Summer promises many things: beach weather, endlessly long days and finally getting to wear shorts to the office. But for Isaac and Lily, who used their summer school breaks to join Ethic as paid interns, it meant a couple of months of working alongside our incredible engineering and sustainability teams.
Whether grappling with thorny programming challenges or probing complex sustainability issues, eating celebratory team pie (apple and sour cherry with ice cream, obviously) or dropping their jaws at [cofounder] Johny Mair’s magic, they learned a ton this summer and had a blast along the way.
We thought it would be fun to have Aleks Itskovich, who started his own journey at Ethic with a 2019 summer internship before joining full-time, interview these two talented, hardworking individuals and find out what working at Ethic is all about.
(This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity)
Aleks: Would you guys introduce yourselves?
Isaac: Yeah, sure. I'm Isaac, I go to Wisconsin and I'm a data science major there, and I'm a rising junior.
Lily: I’m Lily. I’m a rising senior at Brown University where I'm studying philosophy, politics and economics; very relevant for my work here at Ethic.
Aleks: Amazing. So, let's jump into it. I have some questions for you guys. My first question is: how would you summarize your experience of working on the Ethic team this summer in just a few words?
Lily: Akin to working at Hogwarts: surrounded by snacks, magic and mystery.
Aleks: Sorry, you said magic and mystery?
Lily: Yes. You're all sustainability wizards.
Isaac: Where's the mystery coming from?
Lily: The mystery around the philosophical issues Travis and I discuss every day.
Isaac: My answer is going to be a lot more boring, but: learning how to work efficiently and diligently, all while staying calm and relaxed and having fun. Everyone's just having a good time.
Aleks: My next question is around your expectations for this summer. I know that I was super nervous when I did my internship. I was pursuing a career change to computer science and it was going to be my first time working as a programmer. In that vein, what were some of the expectations that you had going into Ethic, and now that your internship is coming to close, how do you feel about those initial expectations?
Isaac: Yeah, so coming into it, I was definitely expecting a more formal environment. I don't know why I thought this, but I was expecting, oh, suit and tie, be afraid to say the wrong things to your boss, be very formal. But very, very quickly I realized that that's just not the case here. Obviously you have a relaxed dress code, and everyone throughout the office is always joking around. But at the same time, they actually do really, really good, insightful work.
Lily: Similar, as well. I'm, of course, also no corporate veteran, but I definitely had no idea what to expect from a startup. I think the first day I showed up in a collared shirt and quickly realized that that wasn't the normalized dress code here. But most importantly, I was surprised by how immediately I was welcomed into Ethic's community and how immediately my insight was valued. And I think something very unique about Ethic that also separates it from other startups is that there's a shared mission. I've definitely learned that there's no better binding glue than a shared mission, because at the end of the day, all disagreements are irrelevant if you share the same goal of furthering sustainable investing.
Aleks: What were some memorable moments for you from the summer?
Lily: One with you, choosing snack orders for the office. That was great.
Aleks: You got a lot of impact in that sense. It was your second to last week, but you probably set our snack selection course for years.
Lily: I know. You valued my insight from the beginning. Rebecca teaching me many times how to use the giant coffee machine, which I still find very complicated. Sustainability team pie, in the conference room. And Travis, just walking me through the sustainability model on my first few days here and drawing back Ethic's curtain on sustainability.
Isaac: Yeah. She already touched on this, but on one of the first days we went and grabbed lunch and then brought pie back, some ice cream too, you forgot about the ice-cream.
Lily: I did.
Isaac: That's an important piece. But yeah, for me it was just one of the first days here, still being a little nervous and just hanging out and seeing how fun and happy everyone here was to have me here. It really eased my nerves. What else is there? Oh, grabbing food after work with you and Johny and Kellen. Johny doing his magic tricks.
Aleks: What was the hardest problem you came across this summer?
Isaac: All right. So on the more technical side of things, just learning functional programming, and seeing cool stuff with Java, two things I had never really done before. And it was a little difficult at first to learn and implement at the same time. So that was one of the hardest problems I had. And then also just learning how to do work on your own, because here everyone respects each other and the work that they can do. And so, no one's really on top of you like, "Do this by now, do this by now. You have to do this." It's all in your own time. And so just getting your work done in a timely manner.
Aleks: What about you, Lily?
Lily: Lots of problems.
Aleks: Nothing but problems?
Lily: No, problems in the sense that Travis and I definitely confronted philosophical questions on the daily in regards to building out the pillars. The most interesting and challenging one, I think, was maybe around our decision of whether or not to incorporate all the women's rights issues into the human rights pillar. Because on one hand, you have the tricky issue that if you keep them separate, then you're insinuating that women's rights are separate and maybe even secondary to human rights.
But on the other hand, we want to be able to allow investors to address the issues that uniquely confront women. And that was definitely a tricky one. I think, ultimately, it made the most sense to keep them separate and for the women’s rights pillar to address the disproportionate impacts facing women. It was a tricky one to muddle through but, honestly, very enjoyable.
Aleks: What do you feel are the most important skills you gained this summer?
Isaac: Self-motivation. Learning how to be in a casual environment, but not letting it get to your work. If you're in an environment like this, where everyone's all happy and joking around, sometimes you might be inclined to just goof off and not do anything. And so I think it's important to learn how to still get good work done.
Aleks: What would you say is the difference between this and school?
Isaac: I think the difference with school is that you have a hard deadline. You have to do this work and you get a grade back for it. And here you still might have a hard deadline, but you're not getting a grade. Other people are relying on your work for their work. And so it affects other people, whereas in school your work doesn't really affect anyone, it's just for yourself.
Lily: As a researcher on the sustainability team, I think the most important skill or takeaway that I've actually gained is optimism. I think there's a lot of reasons to be pessimistic about the sustainability space, especially in terms of missing data, greenwashing, misaligned incentives, and so on. But the Ethic team really does a great job at tackling these complex issues with enthusiasm, confidence and hope. And that's the only real way of confronting these issues in the first place. I think that way of looking at problems has definitely rubbed off on me. It's a good way to perceive problems, not as a pessimistic challenge, but as something to be tackled.
Aleks: What advice do you guys have for Ethic's next interns?
Lily: First off, lucky you. You get to witness Ethic's magic and the resident magicians. So my advice is definitely to take advantage of your time there, get to know the people, prepare to be a sponge, soak in as much as possible over the course of your internship. But also take the time to get to know the people behind the brains. Ethic is home to not only brilliant minds, but also wonderful hearts and very, very silly people.
Isaac: Yeah, so my first piece of advice would be: don't be nervous at all. It doesn't matter how much (or little) work experience you've had. Everyone's extremely friendly and here to help you. I think that was the most important part for me. In the beginning I was having some trouble, I was getting stuck here and there, and I was like: "Oh, I'm embarrassed to ask him this." And Aleks, I think you could sense that and you told me: "Hey, as long as you learn something at the end of this, I've done my job. I'm happy." And that, I think, is important to know: that people are here to help you and that you can ask for help no matter how silly you think it is.
Aleks: How has this internship affected your views on sustainability, if at all?
Isaac: What I learned is that sustainability isn't just physically making a change. It's not just, oh, building houses or whatnot. There are so many other things you can do indirectly like sustainable investing, where, although you're not on the field literally making a difference, you still are having an effect on the world.
Lily: This summer has definitely taught me that there's no such thing as a sustainability expert, because there's no singular definition of sustainability. And while I have definitely had my fair share of engagement with the sustainability universe, Ethic takes a unique approach to sustainability. They define it in a much broader way than the typical institution. My time here has definitely taught me to adopt a wider lens when looking at sustainability. It doesn't start and end with ESG; it encompasses much broader things like clean water, immigration justice, financial systems stability.
Aleks: Yeah. I think once you adopt a holistic view and realize: "Hey, all these issues are very much related," it's difficult to go back and see them as isolated from one another.
Lily: And I guess another point to add to that is, we don't need to look with such a cookie cutter lens at each subject. Take women's rights. We're not just looking at gender pay gaps. We're also looking at things like air pollution, because it affects pregnancy risk and things like that. So not just our primary impacts, but our secondary, tertiary.
Aleks: Lily, given your academic background in sustainability, you’ve obviously spent a lot of time thinking about these issues before. Has your summer research project complicated or challenged any of your views?
Lily: Yes, this is a very difficult one, and I think I've touched on it a bit in terms of the way in which Ethic has expanded my definition of sustainability. But I've also learnt that behind the fanfare, most corporations have an ankle-deep view of sustainability, and it can be disappointing and disheartening to have the curtains drawn back, and discover that few corporations actually know what they're doing. In many ways, it's the blind leading the blind, but all professing to see.
But in other ways, it's also exciting. We have a lot of space to grow, and opportunity to grow in the sustainability finance world. Ethic is shoulder-deep in their views about sustainability. And they’ve helped define my standards of sustainability, and set the bar for that in a way that I hope other corporations, other companies, asset managers will rise to eventually.
Aleks: Isaac, when we’re asked about programming the questions are often very tangible. "Do you know Python? Can you use Github? What are your technical skills?” What’s asked less often, and what I find more interesting, is what have you learned about the process of engineering? The less tangible skills, the different ways of thinking, and so on. What have you learned this summer about those aspects of being an engineer?
Isaac: I think the most important part is not blindly diving into your work and just writing a ton of code. Actually planning your work beforehand is crucial. That way, once you have a finished product, you have a baseline to compare it to: "Hey, this is what I wanted. This is what it actually looks like." And then you can make fixes according to that comparison. I think that's really important.
Another thing is that while you obviously want your program to function properly, it is equally important that the code is readable and organized. If I write a function and pass it off to you, and you have no clue what it does, then even though the program actually works, you might not be able to truly utilize it.
Aleks: Lily, if you could speak to the world's biggest and most influential companies, what changes would you advocate for?
Lily: Data, data, and more data. What we choose to measure is a very good definition of what we value, and what we value determines how we progress. If we can identify problems through data, we can begin to fix them. And without that data, we are very much oblivious to the issues that currently confront us. And so, if I were to speak to the world's biggest companies, I would start with: what are you collecting data on? Because that will help inform decisions going forward, long-term strategy.
Aleks: Isaac, you've told me that this internship is essentially your first job. How did it go?
Isaac: I think it's the perfect place for someone going into their first job because it's not getting bagels and coffee for your boss. You're doing actual work that other people in the company will be using. And so you're valued and you feel important. You don't just feel like people are thinking: "Oh, it's an intern."
Another thing: I really liked the onboarding process. Even though I'm working in software engineering and “just coded”, I got to see every inch of the company: what this department does, what that person is working on. You get a fuller sense of what everyone is doing. So yeah, I had a great time here: doing important work and meeting lots of amazing, helpful people.
Lily: I would add that I've worked every summer [throughout college] and Ethic is very unique in terms of having your work actually being valued and your voice being valued too. In general, that's not normal for an internship.