Interview with Jennifer Pryce by Inspirational Women Series
Jennifer (Jenn) Pryce is the President and CEO of Calvert Foundation. Jenn has shaped the strategic direction of the organization to lead on rising trends such as investing with a gender lens and making impact investing more accessible to retail investors. Jenn started off in the Peace Corps working in Africa where she was exposed to the limited flows of capital to lower income communities. From there, she set off to work for major banks in New York and London including Neuberger Berman and Morgan Stanley, focusing on capital streams in emerging markets. She then realized she could hone her focus on investing in a socially responsible way supporting under-served communities. She has since committed her career to impact investing at Calvert Foundation. Jenn has previously served on the boards of the Hitachi Foundation, Institute for Sustainable Communities, and Impact Assets. She received her BS in Mechanical Engineering from Union College and her MBA from Columbia University.
How did you transition from working in emerging markets finance in Morgan Stanley and NeubergerBerman to impact investing at the Calvert Foundation?
After I graduated university I joined the Peace Corps and served in a small rural village in Gabon with no electricity or running water. During my time there I witnessed firsthand the challenges facing isolated, under-resourced communities and the role that access to capital plays in influencing the capability for individuals, businesses, and communities to succeed (or not) began to take root in my mind.
I decided to focus my career in finance. I worked at large, traditional financial institutions, including Neuberger Berman and Morgan Stanley, and earned an MBA. I learned a lot from my experience at these institutions, gaining a deep understanding of capital markets, but felt that my work ultimately wasn’t addressing the type of issues that had inspired me to go into finance after my time in Gabon.
I needed to reassess the direction my career was going in and so I quit my job and spent time doing things had more meaning to me, including volunteering at a local theater. The theater, which had a mission to make art accessible to everyone, was facing financial troubles and struggled to find funding to stay afloat.
To me, it was maddening to see this pillar of the community being so under-valued by those who controlled capital. I did some research, and learned about a special type of financial institution that focused exclusively on financing needs in low-income and under-served communities – Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIS). It was exciting to see finance working to support community health in this way. This began my journey into the world of community finance and impact investing; I later ended up working for Nonprofit Finance Fund, a CDFI, and from there, moved to Calvert Foundation.
Can you tell us about how The Calvert Foundation first started its work on gender lens investing? What are some projects that fall under these umbrellas?
Gender lens investing is the practice of investing with the intention to bring women and men equally into leadership and operations of business and as equal beneficiaries of the products or services the business produces. Our work in gender-lens investing sprung from consistent demand from our investors over many years as well as the development of a “gender-lens” ecosystem that provided the intellectual and operational underpinnings to help bring the gender-lens concept to market.
In addition to some of the investments we made with a more intentional gender lens, we knew that many of our existing borrowers were also supporting women, whether it was an explicit consideration or more of an unconscious function of their business. We wanted to highlight these efforts and to understand more deeply the ways in which our borrowers incorporated gender into their work and the impact of that.
A key learning from this work that I think is really important to reinforce, is that gender does not live in a silo – it is not a sector in itself, but it cuts across all sectors – and that’s why we have rolled out gender metrics to our entire portfolio. Gender is one aspect of impact that we can shine a light on and it is represents a kind of key lever for positive societal outcomes; one with the opportunity to create better outcomes in communities holistically, not just for women.
Our efforts in gender lens investing began with a very broad portfolio (domestic and international borrowers across all sectors). This inclusive approach allowed us to conduct a broad scan of the activity targeted toward women’s empowerment and narrow our focus to more specific sectors where there is both demand for our capital and an out-sized opportunity to benefit women; sectors like clean energy. Through increased access to products like clean cook stoves and solar lanterns, women benefit from reduced indoor air pollution, avoid dangerous trips to collect firewood, and have more time to spend on activities like education. Groups like Off Grid Electric and SunFunder, two of our borrowers, are doing really impactful work in this space.
The Calvert Foundation’s “Heritage” and “Faith” investing initiatives sound very interesting. What do these programs entail and how were they founded?
Since 1995 over 18,000 investors have invested $1.5 billion in our Community Investment Note. These 18,000 investors represent a diverse community of institutions, corporations, foundations, and individuals. Many of our investors invest with us to support issues that they care about and we wanted to build on these more personal motivations for investing. Faith-based institutions have always been the bedrock of impact investing and at Calvert Foundation they make up almost 10% of our investments.
We are also seeing a growing interest from individuals who want to invest to in alignment with their heritage. Place is really important to people – both where they’re coming from and where they are going to. Our country is incredibly diverse; almost all Americans have roots both in the U.S. and abroad and many hope to use their investment assets to make a positive difference in both places.
By featuring our work as it is aligns with these shared values and identities in an intentional way, our initiatives seek to bring more people into the practice of investing to create the changes they want to see in the world.
What are The Calvert Foundation’s main loan products, and how does the organization typically make capital allocation decisions?
Calvert Foundation loans senior, unsecured debt to intermediaries and structured funds around the globe. Our average loan size now is roughly $3-5 million. Today our portfolio is made up of around 150 of these intermediaries and funds whose work reaches over 100 countries. Our lending strategy is to create social and/or environmental benefit by increasing access to capital for underserved markets and in doing so, demonstrating the investability of those markets. In a way, it is similar to the work that Mohammad Yunus, the father of microfinance, did. He challenged the belief that poor people cannot repay a loan. His work demonstrated that poor people do indeed repay loans and with that, over the course of two decades and the efforts of many players, scaled, and more commercial capital eventually began serving these markets. The sectors we are working in presently, demonstrating their investability and creating positive societal outcomes, are affordable housing, community development, education, environmental sustainability, health, microfinance, renewable energy, small business, and sustainable agriculture.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
I’ve been fortunate to have worked with many inspiring women throughout my career. As we are talking about Calvert Foundation, one person that comes to mind is our founding CEO, Shari Berenbach. Shari really built Calvert Foundation from a concept into an influential organization in the impact investing space. And she brought many others along with her on that journey; she had the mentality of “let a thousand flowers bloom” and helped many other impact-organizations get their start; she was a true leader of the impact investing movement. Her passion and commitment inspired everyone that she worked with, including me. Sadly Shari passed away a year ago, but the impact she had on our industry lives on.
What advice do you have for the next generation of impact investors and finance professionals?
Be prepared for growth and change. Although impact investing has been around for decades, the industry still has a lot of room to grow. Each year presents us with new opportunities and challenges. For us to achieve impact at scale, we need to keep finding ways to connect the traditional capital markets infrastructure and demands with the market needs in underserved communities. Collaboration and open-mindedness are key to progress.
What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to social impact or business?
There are so many resources out there now that focus on impact investing. Online publications like ImpactAlpha and Green Money Journal focus exclusively on the impacting investing, socially responsible investing space. There are also a growing number of podcasts out there, including Next Economy and the Impact Investing Podcast. Also there are a number of fascinating books on behavioral economics that, while not impact investing books, provide great insight into the dynamics that influence investing behavior, and really human behavior, writ large.