12 Jun Finance Matters Interviews Evita Zanuso, Director BSC
Base: London, UK
Position: Director of Financial Sector and Investor Engagement, Big Society Capital (BSC)
Tenure in current role: 3.5 years
By: Clare McCartney
Evita, please tell us a bit about your background.
My background has mainly been in financial services, although my first job straight out of university was in politics! Most of my career has been on the sales and marketing side in Asset Management, much of it with high net worth and mass affluent investors. Prior to BSC I was running my own consultancy for a few years helping financial advisors and discretionary fund managers reshape their value propositions under the then new retail distribution review. The Global Financial Crisis was a big catalyst for me to make a change in my life. Over this period I started to realise that something had gone really wrong. Capitalist systems for me had always been positive force, one that had the potential to relieve poverty, but in 2007/2008, I began to question these preconceptions. I still believe capitalism is a force for good but perhaps not unconstrained capitalism. I saw the social impact space as a way to help repurpose and reposition free market systems for good. My MBA dissertation was on sustainable investments and I also research the impact investment space. I was lucky that shortly after BSC was looking for someone with my skillset.
The impact investment industry is developing quickly. How has the industry changed even since you started?
Some institutions have been making social investments for a very long time, just not necessarily under the banner of ‘impact investment’. UK Foundations for example, have a long history of letting real estate out at sub market rates to help a certain group of people (although still making a return doing so). Now, many more people are aware of the term ‘impact investing’ which is great, although the broad nature of the term is sometimes unhelpful. It reminds me of my time in financial services when individuals talked about hedge funds as an asset class – this is a somewhat misleading as it fails to identify the investment style, risk profile etc of each of these different styles of hedge funds. This is also the case now for impact investment. Some of the concerns I have about the way the industry is developing is the tendency to conflate what is ESG and what is impact. Don’t get me wrong, ESG and SRI should be be encouraged, but they are very different to impact investment and we should not confuse the two. The key is transparency about what people are actually investing in and what the intended impact is.
What do you think are the opportunities/challenges for the industry from here?
The opportunity is that a lot of stakeholders are interested – asset owners, intermediaries and product providers are interested in creating impact through investments. The challenge is creating that impact. There is a lot of discussion around achieving market rate financial returns in impact investments but are there enough opportunities that deliver deep impact and can afford to pay back market rate returns? Also there’s not enough discussion about impact risk. Are investors going to be disappointed if this doesn’t happen or if it takes 10 years to eventuate? What kind of impact do investors want? Deep impact which may not be scalable or broad impact that is scalable? Everyone in the industry needs to be honest with themselves about this. When we are talking about social investment which is a subset of impact, I think it has a place within the existing ecosystem of grants and government support, not to replace it.
What is the thing you enjoy most about working in the industry?
One feeling I always had when working in asset management or consulting was that I was not doing anything new or truly innovative. Working for large asset managers, we released new products but these would be rebadging ‘me too’ products. I also felt I had stopped learning, doing anything additive and was no longer working to full capacity. In contrast now working at Big Society Capital, every day I realise how much more I don’t know. I am constantly challenged and stretching myself further.
What is the most challenging thing crossing over into this space?
I think the diversity of scope is challenging, particularly in my role where I deal with such a wide range of different social investments. I have an outreach responsibility so there is a more extensive range of knowledge required but I have learnt so much and this is also what keeps me in the job. What has been an eye opener is also being exposed to the social enterprise space and their coming to terms with new forms of funding and finance. Separate to BSC I sit as a trustee on the board of a Charity that operates as a social enterprise. It has been a really enriching experience working with them as they have taken on repayable finance. It has helped me to appreciate the day to day struggles of charities and social enterprises.
Do you have any other words of advice for individuals wanting to pursue a similar career path?
I would recommend working for a social enterprise or a charity that is thinking about taking on investment or at least wants to explore if they can in the future. For these organisations, particularly smaller ones, finding individuals who have the experience in business and finance is challenging but there is also so much you can learn from them.
Finally, are you reading any good books at the moment?
The last book I read as part of the BSC book club was the Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance. The story is about the author’s upbringing in the rust belt region of the US (a heavy pro-Trump area). He later went on to work in Silicon Valley but the book gives an interesting insight into the electorate which supports Trump.