At a moment of unprecedented attention, investment, and opportunity for the emerging field of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), leaders are asking: Who is best preparing their organization for the society of the future? Who is innovating today to meet decades-long environmental and social goals? Who is setting standards that catalyze their industry’s change for the better? Who is defining what bold and aspirational look like — and how best to advance that work in practice?

Enter NationSwell’s ESG Next, an exemplary group of investors, executives, authors, philanthropists, social sector leaders, academics, and field builders who are helping to shape business as a force for social and environmental progress, advancing — and even pioneering — the most forward-thinking and effective programs, initiatives, technologies, methodologies, practices, and approaches.

For this installment, NationSwell interviewed Brandee McHale, Head of Community Investing and Development at Citi and President of Citi Foundation, about the unexpected challenges of headwinds becoming tailwinds, the necessity for leaders to break out of their echo chamber for inspiration, and why economic mobility is the foundation of her unlikely journey to the field of ESG.

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: Tell us how your professional and personal journey led to this work.

Brandee McHale, Head of Community Investing and Development at Citi and President of Citi Foundation: My work is at the intersection of traditional ESG, business, society, and philanthropy; I can’t believe I’m going to actually say these words, but I’ve been here for 30 years. 

I never thought that this was where I would land. When people hear that I’ve worked 30 years in the global financial services company, they naturally assume I came from Wharton or Harvard Business School — and while those are fantastic places, I actually don’t have a business background. In fact, I don’t even have a high school diploma.

I wasn’t on the path to economic success, and what really got me back on track was volunteering in my local community. Through volunteerism, I built a professional network — and I didn’t even know I was building one at the time. I just got very engaged with volunteering alongside the former mayor of the city where I’d grown up. And it was through giving back and being involved in volunteer service that actually built up my own confidence, and I began to see myself the way others saw me. I went back to school, I got my GED, and I answered some bulletin board ad for a summer internship at Citi in their corporate charitable giving department. 

Beyond that sense of service, what’s motivated me through the years is the knowledge that it should not have been as hard as it was for me to get from where I was to where I am today. We all have an interest in helping others, but my interest is in leveling the playing field to make it easier. There are far too many exit ramps on the path to economic opportunity — and there are far too few on-ramps. And that’s really how I’ve thought about my career. How do we build more on-ramps and shut down those off-ramps?

Behrman, NationSwell: How do you define this moment in ESG? Where are we, and where are we going? What’s the potential, and where are the pitfalls?

McHale, Citi: I tell my team all the time, this is our moment; let’s not blow it. We’ve lost the luxury of saying nobody’s focused on our issues, that we’re the lone voice here in the company. This is now front and center, and there’s a spotlight on us: we have a whole range of stakeholders, investors, employees, clients, and the public looking at ESG now. I think it’s okay for ESG practitioners to feel unnerved by the eyes that are suddenly on us. It can make you skeptical of everything you’re doing; it can even drive paralysis.

And especially in this moment of so much divisiveness, that paralysis is very real. If you try to please everybody, you’re going to please nobody. So you have to identify your North Star and fly consistently towards it. And I think if you stick with your values, while you’re not going to make everybody happy, you’ll have the ability to withstand any potential criticism. 

In the face of divisiveness, you have to be bold. And I’m excited to be bold. But I’m also clear-eyed about the fact that we are in the very early years of thinking differently about the purpose of the private sector — and its role in driving societal impact. For 20 years, the wind has been against me and my fellow practitioners. We all got really strong from flying against the headwind. But it’s a funny thing when all of a sudden the winds change, and suddenly it’s a tailwind and you should be flying farther and faster, but you actually feel more likely to fall because you don’t have the right kind of skills for this velocity.

Behrman, NationSwell: What’s different about how you lead? To which leadership practices do you attribute your effectiveness?

McHale, Citi: Our most important tool is our people — and that’s especially true when you’re an ESG practitioner. When you’re working in large companies, if you have a role that has something related to ESG in it, you probably had a job description that led you to believe that you would be spending your time externally focused.

But if we really want to have an impact, we are internal change agents. So while it may seem as though we are funding external change agents, what’s different and what I hope is the model that I’ve helped to develop, is that we see ourselves as change agents working across the company to influence, again, business practices, to influence strategies, to influence a focus on communities that have oftentimes been left behind, while also understanding how to partner with others externally so we can maximize impact. And to do that, you really need to build a team that feels empowered to use their voice. And in turn then we empower our company, many times not just to engage in actions, but to also use our voice and to ask, what is our commitment to an issue? 

And a great example of this, I think, is our work on racial equity. Like many companies, after the murder of George Floyd, we were searching for what we could do to make a difference. We did do some immediate philanthropic funding to civil rights organizations, but we knew that that was completely necessary, and insufficient. We realized that the real opportunity we have is to step back and ask, what is the specific role that financial institutions can play in racial equity? And for us, it was to look back and say part of what fuels racial injustice in the United States is the long-term perpetual racial wealth gap.

And while we’re very proud of the role that Citi Foundation has played on this issue philanthropically, philanthropy is insufficient to really address this issue. We’re working across the company in a comprehensive way to clarify what our role is in helping people get into the financial mainstream and accumulate financial wealth and assets.

In terms of leadership practice, I’m a big believer in purposefully making space that exists outside of your echo chamber. It’s something you have to practice actively; we tend to not realize we’re on autopilot, going to the same meetings, the same events, and the same conferences. This action can be something simple, like auditing who it is you tend to take your meetings with. But it can also mean getting out of the big cities. I’ve probably spent way too much time in my career thinking that the United States is New York, D.C., and California. It turns out, there’s a country in between these cities. And seeing how these communities approach economic mobility in ways that perhaps weren’t on your radar can give you that spark of inspiration that leaders are so often chasing. 

Behrman, NationSwell: What are some unique programs or initiatives you’re leading that other leaders may benefit from knowing?

McHale, Citi: I’m really proud of our work to help students get to and through college. We identified two primary barriers for students: the first is financial, and the second is navigating an increasingly complex system, especially if these students are the first in their family to attend college. 

To counter these barriers, we started a platform that supports initiatives opening up college savings accounts for young people. It’s an effort we’ve already begun scaling in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, with more locations to be announced soon. We initiated this approach a decade ago, and the first group of students from the San Francisco public school system is graduating this year. 

It’s an initiative that did more than just give kids accounts — it also changed the narrative around college for these communities from “if” to “when.” We’ve witnessed parents, kids, and family members depositing even small amounts into these accounts, and schools building a culture that focuses on college admissions — not just high school graduation.

The program in San Francisco, which is called Kindergarten to College, has become the framework for these initiatives. Some places even have similar Baby Bonds programs. They all aim to level the playing field by providing the same opportunities that a child born in a high-income family might have, such as a 529 account opened for them at birth.

It’s clear that schools aren’t bankers, and that’s why we’ve helped them by developing an online platform that allows school systems, or large youth-serving nonprofits, to manage the program. They can sign up kids, track deposits, and support families through the program. At the back end, we ensure the system works with various banking partners — whether it’s Citibank or a local community development credit union. This approach eliminates the need for everyone to reinvent the wheel, essentially creating a scalable “franchise” opportunity.
This solution was informed by our philanthropic work. We discovered that, while there is funding available for matched funds, unless programs can run efficiently, they will not be able to operate at scale. 

Another area is our Citi Impact Fund, which invests in double-bottom line companies. It’s important to remember that it’s not just about injecting capital — it’s about support. Providing post-investment support and assisting our portfolio companies to thrive, extend their networks, and boost their revenue-generating opportunities are of the utmost importance.

Though the Citi Foundation’s Community Progress Makers initiative, we offer core operating support grants of $500,000 each and say to grantees, “Go forth. We are not the experts here, you are. We trust you.” We’re not in the business of what I like to call “torturing” our grantees. 

Funding shouldn’t be onerous. Removing that red tape is part of our commitment to ensuring philanthropic capital is the most catalytic resource it can be. It should be the most flexible research and development money that’s out there. 

I’m also excited about the Foundation’s Global Innovation Challenge – Food Security, which is our first global open source effort, designed to improve food security and strengthening the financial health of low-income families and communities. 

The world is moving so quickly; and when it comes to food security, so many issues are interconnected — economic empowerment, financial health, supply chain. It excites me that we are now embracing the ways these issues are interconnected instead of focusing on just one component of them.  

Behrman, NationSwell: Who are some fellow leaders that are inspiring your leadership right now?

McHale, Citi: I’m inspired by the leadership of Kathleen Enright, CEO of the Council on Foundations. She’s tackling some of the hardest conversations in philanthropy today. Janice Bowdler went from the nonprofit sector at Unidos US  to the private sector with JPMC, and now she’s in public service as the Counselor to the Secretary at the U.S. Treasury on matters of racial equity. I absolutely love this multi-sector transition.In the impact investing space, the biggest rockstar is Melissa Bradley. When we were building our Impact Fund, she challenged us to be different – to stop talking and just do it differently. 

All of these women are fearless about giving the counterpoint to what someone may be saying.

Behrman, NationSwell: What are some books you’re reading, shows you’re watching, or podcasts you’re listening to that inspire and inform you?
McHale, Citi: For me, it’s really important to listen and learn from nonprofit leaders and change agents. I follow Financial Health Network’s Financial Pulse survey to keep up-to-date on the financial lives of everyday people around the country. I also really enjoy listening to Jennifer Tescher’s EMERGE Everywhere podcast, which focuses on financial health and breaking siloes between sectors.

To learn more about how our ESG Next honorees are shaping business as a force for social and environmental good, visit the series hub.