At a moment of unprecedented attention, investment, and opportunity for the emerging field of 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 Shamina Singh, Founder and President of the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth and Executive Vice President of Sustainability at Mastercard. We spoke with Singh about the “S” in ESG, her commitment to continued learning and service, and the power of leaning into the urgency of the moment.

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: How would you make sense of this moment in ESG? 

Singh, Mastercard: It’s an exciting time for sure, but it’s a time that’s born out of crisis. We face monumental climate issues and rampant income inequality on a global scale. This moment demands that practitioners maintain focus on what we’re genuinely aiming to solve.

It’s encouraging to see everyone across the spectrum trying to figure out how to get it right; but as investors, companies, politicians, and governments are all grappling with what ESG means for them, we have to remember that each group has its own unique incentives and roles. The task at hand is balancing these different perspectives, creating a unified approach, and maintaining urgency among lots of different stakeholders. 

Behrman, NationSwell: How is the field of ESG evolving? What’s next?

Singh, Mastercard: What comes next is the private sector continuing to navigate an increasingly dynamic regulatory environment. Between the EU and the US, requirements for measuring corporate climate impact will require greater resourcing and administrative attention. At the same time, more communities are experiencing climate change directly and in real time, managing mitigation and adaptation simultaneously. It’s that intersection of climate change and the related economic impact that’s on the agenda now.

There’s broad agreement about how we measure an organization’s environmental factors and impact, but we’re still in the sense-making stage when it comes to social factors. Current measures don’t capture the impact of private sector initiatives like financial inclusion, relief and aid tied to the war in Ukraine, and the development of COVID-19 vaccines. The thinking about how to measure what businesses do in the social impact space keeps changing, so even companies that have been doing this work for a while face the shifting challenge of how to capture and report their impact. 

Looking forward, there’s an opportunity to embrace standardization around the ‘S.” If we don’t, and if it continues to shift, there’s a chance that practitioners might deprioritize these efforts, particularly as the regulatory focus on environmental factors continues.

We can apply the best practices that have been used to standardize environmental factors to communicate social impact measure — and that’s one of the things we’re proposing at the Center for Inclusive Growth: a framework for the social factors that mirrors the environmental, which might help companies and other stakeholders to tell their story around the ‘S’ as clearly as they do around the ‘E.’  

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol Corporate Standard offers a model. In this protocol, Scope 1 covers the emissions that companies directly control, Scope 2 covers emissions associated with a company’s energy consumption, and Scope 3 covers the indirect emissions generated through the company’s supply chain.  We could use a parallel structure for social impact standards. Scope 1 could include the direct social impact of a company’s policies on its own employees. Scope 2 could account for how a company’s core competencies – like products, services, and work within supply chains — address societal challenges. And Scope 3 could encompass philanthropic giving, grants, and other community investments. 

This is a conceptual starting point, but the idea is to create a framework that quantifies the work companies are doing that provide a positive benefit to society.

Behrman, NationSwell: What’s unique about the work you’re leading? What are some approaches, strategies, or practices you’re deploying that other field builders should have visibility into?

Singh, Mastercard: There are three aspects of our work I’d like to call out. 

First is the unique framework we’ve established around creating impact. Though the Center is housed within Mastercard, we conduct independent research. It’s important to build our programs on an independent evidence base. The goal is to understand and utilize the assets of the company for social and environmental benefit, and to share that approach with the world. For us, this involves identifying and using Mastercard’s resources to progress toward these ends, and then ensuring our corporate activities are informed by these crucial issues. It’s the recognition that our business success depends on a healthy planet with an inclusive economy, and that we do well by doing good.

Secondly, as a company with extensive data assets, we recognize that data science can be harnessed for better decision-making—but unfortunately, social sector organizations are not building data capacity at a rate that will allow them to capitalize on a new data economy. 

In 2019, we established a program dedicated to building the field of data science for social impact. This initiative aims to enhance the social sector’s capacity to harness the power of their data. In partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, we created—an organization dedicated to building data science capacity around the world. Our aim is to close the information inequality gap, the growing divide between those who have data and those who don’t.

The third highlight is our focus on small businesses through a global initiative called Strive. We know that small businesses are the engines of the economy, and we are putting our assets to work to support their success. Strive supports businesses with a propensity for growth, and we focus our support in three areas: capital, digital transition, and market access. 

Behrman, NationSwell: Tell us about the Center for Inclusive Growth. How has it evolved?

Singh, Mastercard:  In modern corporate America, social impact isn’t always treated as a central business strategy. The Center for Inclusive Growth seeks to change that narrative by harnessing our company’s resources to generate meaningful change, primarily through a focus on financial inclusion. 

We founded the Center with clear principles for our work, all of which is rooted in evidence-based methods for applying the insights, impact, influence, and investments we have at our disposal.

Thinking about ESG, the Center’s role grows more critical. Many companies have a c3 foundation or an impact fund along with their primary business. The Center brings together these elements and helps determine the most effective application for philanthropic capital and business assets. 

Behrman, NationSwell: What leadership practices have helped you operate effectively?

Singh, Mastercard: I act upon the deep sense of urgency that I feel. It’s simply not acceptable to me that people are suffering, particularly in a world that’s rich with technology, medical advancements, and information. Yet, these resources aren’t being shared widely enough.

You see this sense of urgency reflected in the Center’s philosophy of creating networks. The premise is simple: One’s place of birth shouldn’t dictate their life’s trajectory. This concept of mobility resonates deeply with me. I believe everyone should have the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

Behrman, NationSwell: Is there anything you’ve read, watched, or listened to that has inspired your leadership?

Singh, Mastercard: There’s a book by Sendhil Mullainathan called Scarcity that has profoundly influenced my thinking. The book offers a nuanced and illuminating view on poverty, showing that people with limited resources are often excellent decision-makers because, from necessity, they’ve learned to operate in an environment of scarcity, not abundance. The goal then should not be to instruct them on what they should do, but to help them expand their bandwidth and time.

To learn more about how our ESG Next honorees are shaping business as a force for social and environmental good, visit the series hub. Mastercard is a NationSwell Institutional Member. To learn more about membership in NationSwell’s community of leading social impact and sustainability practitioners, visit our site.