Robasciotti & Philipson: The story behind the firm's socially responsible focus
Wednesday, March 27, 2019
March 2019
Interviews with interesting people about their sustainability journey
Robasciotti & Philipson: The story behind the firm's socially responsible focus

What are your personal backgrounds? How did you grow up and how has that informed your relationship with your business now?

Maya: I grew up in Berkeley and my mothers are lesbians. One of my mothers is also European, and I think all this allowed me to have one foot in mainstream society and one foot out of it, which could be a really uncomfortable place. It gave me fluency and multiple ways on being and in multiple languages. It really gave me the ability to be more empathetic and to see things from different people's perspectives. Also, when I was young, both my mothers were in school, and I've really been able to see in the course of my lifetime how our resources have changed through their hard work and focusing on their professional careers. That’s been of a lot of help when I work with my clients now because I can both see the decisions that you need to make as a family and as individuals when you really need to balance your resources.

Rachel: I grew up in rural poverty and in de facto segregation. My father was mentally ill and was not part of the family since I was a baby. We were all women and we were black, and that was a double hit against us. It was very clear to me growing up that the reason that things were so hard for us was because we were female. Thankfully, I grew up with a head for numbers and decided that money was actually the issue. If we had enough money, everything would be OK. It’s in my nature to push myself, and a lot of that was a reaction to poverty and not wanting to be a woman and not wanting to be black. Now I'm able to have a lot of compassion for where that comes from. If I continue to live in that way, the little girl that developed those defenses never gets a chance to be free. I feel even more committed to bringing community and specifically money and social justice work together, because I feel like those are gifts that I can bring from the way that I grew up.

How did you first meet and not only become best friends but also realize you wanted to create a business together?

Rachel: We met in our 20s when we were both involved with the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Most of the time when people talk about their business partner being their best friend, they mean they decided to go into business with their best friend. We actually chose one another based on our values and based on the fact that we just had really complementary interests and skills, and then we became really close friends. The most significant part of our relationship is that we listen to each other with an openness to being changed by what we hear. That doesn't happen enough. People aren’t listening with an openness to being changed by what we hear. One of the greatest gifts of my life is having been changed by Maya and becoming more fully who I am through having known her.

How do you balance being self-serving and selfless?

Rachel: This has changed a lot over the years. I've always been very driven but I think earlier in my life it was coming from a place of being so afraid of falling back into poverty. As many women do, the way I went about being driven was saying yes to a lot of things and overcommitting. But now, as I really settle in to trusting myself, I'm realizing that if I pay attention the balance of being self-serving and being selfless just shows up naturally. There isn't a competition between pushing myself and not. I used to believe it was my job to overcome difficulty. Now I'm learning that it's my job to hear my own calling. It doesn't mean that I avoid things that are hard, it's just means that I now can notice where those two pieces are aligned. It’s like an accelerator. It’s like running with the wind at your back. Head's happy, heart's happy.

How do you nurture yourself and your practice?

Maya: I used to think I could either be in a place where I was nurturing myself, or I could be in a place where I was nurturing my business. I am on a journey to bring those two parts of myself closer together. What really has helped me understand this is realizing that I actually use exactly the same skills to nurture myself as I do to nurture my firm. I'm realizing that I'm the same person with the same skills, I'm just applying them in different situations. If I can accept these facets of myself I'm able to bring that empathy out into the world. Some of that is through myself, some of it is through my family and friends, and some of that is through my work. I'm also realizing that sometimes having a different view or perspective from the group is actually incredibly valuable.

Can you tell us about RISE?

Rachel: RISE is an alternative for investors with social justice values that is incredibly unique. It pairs a very robust financial strategy with the first-ever community-developed social screens. This ends up creating social screens that are very different from what you'll see anywhere else. When you're building a community-developed strategy, you're really listening to people and seeing what they truly care about rather than responding with what might sound good or what you believe is already possible given the tools that exist in the financial industry. It's taken the voice and dedication of our whole community to develop the social justice issues that we screen for.

You speak openly about the place of emotion in finance. Do you see emotion, business and finance as interrelated?

Rachel: I think the two are actually always related. It's not that we're introducing emotions to finance, I think we are just acknowledging reality. Because money is connected to survival, of course it has emotions attached to it. There has been a lot of praise in finance for separating out the emotions. But it's not a matter of letting them coexist, it's a matter of how can we stop denying that they're already intertwined. Sometimes our emotions have information that we can’t get with our prefrontal cortex—it’s just dealing with a different part of the brain. If we pay attention to those emotions, they can give us a lot more information than we otherwise had.

In the same way that emotions are tied to finance, how do you see people’s values tied to finance?

Maya: To me, the next step beyond emotions is just values. When we think about our clients we think about the whole person. They have a financial life, but they also have an emotional life and all of what is important to them. We can’t help them make good decisions if we’re ignoring that. Often people expect to be judged for their emotions and values. We spend a lot of time convincing our clients that we actually want to hear what they’re feeling and what they care about‚ because they already hold a lot of the answers.

How do you understand social justice as it relates to financial returns?

Maya: In the same way that we balance the two streams of emotional information and data-based information, we see returns as two components as well. There's the values-aligned return, and then there's the monetary return. If the focus is solely on the social return, that's where you get things like people burning out in non-profits or huge philanthropic giving. And on the other side you get the capitalist-run-a-muck where you have people just doing terrible things like destroying the environment or trying not to cure people who are sick because it makes more money to keep them on medication for life. So when we are talking about return, the first and most important thing to understand is that we’re saying, "Alright, what's your social return and what's your financial return?"

Rachel: The beauty of social justice investing is that we're optimizing for both. We’re optimizing your personal financial return with the social return. It's time for us to start having different conversations about returns where we stop cutting off the fact that we are social beings. Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. That's where you’re cut off from the rest of the world. So why would we engage in similar behavior around our money?

Are you starting to see changes in how people relate their views of human behavior and money?

Maya: We have seen changes, but for the most part people's core values and feelings have not changed. Where we've seen the most change however is how people view the direction the country is going, and they don't like it. People are much more willing to face their choices now than they have been in the past. Overall they see the way the world is going, and that's not a world they want to bequeath to the future and their children. I was just in Sweden and climate change is a huge conversation over there. A third of the country is in the Arctic Circle. They think that as soon as 2050 cities like Stockholm could be underwater. So people there are also making changes with what they support and with their money. We've all made the choices that got us to where we are now. We can make different choices. We have that power.

What are you most excited about for the future?

Rachel: The largest forces for change have never been aligned before and we’re starting to align them. Social justice movements (or basically the power of the people) are a huge activator for change, but if they don't have some really serious follow-through from the other major actors in the economy like our corporations or our government, frequently those changes can fall flat and not have a lasting impact. But if we also have the investment dollars supporting it, we can have complete political alignment to make change that is truly about improving the lives of everyone. I’ve not seen a more powerful engine for change. When I look to what's possible for the future, it gives me the chills.

Enjoy the interview and want more? Listen to the unedited responses below.

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Sources and footnotes

Johny Mair was raised in Australia, and driven by love of technology, collaborating, and bringing ideas to life. He has been building technology products across three different continents and led product teams at Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan, BlackRock, Fidelity, Guy Carpenter, Goldman Sachs and a number of high-growth startups before co-founding Ethic. He studied Mechanical Engineering at Queensland University of Technology.