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 Michele Jawando, Senior Vice President at Omidyar Network, about the untold story of ESG’s unlikely allies, the importance of strong and engaged workers for any organization, and why we don’t have permission to surrender to the sorrow — even when working to advance justice becomes incredibly challenging. 

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: Can you tell us about how your professional and personal journey led you to where you are today?

Michele Jawando, Senior Vice President , Omidyar Network: I endeavor for my work to be grounded in the simple idea that my contributions should advance and make meaningful contributions to the communities that I serve; that is the single thread that I am proud to be able to trace through my life’s work and purpose. 

It’s a thread that begins with my great aunt, who was both the first woman and the first Black woman attorney on the island of Bermuda; it continues with my grandmother, who was the first Black nurse at a segregated hospital; with my father, who went to law school and engaged his practice in global human and civil rights work; really, through my entire family, who have steadfastly been involved with the social and civil rights movements in Bermuda, Jamaica and here in the US. 

And now, it is with deep humility that I’ve been able to continue it from there on through to every place I’ve worked. All of my work, every single day, is in service of trying to pull that thread forward. Continuing it is a deeply personal, deeply spiritual call for me, and I’ve been fortunate to work at places that can match my passion. 

So it is with reverence for this past and deep appreciation for the present that I’ve arrived at my position in the field.

Behrman, NationSwell: What’s unique about the work you’re leading? What are some of your programs, strategies, and approaches into which other field builders should have visibility?

Jawando, Omidyar Network: We’re trying to figure out how we diversify who’s at the table, who’s talking to investors, and who’s engaged in this conversation.  And we’ve been partnering with a few incredible organizations to help make that happen. One I’m really excited about is the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. You probably don’t often think about faith and corporate responsibility as going hand-in-hand, but ICCR has been working at this intersection for five decades, and successfully engaged Fortune 500 companies from a faith perspective on issues like public health, pollution, and forced labor in ways that have changed corporate behavior for the better.. This is an opportunity to bring a very different voice into this conversation. We’ve also been working with an organization called the Investor Advocates for Social Justice, grounding us in the belief that investing can be a key part of a social justice framework — core to any movement. 

Too often, workers are missing from the conversations on the most important decisions an organization makes. People sometimes forget this, but some of the biggest investors in the world are the pension funds of working people. That’s why I’m really excited to spotlight our partnership with the Committee for Workers Capital; they’re working to center the perspective of workers within the investment community. To have strong corporations, you need strong workers. Including them makes your company stronger, which in turn makes your investments more profitable. It’s a very different way of thinking about smart investments, but I think it’s critical as we move forward. Workers, employees, customers and community members are uniquely positioned to identify when a company is doing something risky — even before the company’s leadership apparatus does. 

It can’t just be about investors, corporate board members, or academics; the present moment is giving us an opportunity to broaden the conversation and giving people more opportunity to see what a co-created future could look like.  If we don’t engage more of these groups at every level of decision making, then they’re missing out on opportunities for agency and growth, and management is missing out on their crucial perspective.  And so I think it’s such a critical moment for ESG investors to really listen to stakeholders to show up differently. But though it’s a great opportunity, it’s also a challenging moment, but only because it’s still so hard for us to have multi-party conversations in this country. 

Behrman, NationSwell: How are you making sense of this moment for ESG? 

Jawando, Omidyar Network: In order to create real change in the system, the conversation around ESG has to be deeply grounded in broader social conversations. 

We all want to see businesses do great work, and we want them to operate sustainably. But I think why we’re having such a passionate conversation about this right now is because we differ on what “great work” and “operate sustainably” mean. We’re seeing ESG as a topic bubble up almost daily because I think each person on the planet is impacted by corporations, and wants to be actively involved in what the solutions are. Changing the framework to make corporations and companies more profitable, more inclusive, more thoughtful — all while adding a greater amount of dignity in the work — is exactly what we need to be doing. 

Behrman, NationSwell: What’s exciting to you about this moment, and where do you see it going?

Jawando, Omidyar Network:  I see policy as an opportunity to scale impact, so I am currently really  interested in what we’ve seen in Missouri, where citizens stood up before the state legislature and said they wanted to see their pensions invested in a responsible and sustainable way  And while we know there’s been an uptick of anti-ESG legislation, the untold story that’s unfolding under the headlines is that you’re getting really interesting bedfellows. Players like the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, SEIU, the Sierra Club — they  were all working together to defeat these anti-ESG bills. There aren’t many places where you’re seeing unlikely allies coming together. You really love to see it.

To me, that’s proof there’s something unique about this work that is positive and is worth fighting for and is worth engaging. But there’s been such a collapse of nuance, which means it’s been hard for people to hold that you can both be profitable and have ESG as a core part of your investment strategy. 

Behrman, NationSwell: What is it about your leadership style that helps you to be effective? 

Jawando, Omidyar Network: As a leader, I strive to acknowledge that the people who come and work with me — or for me — have some challenge in their life that they’re dealing with every day, alongside their work. That acknowledgment helps me as much as it helps them. If I can walk into a workplace, or a board room, or Capitol Hill and recognize that these are people who are dealing with challenges in their lives, the dialogue will be a lot more productive than if I see them all as adversaries or challenges, lead with people’s humanity and it changes the dynamic every time. 

I’m not saying that view doesn’t come with its own set of challenges, but I deeply believe that this is the best approach to leadership. 

Behrman, NationSwell: Who are the leaders who inspire your leadership?

Jawando, Omidyar Network: Edelman CEO Lisa Ross is amazing. Not only is she a people first leader, but she’s also a true believer in the power of representation. There’s something unique about her voice that helps me really grapple with the importance of the work we’re doing.

KR Liu, who heads accessibility marketing at Google, is a constant source of inspiration to me. She’s one of the most profound people that I’ve worked with, one who’s helped me advance my own thinking about accessibility, representation, and policy. She lives with such intention and passion. 

Another leader who inspires me is Nicole Taylor of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. I think it’s hard running any foundation, but when you show up in the valley and you’re trying to hold a lot of different equities all at the same time, it’s even more challenging. And yet, Nicole  does it with such grace, effervescence, and a deep commitment to this work.

The last leader I’d like to mention is Amandeep Singh Gill, who’s the United Nations Secretary General’s Envoy on Technology. Whether you’re a techno optimist or a techno realist, it’s undeniable that technology has a profound effect on society. Amandeep is working to make sure it is not just a catalytic force, but a unifying one. 

Behrman, NationSwell: What are you reading, watching, or listening to that’s inspiring your leadership?

Jawando, Omidyar Network: “Blind Spot” by Jon Clifton has such great insight into why leaders were missing the unrest that led to everything from the Arab Spring to the state of our politics in America — and really asks us to reckon with what we value as a society, and whether we’re using the right metrics for what makes a nation thrive?

I’m loving “How to Citizen” with Baratunde Thurston, who just did an episode on democracy fractals and sci-fi. I’m a big, big sci-fi nerd. I love the way it calls the imagination to a different place. 

Lastly, Ross Gay is one of my favorite authors, and my favorite poem of his called “Sorrow is Not My Name.” I think about it every time the work gets challenging, or it feels like we’re taking a step back. I’d like to read it for you:

“No matter the pull towards the brink, no matter the florid, deep sleep awaits. There is a time for everything. Look, just this morning a vulture nodded his red grizzled head at me and I looked at him admiring the sickle of his beak. Then the wind kicked up and after arranging that good suit of feathers he up and took off, just like that. And to boot there are on this planet alone, something like two million naturally occurring sweet things, some with names so generous as to kick the steel from my knees. Agave, persimmon, stick ball, the purple okra I brought for two bucks at the market.

“Think of that, the long night, the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me on the bus taking notes, yeah, yea. But look, my niece is running through a field calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel and at the end of my block is a basketball court. I remember my color’s green, I’m spring.”

That piece calls me back to all of the things that are beautiful and simple and worth fighting for. We can’t get lost in the sorrow. We actually don’t have permission to do that. Then we start to feel like nothing can change — and I believe deeply that things can.

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