell you about how they literally do lifesaving work every single day in support of Indigenous leaders in the region, but that is not what this article is about. This article is about financial activism, and the work Amazon Watch does in support of our planet by trying to hold financial institutions accountable for what they say they stand for. And this should matter to all of us, because it can help inform our choices on with whom we choose to do our financial business. Read on.

Earlier this month, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and Citigroup unveiled plans to align their lending portfolios with the Paris Agreement and achieve net zero carbon emissions. Since September, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley have all made similar pledges, meaning the six largest banks in America have all publicly committed to fighting climate change. You would think that this would be a good thing, but instead, many activists are calling this just the latest example of “greenwashing” in the finance industry. Meaning these announcements are more about bolstering the banks’ public facing reputation, with little in terms of substantial action plans to back it up. And sadly, it seems these activists may be right.

JP Morgan Chase is the biggest bank in America. According to Amazon Watch, in October of last year, they announced the creation of a Center for Carbon Transition, with the goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. That certainly deserves a shout out. The bank also invested over $14 billion in green projects and sustainable investments, the most out of all the American banks. And that all sounds well and good until you discover that they have also invested between $63b and $70b per year in the fossil fuel industry since 2016. That’s an investment rate of nearly 5x their much ballyhooed green initiatives. As a client of JP Morgan, it is my job to ask them to explain how and why they are doing both. And I will.

Amazon Watch also offers the case of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager with over $9 trillion under management. I just need you to process that number again. $9 TRILLION. In January, BlackRock announced their commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and just last week, in a series of memos, they encouraged the companies they invest in to adopt “no deforestation policies, to account for biodiversity in their operations, and to obtain the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples for initiatives that affect their rights.” And yet, despite all this posturing, BlackRock has still not unveiled any sort of accountability measures, and they remain one of the world’s largest investors in the fossil fuel industry and industrial agricultural commodities linked to deforestation, two of the biggest factors in our current climate change crisis.

In a recent interview with Vice, Moira Birss, climate and finance director for Amazon Watch, was quick to point out the hypocrisy of these types of actions. “If you are putting fossil fuels in the atmosphere, you are part of the problem. With financial firms, we cannot allow investment in green energy to make up for continued investment in fossil fuel extraction and expansion, as well as deforestation,” she says. And of course I agree. But I also want to acknowledge that some action is better than no action. There are many firms that are doing nothing instead of something, and what we should want to know as consumers is who is doing the most, who is doing something, and who is doing nothing. Frankly, it is really hard to know who is doing what, and that is why we need groups like Amazon Watch to help us figure it out.

Because the thing is, Amazon Watch knows what they’re talking about. For the past 25 years, they have protected the rainforest and advanced the rights of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin. They partner with Indigenous and environmental organizations in campaigns for human rights, corporate accountability, and the preservation of the Amazon’s ecological systems. In fact, just last week, Amazon Watch facilitated an open letter to BlackRock, in which they called out the firm’s failure to respect the land rights and human rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. This letter was signed by over 80 world renowned Indigenous and local activists.

What’s amazing about Amazon Watch is that they use financial activism to hold banks and corporations accountable for their actions on climate change, and they do their work primarily through supporting local activists on the ground. And they get results. Earlier this year, Amazon Watch scored a major victory when three top EU banks announced that they would no longer include new Ecuadorian Amazon oil in their trading activities. This was a major development in the fight against climate change, and a big win for financial activism. In light of this, I reached out to Amazon Watch to learn more about how this came about.

What led to the recent announcements from some EU banks regarding oil trade financing?

This summer, Amazon Watch teamed up with Stand.earth to produce a detailed report that exposed the ways that some leading European banks finance oil trading from the Ecuadorian Amazon. Out of the 19 banks assessed in the report, the top six banks – ING, Credit Suisse, UBS, and BNP Paribas Group, Natixis, and Rabobank – account for 85 percent of all banks financing trade of Amazon oil. This is despite these banks having policies on advancing human rights, protecting biodiversity, and addressing climate change. Therefore, our report called on banks to to do the following:

  • Stop financing Amazon oil-related activities, including trade, unless adequate remediation of contamination occurs, rights to health of local communities is guaranteed, safeguards are in place to prevent future spills, and governments in the region commit to no new expansion of oil development and a wind-down of existing wells in line with global climate goals and collective Indigenous visions for the region;
  • Focus investments on opportunities in Ecuador and other countries in the Amazon and world that truly meet responsible banking commitments and respect Indigenous rights
  • Expand policies to exclude all Amazon-derived oil from project and trade financing until all Amazon basin countries commit to no new expansion of oil development and a wind-down of existing wells in line with collective Indigenous visions for the region and global climate goals.

Amazon Watch and Stand.earth have been in communication with some of the top financiers identified in the report since it was published, and in January, BNP Paribas, Credit Suisse, and ING committed to the immediate exclusion of new Ecuadorian Amazon oil from their trading activities. More information is available in this press release on the announcements.

How does this relate to Amazon Watch’s advocacy with BlackRock, and what is BlackRock’s involvement in Amazon destruction?

BlackRock is an asset manager, not a bank, and as such, its support or involvement with industries driving the destruction of the Amazon and our climate looks slightly different from that of banks. Instead of lending and underwriting trade deals, BlackRock invests in many of the companies currently operating in the Amazon through purchases of stocks and bonds. We know that the two largest drivers of climate change are fossil fuels and deforestation, and that Indigenous peoples are the best land protectors. As the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock (as well as other big asset managers) has a powerful role to play in decarbonizing our future. And what this looks like is no longer investing in the fossil fuel industry, and engaging deforestation-risk commodity companies to ensure that they prioritize Indigenous rights and remove deforestation from their supply chains. 

Amazon Watch and APIB (Association of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples, in English) have been engaging with BlackRock since 2019. We have also recently begun to engage with Vanguard, in order for their executives to understand first-hand that their investments and financing have devastating impacts on the lives of Indigenous peoples across the Amazon.

According to APIB’s research with Amazon Watch, BlackRock continues to be one of the biggest funders of Amazon destruction, holding $9.2 billion in mining, agribusiness, and energy companies that are complicit in conflicts affecting Indigenous peoples and their territories across the Brazilian Amazon. In early 2020, Amazon Watch published another report that showed BlackRock has $2.5 billion invested in crude oil companies operating in the Western Amazon. Previous research from our allies at Friends of the Earth showed that BlackRock has been the top investor in deforestation-risk commodities worldwideUnfortunately, BlackRock has yet to respond to our findings.

We believe that BlackRock has outsized complicity in climate destruction and is well aware of the violations of Indigenous rights that its investments perpetuate. BlackRock executives have heard directly from our Finance team, and from Indigenous leaders from APIB and across the Amazon, about the level of violence they face and the out-of-control destruction happening in the rainforest.

What is your campaign calling on BlackRock to do, and how have they responded?

In 2020, BlackRock hinted it would take new approaches on deforestation and biodiversity in 2021, and yet its new net-zero by 2050 commitments failed to provide any concrete measures on how the company plans to conduct due diligence on Indigenous rights and deforestation risks. This is a big gap, since “net zero” is a vague term that sometimes is interpreted to include false solutions to climate change that harm forests and Indigenous peoples, like forest offsets. Our allies at the BlackRock’s Big Problem campaign laid out several of these gaps in their analysis of this recent announcement from BlackRock.

Indigenous peoples are critical players in protecting the Amazon rainforest and slowing down climate change, so they need to be at the table to discuss a deforestation and Indigenous rights policy. Any attempt at climate mitigation or “net zero” policies must incorporate the voices, perspectives, and needs of Indigenous peoples. Together with allies involved in the BlackRock’s Big Problem campaign, we have outlined a set of principles that a policy on Indigenous rights and deforestation should incorporate.

As detailed in a public letter sent from APIB leadership to BlackRock executives in early January 2021, it has been difficult for Amazon Watch and APIB to get BlackRock to meet. The pandemic has not held us back from engaging, as we are open to a virtual meeting. Since the letter was sent, APIB was invited to a meeting with executives in charge of BlackRock’s direct engagement with companies. This is encouraging, though it’s notable that the invitation does not include executives in charge of developing the details of BlackRock’s net-zero commitment, which will have major impacts on forests and Indigenous rights, or others in charge of BlackRock’s overall investment management. In this context, we are unsure if the voices and perspectives of APIB and Amazon Watch will be listened to.

BlackRock must take action as soon as possible, as we are facing multiple crises in the Amazon right now. BlackRock is running out of time to make meaningful changes for the rainforest and our climate.

If you want to read about this further, please check out this article in Mongabay.

Now, I know that there are a lot of big numbers being thrown around in this piece. Maybe you’re thinking that this has nothing to do with you because you don’t have investment assets, or maybe you think that what you do have is too small to make a difference. And if you are thinking that, I can assure you that it all matters. As stated above, every single financial transaction we make every single day is a transfer of power. From the clothes you buy, to the food you eat, to the place where you get your morning coffee. Every single time you exchange money for goods or services, you are leveraging your power as a consumer, and that leverage can be used for good. I’ve written before about how you can use your investments to promote racial and gender equity. Why should climate change be any different?

Of course, I am very much on this journey myself, and I am FAR from perfect in making sure that my financial resources are fully aligned with my values. I am quite sure that I own some fund or some ETF that is invested in something that I would not be proud of. But what I also know is that I am trying to chip away at that alignment every single day. And here is the good news as it relates to investing, in that research shows that impact investing yields greater returns on your investment than those made without that lens. So when you really think about it, it’s a win win.

In terms of the financial services firms we choose to work with and the investment products we choose to invest in, it is becoming easier to pick ones that are transparent and accountable in terms of what they stand for. There are dozens of options for environmentally friendly and sustainable banks and credit unions. You can even search for banks that refuse to invest in fossil fuels full stop. As for any of the banks mentioned above, if you are reading this, are from one of those institutions, and disagree with what is written here, please feel free to comment. And if you want to talk to anyone at Amazon Watch, I would love to connect you. My purpose in writing this piece is to bring awareness and accountability around stated commitments, and not to shame and blame. I believe that most people, even bankers, care about our planet, and that we all want to do the right thing to take care of our world.

At the end of the day, money truly makes the world go around. And the sooner we all realize the potential contained within that, the sooner we can all start using that power to shape a better world. No matter what your net worth, whether you are a billionaire investor with BlackRock, a person with $20 in their pocket looking to open their first bank account, or anyone in between, the choices we make about where and to whom we give our money can make a difference. So the next time you hand over legal tender, I urge you to ask yourself, “How can this transaction be used to make the world a better place?” The possibility is there, every single time.

She Invests #6 – You Need to Know About SheEO!

Welcome to She Invests, a monthly newsletter on women, money, and investing. This is newsletter #6! If you have not seen the first five yet, please click herehere, here, here, and here. Thank you for reading and sharing. So far 15,000+ subscribers and I thank you all! If someone is sending this to you, please subscribe.

Take a minute to answer this question. Do you think the world’s financial and economic systems are working? Yes, that is a very big question, but just take a minute to really think about it. If you think the answer might be yes, let me offer you a few statistics to ponder from right here in the United States. The US has the highest economic inequality of all the G7 nations, and in 2019, income inequality was at its highest point in 50 years. Between 1989 and 2016, the wealth gap between America’s richest and poorest families has doubled, and the top 5% of wealthy families are the only income bracket to have increased their wealth since the Great Recession. So my answer to my opening question is no, heck no, and while I personally have benefitted from these broken and biased systems, it is also my work in the world to help change them. Vast economic and social inequality is certainly nothing new, so the question becomes, what can be done about it? And if you are a person who really cares and wants to build something, particularly a financial services something, based on radically different values, what does that look like? 

Well, it looks like Vicki Saunders and SheEO. Vicki is the Founder of SheEO, and she is someone who has spent a lifetime noticing how messed up everything is. And then she actually goes and does something about it. In creating SheEO, she set about creating an entirely new economic model; one that is rooted in the potential of community connections. One that focuses on creating the environments and cultures that allow people the opportunity to thrive. 

A photo of SheEO founder Vicki Saunders smiling directly into the camera.

This newsletter is dedicated to looking at the fields of finance and investing with a gender lens, so doing a profile piece on this amazing woman is right on mission. And let me be clear, there will be an ask at the end, because making an ask is one of the things that Vicki believes in. In fact, she will not end a call, including the one we had, without making one.  

So to begin with, who is Vicki Saunders? She’s Canadian (#soamI ) and her pronouns are she/her. She is an entrepreneur, award-winning mentor, advisor to the next generation of change-makers, and leading advocate for entrepreneurship as a way of creating positive transformation in the world. She also happens to be one of the most quotable people I have ever met, and she started our conversation with a doozy. 

“Every 400 years there’s a reboot of what we as a society value, and guess what Adam Smith? The era of self interest is over.” 

Who is Adam Smith you might ask? Heis primarily known for a single work, The Wealth of Nations (1776), which included Smith’s description of a system of market-determined wages. He is credited with being the father of capitalism, which, no surprise, Vicki does not think is working, because it is fundamentally based on the pursuit of self-interest. So if this new and better world she aspires towards is not based on self interest, what is it based on? “Easy,” she answered. “It’s based on Radical Generosity.”

Radical Generosity is the simple (but sadly still radical) idea that we should all be kinder to ourselves and to others. “There are no power words for being kind,” Vicki laments. And believe me, this woman is all about power. “Everything in finance and business revolves around sports or war metaphors. You ‘killed’ it. You ‘crushed’ it. You ‘nailed’ it. Where are the words for being kind and generous?” Matching words like generosity and kindness with capital and funding? Revolutionary. As Vicki describes it, Radical Generosity is a very personal concept, and will manifest differently for every person. The scale of it doesn’t matter. It’s about starting where you are, and then doing a little bit more for both yourself and others.

When it comes to the current economic model, Vicki’s assessment is extremely blunt. “Everything we invest in to make money creates inequality.” My argumentative radar went up with that claim, but when I challenged her, she was quick to say, “Think about it”. And I am. She went on to talk about how over 90% of most countries’ economies are made up of small and medium sized businesses. In the US it’s 90%, and in Canada it’s 98%. Take that in for a minute. The lifeblood of our economies flows through these businesses. If we want to care for people, we need to care about the wellbeing of these types of businesses, in all their forms. And yet the dominant narrative continues to focus on venture capital (VC) funding and unicorn (companies that reach a billion dollar valuation) companies. A disproportionate amount of time, attention, and money goes towards trying to find the next Bumble (shout out to Whitney Wolfe Herd!), but as you already know from my last article about the Cheerios, this system of allocation capital is riddled with bias and inequities.

These past couple of months I have been catching up with the founders of my 17 portfolio companies, and I have seen in real time how this narrative plays out. All of them have taken in investment capital in a traditional way, and for many, it simply is not working given the nature of their businesses. This is a topic for a separate article, but for now, just take my word for it. Vicki is spot on. 

So if traditional venture capital does not work for up to 99% of businesses, and if you are not a white male with a powerful bro network to get access to capital, how exactly do you get the support you need to grow your business? Where is the help you actually need, keeping in mind that this may not just be financial help? Enter the SheEO model. 

SheEO is a global community of radically generous women building a $1Billion perpetual fund to support women working on the World’s To-Do List.

In keeping with her theory of creating new language to create new behaviours, SheEO is not backed by investors. “Women don’t tend to see themselves as investors. We wanted a different mindset coming into SheEO, so we call you an Activator,” Vicki explains. Activators contribute $92/month or $1,100/year into SheEO’s perpetual fund. You do not get that capital back, so it is in effect a donation, but you won’t find the word ‘charitable’ in the language of SheEO. There are currently over 6,000 Activators who all have resources to share. And again, not just financial resources. They share every available resource at their disposal, including their time, networks, and knowledge.

Companies, on the other hand, are called Ventures, and they must meet one basic requirement. All Ventures must in some way be working on the World’s To Do list. In other words, how is this Venture changing the world? Once again, Vicki is brutally honest in her assessment of our current economic reality. “Not a single penny should go towards things that aren’t on the world’s to do list. In order to be accepted at SheEO, a Venture has to be able to articulate how they are changing the world for the better by solving one of the world’s to do items.” SheEO is currently using the UN’s SDGs for this criteria, but they are working on creating a more expansive and inclusive model of just what exactly is the world’s to do list.

So how does SheEO work? Every year, Ventures that are women-identifying majority owned and led apply to the program, and Activators vote in two rounds to determine which Ventures are selected. A number of Ventures are selected each year based on the number of Activators, and the selected Venture leaders are brought together to decide how to divide up the money. The two rules for doing so? You can’t give it all to one (no winner takes all) and they can’t just divide it up evenly. Coaches and mentors are on hand to support the Venture leaders through the negotiation, and once the pot has been divvied up, Ventures have five years to pay back the money at 0% interest. The money is then loaned out to the next cohort, and so on and so on, with all Ventures collectively being responsible for repayment.

To date, SheEO has a 95% successful repayment rate, and Vicki credits this to the shift in collective thinking when it comes to which Ventures to fund. “The number one question we ask Activators is, ‘Would you buy or recommend this product to others?’ Some Activators look at the financials and some don’t, and we don’t worry about that. No one really knows how to pick a winner. We trust the intuition of hundreds of women to vote. Collective intelligence has been proven to work better than experts, so we go with it and it’s served us well. Remember, women control 85% of all purchasing decisions. If women get behind something, the probability is high that it will work.” I nearly did a fist bump when Vicki said this, because it’s exactly what I’ve been saying for years. Women’s purchasing power is one of the greatest untapped potentials for enacting social change. To hear it being used to dismantle structural financial inequity made me want to whoop with joy.

SheEO is also unique in the way it approaches Activator/Venture relationships. As Vicki notes, Activators are not getting their money back, meaning it removes the conditions that exist, often to the detriment of companies, in traditional investor relations. “We believe that the innovator at the helm of these Ventures should set the rules. Activators are not here to set parameters for your Venture. Instead, when you walk into SheEO, you inherit an army of people ready to help and support you in any way they can, on your own terms.”

To say that SheEO is an innovative organization would be the understatement. Financial innovation is at the heart of everything they do. They are disrupting systems both literally and more figuratively. When it comes to traditional investment, SheEO is forcing a collective shift in thinking, and forcing Activators to re-examine what actually matters when making decisions.

Today, SheEO is announcing its next US cohort, and Vicki is proud to note that 24.2% of all applicants were Black and 44% were BIPOC. SheEO has been working hard to establish relationships and trust with marginalized communities, and she credits the testimonials of two previous Venture leaders, Kai Frazier and Wakumi, as helping to open the floodgates of applicants. In particular, there was a 46% increase in Black applicants, and after two rounds of voting among thousands of Activators, all five Ventures of the new cohort are Black. I just met all the founders on a ZOOM call and holy moly! I can’t wait to dig in and offer them additional support as they are all looking for champions, business connects, capital and more.

Listed below (and pictured above) are the winning companies and I encourage you to check them all out. If you feel compelled to try to do something, anything, to help these founders succeed, just do it! Reach out to them directly.

  1. Courtroom 5 – Sonja Ebron – https://courtroom5.com/ – Automated legal toolbox for people in court without a lawyer (SDG targets #10.2 & 16.2)
  2. Mahkers studio – Wanona Satcher – https://makhersstudio.com/ – Green manufacturing and design-build firm that specializes in unique modular shipping container real estate. (SDG targets 11.1 + 9.4)
  3. 100K incubator – Arielle Loren Palmer – https://100kincubator.com/ – The first business funding app for women in Apple and Google’s app stores (SDG targets #1.4 & 9.3)
  4. COI Energy – SaLisa Berrien – https://coienergyservices.com/ – Energy management platform that detects, prevents and eliminates energy waste in buildings to improve efficiency and provide marginalized communities with equitable access to clean energy solutions (SDG Targets 7.1, 11.6, 12.5).
  5. Brown Toy Box – Terri-Nichelle Bradley – https://www.browntoybox.com/ – Children’s educational products company that centers and celebrates Black children to expand ideas of possibilities for their lives (SDG target #4.4 & 10.2)

SheEO is currently operating and supporting cohorts in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, but Vicki knows that this model is easy to replicate in countries around the world. And you’d better believe that’s her goal. “Every single country is in deep trouble when it comes to figuring out how to get money into the hands of small and medium sized businesses, the engines of their economy,” she says. “That’s why we want to scale up and replicate the model in every country. All you need is to find the right people who are locally connected and our model works. At the end of the day, we want to find the innovation and spread it globally as soon as possible. That’s how real change will happen.”

As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, I am an Activator with SheEO. I believe wholeheartedly in the model and Vicki’s vision for disrupting power systems in the financial systems. At one point in our call, Vicki mentioned that she wanted to start her own bank in order to reinvent the system, and all I can say is that I hope she does exactly that one day. In the meantime, I urge you to check out SheEO, and if you can, please consider becoming an Activator. SheEO aims to create a $1B perpetual fund through 1M Activators that will change the course of women owned and led ventures for generations to come. That’s an incredible legacy, and more importantly, community, to be a part of for just $92/month.

It is easy to do nothing. It is also easy to do something. Why not let today be the day you do something? You may have been thinking “what can I do to economically support women, and in particular women of color, in a real and tangible way?” Well this is one option. Just do it. And if you do join, please let me know in that comment section. And.. thank you.

“We are never going to fund more women if women don’t start writing the checks. But if we can change the process, we can change the outcomes. At SheEO, we are not here to win. We are here to transform.”

She Invests #5 – For The First Time EVER – A Woman Holds The Most Senior Financial Position in the United States of America

A photo of Janet Yellen standing in front of an American flag.

As published as She Invests newsletter #5 on LinkedIn Influencers.

It was almost a year ago, March 8th to be exact, that I published an article with the title Finance. The New Frontier of Feminism. It was International Women’s Day, and I had written yet another article about why women’s rights are human rights, and how tools of finance, or simply put, money, are the most underused resources we have in the quest for gender equality. This article also announced the release of the latest version of my Best Reports list. It featured 650 reports, organized into 21 different categories, and spanned nearly 175 pages, all in support of Gender Lens Giving, Investing, and Action. You can download that list HERE. Little did I know last March, but less than 12 months later, we would have the FIRST EVER female Treasury Secretary of the United States, Janet Yellen.

A photo of the cover page of Jacki Zehner's Top 650 Reports on Women and Girls.

At the time, that article was my declaration to myself, as well as the world at large, that my focus was shifting away from philanthropy. I was making a promise that I would use my time and talent to be a champion for Gender-Impact Investing. About a week later, the world changed completely with the realization that we were facing a once in a century global pandemic that would uproot and turn upside down every facet of our lives. And then the pandemic landed in my own house. I was COVID case number 60(ish) in Utah, and while my case was mild, the impact of this deadly virus has been anything but. We can all make endless lists of how things are different now because of COVID-19 and how things have changed. I, like so many of you, can share stories of the sadness and loss of the past 10 months. If you want to read a poem I wrote in the early days of the pandemic, please click here. Yes, a poem. Poetry is one of the many things that has kept me going this past year, and it helped me land where I am now, in such a place of HOPE! And for that more hopeful poem, click here.

Back to this week. We have a new President in the Oval Office, Joe Biden. Kamala Harris is the first ever woman and woman of color to be the Vice President of the United States. And Janet Yellen is the first ever female Treasury Secretary (pictured above). While I celebrate VP Harris to the hills and back, this is a newsletter about money, so Ms. Yellen is the focus.

For those of you who may not know what a Treasury Secretary (TS) does, the role is very important. The TS oversees the Department of the Treasury, and acts as the principle advisor to both the President and the Cabinet on most economic and financial issues. In short, the TS is the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for the Federal Government. Or otherwise put, the CFO for the American people! And so this is a very big deal.

It also has a very personal meaning for me given my background as a partner and managing director at Goldman Sachs, as well as being the first female trader to have that title. Treasury Secretary, in my view, is the most senior position in finance in the country, male or female, and for the very first time, just to say it again, that position is currently being held by a woman. As a former bond trader, I would hang on to every word that was uttered by the person in this role to look for direction as to the future of interest rates, and while this newsletter will not be a primer on why the rate at which the US borrows money matters so much, maybe a future one will be. For now, just trust me, it matters a lot. It could even be argued that it matters now more than ever, considering the current level of national debt related to support measures that have been provided during the pandemic.

So who is Janet Yellen? Her bio from The Balance reads, “Dr. Yellen graduated summa cum laude from Brown University with a degree in economics in 1967. She received her Ph.D. in economics from Yale University in 1971. She received the Wilbur Cross Medal from Yale in 1997, an honorary doctor of laws degree from Brown in 1998, and an honorary doctor of humane letters from Bard College in 2000. Dr. Yellen was an assistant professor at Harvard University from 1971 to 1976 and a staff economist for the Federal Reserve Board from 1977 to 1978. She was a faculty member at the London School of Economics and Political Science from 1978 to 1980. She was a Fed Board member between 1994 and 1997. President Bill Clinton appointed her as the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers between 1997 and 1999. She was the chair of the Economic Policy Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development at the same time. Dr. Yellen was the president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco between 2004 and 2010. She became vice-chair of the Fed Board of Governors between October 2010 and February 2014. This four-year term coincided with a 14-year term as a board member. From February 2014 to February 2018, Yellen was the Federal Reserve chair. She was the first woman to hold that position.” And by the way, she is 74.

Her accomplishments and knowledge base are beyond impressive. While we may know a lot about her leanings from a policy perspective, I can’t say I know much about her track record when it comes to championing gender equity and inclusion. A quick google search on the topic did not help me all that much, but that’s certainly not to say that she does not have one. Ms. Yellen likely has a good one, and I can only hope that not only will she do an amazing job as our CFO, but she will also utilize her platform to be a role model and change agent for so much more. Already, it looks like she will be making racial equity a priority, which is amazing.

I have written endlessly about the lack of women in decision making roles in the financial sector, and Ms. Yellen, as the most senior woman ever in finance, can do a lot to change that. In the famous words of Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Now, we will finally see a woman as the Treasury Secretary of the United States, and that is incredible. But if you are wondering what I’m referencing when it comes to the lack of women in finance, let me point you in the direction of my last newsletter, which was a bit of a rant about the lack of capital flowing to women fund managers and entrepreneurs. Please read it here. The Cheerios photo below is fully explained in that piece. I also wrote this piece, titled “Happy 150th Goldman Sachs and a Call to Collective Action”, and this one in 2016, called “Gender Equality in Finance? Nope. But Times Are Changing”. There’s also been about 100+ other pieces over the 10+ years that I have been writing on this topic. All can be found in my blog archive if you are looking for some late night reading. And of course, the 650 reports list, many of which are on this topic.

A photo of a pile of 100 Cheerios on a countertop, separated into piles for men, women, and people of colour.

Here is what I know for sure, and in particular, why this all matters so much.

Philanthropic capital will never be enough to solve the world’s problems, especially when fighting against traditional investment capital that continues to fund businesses that create and perpetuate the problems that non-profits and governments exist to solve. Financial tools and products have been created and used, bought and sold, without enough accountability for outcomes and impact. In a world increasingly defined by inequality more generally, and income and asset inequality specifically, we simply have to do better. Our very lives depend on it. 

But it’s not just Janet Yellen who brought me hope this week. President Biden’s Cabinet is the most racially diverse Cabinet in history, as well as the one with the most ever women. Obviously, it is far too early to know what will come of this, but it is a great start for President Biden’s administration. This quote by Abraham Lincoln from the Gettysburg Address has been on my mind all week: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” In my book, having a cabinet that more fully represents the people that it is designed to serve is a very good thing indeed.

That being said, while it is very true that policy decisions made in Washington matter a lot as it relates to our economic and financial well-being, so does what you and I do every day with our financial resources. Every time money moves from our bank accounts, our wallets, or our purses to either pay for something (good or service), give to someone, or invest in something, we are transferring our financial power. The more we see it this way, the more we can see ourselves as powerful economic and financial beings. And if you want to live in a more just and equitable world, using your money more intentionally is a surefire way to make a difference. This election cycle proved, maybe more so than ever before, that every vote matters. So does every financial decision we make. They all add up. The billionaires of the world are just that, billionaires, because people buy the products, the services, and/or the stocks of the companies that those very people started or run. Without us, they would be just like us. Sit on that one for a while.

So a year later let me repeat my mantra: Finance is indeed the new Frontier of Feminism*. Welcome Treasury Secretary Yellen, I look forward to meeting you. And by they way, I sure as heck hope you call yourself a feminist. You may have once said that you prefer to ‘quietly’ break gender roles, but now that you have busted through the biggest glass ceiling of them all in the world of finance, I hope you come to shout it from your rooftop. And for all of you who think feminism is an old, dated, and politically charged word that you choose not to use, I refer you to the actual definition. Feminism isdefinedin Merriam-Webster as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and as the “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” So might we stop hating on the words feminist and feminism, especially as women? It is time to reclaim the word for what it truly means. Because I promise you. When we more fully combine the beliefs of feminism with the power of finance, we will have a more just and equitable world for all.

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Fun side note: This incredible video deserves to go viral. Please enjoy and share!

Interesting side note: the outgoing Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, was my direct manager at Goldman for a period of time. In fact, he threw an engagement party for me and my husband Greg when we got engaged, as we both worked for him in the mortgage department. I also worked for Hank Paulson, who served as the 74th Treasury Secretary while he was CEO of Goldman, and very distantly for Robert Rubin who was the 70th Treasury Secretary and also the CEO of Goldman. When I first started at GS in 1988, my cubicle was right outside his. #funfactsaboutjacki

* I once again credit Ruth Ann Harnisch for this term.