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 Renee Wittemyer, Senior Director of Program Strategy at Pivotal Ventures, about the power of thinking big, the unique outcomes of a targeted universalist approach to impact, and why the internal work that leaders do on themselves matters as much as the external.

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: Can you tell us how your professional and personal journey led you to the work you’re leading today?

Renee Wittemyer, Senior Director of Program Strategy, Pivotal Ventures: My journey to this work wasn’t the result of one big, defining moment; it was a series of moments that led me to where I am today. My parents are immigrants from India. I spent my childhood going to India every two years, so even from a young age, I was able to see stark economic disparities with my own two eyes. It was a formative backdrop for my experience of the world. After college, I spent several years in East Africa. I lived in northern Kenya and I worked with a group of women in Samburu, and I became very immersed in the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis: lack of power, an inability to negotiate with the men of their village, the way gender roles within their cultural norms dictated how they show up and what they’re able to achieve. I was there on 9/11, and I remember so vividly that they came up to me and asked me what had just happened in my country, because the men in their village were withholding that knowledge from them.

It was such a stark moment: I realized they were relying on me, an outsider, as their entire access to important knowledge, as a link to the outside world. I began to think about how I can create opportunities for women to access power and information, and how technology can help enable equity and agency. My time with them gave me the passion and the lens I have for international development, for women’s groups, small business, entrepreneurship, and technology — and the intersections between those passions. I found my way to Pivotal Ventures, building a strategy inspired by Melinda French Gates, focused on supporting women’s leadership in tech and innovation, and I’ve been here ever since.  Currently, I lead the philanthropic efforts of Pivotal, weaving in my knowledge of what it takes to advance social progress in the U.S. across all our areas of focus.

Behrman: How would you define this moment for philanthropy and social impact work? Where are we, how did we get here, and where are we going?

Wittemyer, Pivotal Ventures: One of the biggest ways that philanthropy has changed in recent years is that we now do a better job of using the inputs of communities most impacted and having leaders with diverse lived experiences at the table to inform decision making.  The field has also become more diverse, with new leaders coming into philanthropy with different backgrounds that shape their points of view.  These changes have happened because leaders have been intentional about inclusion – in making funding decisions and building their teams.  We have made a big step in the right direction.

Looking to the future, I think it will be important for leaders in philanthropy to learn from the different promising approaches to philanthropy and embrace the fully diversity of strategies that are out there and reflect the needs of different communities, rather than holding onto one relatively narrow approach as the future of our field.

Behrman: What’s unique about the strategies, initiatives, and approaches you and your team are leading at Pivotal?

Wittemyer, Pivotal Ventures: When I had my interview at Pivotal, one of the questions a hiring director asked me was, “Can you think big enough?”

Thinking big is core to us at Pivotal Ventures. We’re focused on expanding opportunity and equality in the United States, and we advance that work through high-impact investments, partnerships, and advocacy. When I started, artificial intelligence (AI) was one of the fastest growing fields with potential for disruption . Women are underrepresented in tech more broadly, but when we looked at the emerging field of AI, the disparity was even more stark. So we thought big: we looked at what was coming, and we started laying out the building blocks  of a strategy so that women are represented in AI and have seats at the decision making tables. 

Thinking big here also means finding great partners who are looking at the root causes and pulling strategic levers in innovative ways. I’m thinking about Pivotal’s partnership with Judy Spitz, the head of Breakthrough Tech AI, an incredible program focused on supporting young women in undergraduate degrees. Her research showed that women who graduated from school with the relevant skills for AI often got slotted into generic roles in the tech industry — getting a job in AI is hard when you’ve just graduated, and even harder if you’re a woman. This program helps women gain practical experience in AI through internships and portfolio-building projects with companies , so they have the skills and experience needed to get AI jobs.

Another area we’re thinking big is around expanding access to mental health supports for young people. Since 2018, Pivotal has worked to address really urgent issues of mental wellbeing among young Americans. That work has taken a lot of forms: we’ve partnered with Harvard’s Center for Digital Thriving. This center aims to provide mental health resources for use in schools, homes, and clinical settings. With the increase in mental health needs and the shortage of professionals and therapists, providing educators and parents with effective tools is critical. As a parent of teenagers myself, I understand the importance of guiding our youth to thrive in our technology-saturated world.

I’d also hold up our partnership with Surgo Health and MTV on a youth mental health tracker that will combine surveys, contextual data, social media insights, and personal narratives to enhance our understanding of the mental health landscape for young people and drive equitable changes.

These approaches emphasize timely and accessible mental health support, with a focus on BIPOC and LGBTQ+ youths. It’s part of our belief in what we call a targeted universalist approach: meaning that if you help the subsets of a population that are the most disproportionately affected by a problem, then you’ve actually created a solution that helps everyone.

Behrman, NationSwell: Which leadership qualities do you actively practice, and how do they contribute to your efficacy?

Wittemyer, Pivotal Ventures: I want to say to other leaders that the internal work you do matters. It helps you understand how you show up, and why you show up at all. For me, I am a social scientist, which means I am always asking questions and reflecting on my leadership and role in the world. I’ve spent many years listening to people’s stories. I’ve lived with entrepreneurs in Bangladesh, I’ve ridden on buses in Tanzania, all just to get a sense of the little nuances that make up people’s lives, the small things that come together to build a culture. My hope is that these moments give me insight into how people from these communities are feeling, even if they’re not articulating it.

I take this passion for listening to people seriously: it’s core to who I am. It’s as important to the communities in which you operate as it is to the teams you manage: how are your people feeling, what does team culture look like, and how can you encourage other leaders to be more curious about it?

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

Wittemyer, Pivotal Ventures: One of the leaders who inspires me is Ai-jen Poo, the co-founder and president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations, is an unwavering advocate for both paid and unpaid caregivers. At Pivotal, where we view caregiving as an impediment to women’s advancement in the U.S., Ai-jen has significantly raised awareness of America’s flawed caregiving system. Her push for solutions like paid leave, a core priority of ours, is truly inspiring. 

I am also inspired by Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble, the founder and president of the AAKOMA Project. Since the inception of our adolescent mental health strategy, she has been an invaluable partner, bringing critical awareness to the mental health challenges faced by young people of color. Her team’s groundbreaking report on the mental health state of these youths—highlighting the impact of racial trauma and cultural stigma—has been a catalyst for change.

Promise Phelon, founder and managing partner of Growth Warrior Capital also inspires me. Her firm’s commitment to changing our work dynamics and wealth-building opportunities aligns with our values, making them a key partner. Promise is revolutionizing the venture capital (VC) world with her AI-powered platform, which streamlines the creation of essential materials for founders seeking VC funding. Her work is paving the way for a diverse range of entrepreneurs.

These three women are linked by their relentless drive and the common challenges they face as leaders in their fields. As they gain power and influence, they not only excel in their roles but also pave the way for others, embodying the very essence of leadership.

Behrman, NationSwell: What are you reading that inspires your leadership?

Wittemyer, Pivotal Ventures: I’m also inspired by an upcoming book by Dr. Fei-Fei Li. As a computer science professor at Stanford with a tenure at Google, Fei-Fei brings a wealth of knowledge from both academia and the tech industry. Her book, “The Worlds I See,” promises to offer profound insights. Also, she is the founder and chairperson of the nonprofit AI for All, an organization we’ve been partnering with since my arrival at Pivotal.

Fei-Fei was one of the first people I connected with here. Her vision for diversifying the AI field is something I deeply resonate with, especially the necessity for greater female representation. This is crucial not just for reducing bias in technology but also for fostering innovation and economic growth. The absence of women in these conversations has significant drawbacks.

Her book is especially poignant as it delves into her personal journey as an immigrant, detailing how she rose to become a preeminent AI leader. It’s a narrative that’s both emotionally charged and intimately tied to her professional achievements.

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