Juliette, how do you combine global finance and sustainability successfully in a career?
Easily! We believe portfolios that have sustainability integrated into them can offer a better risk-adjusted returns for long-term investors, and that the consideration of environmental, social and governance factors is good risk management in all investment processes – regardless of type of asset, location or investment style. Empowering our clients to better understand the relationship between sustainability issues, risk and long-term financial performance is an idea that inspires me and excites me every day at work. I’m particularly passionate about the technical aspects of ESG integration: working on enhancing the technology toolkit to generate sustainability-related insights globally and at scale.
Okay, let’s go back a bit. How did your interest in finance itself start?
Studying the socio-economic impacts of the global financial crisis and the European sovereign debt crisis made me appreciate the complexity of financial markets and their repercussions on peoples’ lives, making me want to pursue a career in the investment industry.
When the opportunity to work on a project related to sustainability arose, my manager at BlackRock thought I might be keen to get involved, as my master’s thesis on Islamic finance had made me really interested in learning more about ethical finance. Within two years I became the sustainability specialist on my team and led the ESG technology integration initiative, coordinating data and technology efforts to accelerate sustainable investing and research capabilities across the firm. I’ve always wanted to find a sense of purpose in my career. It’s exciting that investing money on behalf of clients means we effectively have a voice, as a shareholder, to actively engage with companies on how to achieve sustainable long-term growth.
Has sustainability always been important to BlackRock?
When I first joined the firm four years ago, ESG was still considered ‘niche’ in the asset management industry. Climate change risk and broader sustainability questions were more in the background. Things really changed in January 2020 when our CEO Larry Fink announced a series of initiatives to place sustainability at the centre of our investment approach, deepening the integration of sustainability into technology, risk management and product choice across BlackRock. It was the most thrilling and rewarding feeling to see sustainability being formalised as the firm’s top priority and at the heart of our DNA.
How does sustainability work in practice?
My team’s job is to identify drivers of long-term financial returns associated with environmental, social and governance factors. We then integrate them throughout BlackRock’s investment processes and create innovative investment solutions that integrate material sustainability insights for clients who target both financial and sustainable outcomes. We equip our investors with data, analytics and tools to deepen their understanding of material ESG risks and opportunities. In a typical day I can speak with an ESG equity analyst based in Hong Kong, then meet with a client in Paris to talk about BlackRock’s ESG integration strategic priorities and finish the day with a brainstorming session on climate risk with an investment team in NYC.
How can investment in sustainability help a client financially in the long term?
At BlackRock, we think the COVID-19 crisis has created an opportunity to rebalance portfolios and accelerated the shift to a more sustainable world. We believe responsible companies that operate a multi-stakeholder model are more likely to show resilience in challenging times and attract investments. Investors will pay closer attention to how companies demonstrate their ’social license to operate’. This social licence to operate will be crucial for companies, in particular for those that have received public support through the pandemic – but also for those that were less impacted by the crisis and may be expected to give back more to the community. Companies’ directors are expected to respond to urgent pressures (safeguarding jobs, ensuring employees’ safety…) while staying focused on longer-term social and environmental impacts, too.
What are the fun sides to working in finance and sustainability?
A great thing about working for a global team at a global firm is that we truly engage with all areas of the company. We have an international reach; frontiers are virtual. Sustainability-related macro-themes such as climate change, biodiversity loss, nutrition and health are powerful, transformative forces that have the potential to change our society, businesses and the global economy at large. The demand for analytical tools and ESG insights is growing. It’s exciting to work as part of an industry that has momentum and where you get to learn every day. But it is also important to spend some time stepping back, contemplating achievements, celebrating progress and learning lessons from failures. I need to do this more often!
Any advice to students still at university who are interested in working in sustainability?
Learn as much as possible about the science of things. Science is what underpins everything we do in sustainable investing. I think everybody should seek to understand the physics of climate change, for example, before evaluating its socio-economic and financial impacts. Also, get familiar with data science – it is crucial. We are faced with an overabundance of sustainability-related data, coming in different structures, shapes, dimensions, and from all kinds of sources – companies’ disclosures, independent research firms, public media sources and social media. But looking at the data alone is not enough. The challenge is to identify the signals from the noise and turn raw data into useful insights for investment decisions. Also, incorrect data can be worse than no data. Having strong analytical skills is necessary to navigate the mass of data appropriately and is crucial in ensuring it is processed and interpreted accurately.
Can graduates get involved with sustainability issues at BlackRock, even if they’re not in the ESG team?
Absolutely. BlackRock supports and amplifies its employees’ efforts to contribute positively to life in the office and outside. In particular, the Social Impact team empowers BlackRock’s employees to give back to their communities in ways that are meaningful to them. The team is responsible for BlackRock’s community-based investments as well as humanitarian and disaster relief efforts. Employees can participate in office-wide efforts such as crowdmapping to aid emergency response workers, packing meals at local food pantries and mentoring underserved youth. In 2020, the firm contributed half a billion dollars to provide long-term funding for philanthropic investments and partnerships addressing pressing social problems. Led by the Social Impact team, the firm will broaden funding for organisations focused on promoting economic mobility, building financial resiliency and advancing sustainability. The Green Team Network provides a forum for colleagues to connect around a shared passion for improving BlackRock's sustainability as a firm, creating and leading sustainability initiatives within our offices, and stewarding conservation efforts within the communities in which we operate.
And going forward?
We believe that we are still in the early stages of a persistent and long-lasting reallocation of capital – the full effects of which are not yet included in market prices, given the long transition. This is a transformation that we expect to see through the current pandemic, recovery, and long after. We believe flows into sustainable assets for the first half of 2020 are just a glimpse of the tectonic shift to come. The COVID-19 downturn has created an opportunity for investors to further rebalance portfolios coming out of the crisis.
Read on to find out more about Juliette, and how she got her job at BlackRock...
I joined BlackRock after studying finance at university (an MSc in finance at Bocconi University, Milan, and a degree in finance at Dauphine University, Paris). Starting my career here was a great opportunity for me to further my interest in finance and satisfy my curiosity. Financial markets have become exceptionally complex, new technologies keep disrupting the investment landscape and investors of my generation are concerned about their financial future. In a world that is shifting faster than ever before, I decided to join a firm that could best equip me to navigate this complexity.
Did you do any work experience before starting at BlackRock?
It is quite common in France to take a gap year after the first year of a masters degree to complete internships and gain practical experience before returning to university for the final year. I worked for the FIG (financial institutions group) coverage team at HSBC for the first six months and then joined a small hedge fund as a research analyst.
What do you think made you stand out from the other candidates?
I do not actually think that these experiences made a huge difference during the interview process – the team I was applying to at BlackRock was clearly willing to consider graduates with less experience as long as they had the intellectual curiosity and genuine motivation to learn everything on the job. I do think however, that these experiences helped me enter the corporate world with more professional maturity and self-assurance – once I got the job. Even though I’ve had to learn every aspect of my job from scratch, being relatively more experienced (and a couple of years older!) than my fellow grad-class analysts helped me gain trust and respect from colleagues, managers and clients. BlackRock has a strong culture of humility and integrity. We live in a complex world and we deal with complicated business problems, and sometimes it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’ – especially if you’ve just graduated from university. What matters is that you are doing everything in your power to find the solution, get the answer and help your client or colleague. I genuinely embrace that mentality, which is why I am passionate about our firm.
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