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 Ali Hartman, Head of Responsible Investment at Tiger Global, about the power of building unlikely bridges, the importance of the “G” in ESG, and the opportunity for clarity and leadership in responsible investment — especially amid the current backlash.
Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: How did your personal and professional journey to the ﬁeld of ESG begin?
Ali Hartman, Head of Responsible Investment, Tiger Global: My journey to this field began long before anyone was using the acronym ESG. In many ways, it began before I even knew my ABCs. You see, I grew up in a social justice activist household, where both of my parents risked their safety and comfort in pursuit of nuclear disarmament. They were civil disruptors in the Plowshares movement and were arrested and imprisoned multiple times for their activism. So I spent my childhood in soup kitchens and at meeting houses, in courtrooms and on protest lines. With that reality came a sense of responsibility to serve the greater good and an obligation to speak truth to power. Changemaking was — and is — a part of my DNA. Literally, my mom was in prison while pregnant with me.
As a teenager and young adult, I pursued internships and jobs in the public sector and with activist organizations. These were known entities to me based on my upbringing and places I understood that I could make an impact. It was in graduate school, when I took a class called Business Ethics, that I was first exposed to the power of the private sector.
About a month into the class, a light bulb went off for me. I realized that companies had so much capital, flexibility, access, and influence. I realized that if I wanted to have an impact that could be sustained and scaled, I had to understand how this part of the equation worked.
Since that class, my career has spanned roles in corporate sustainability, ESG strategy, and responsible investment across big business, private equity, and, most recently, venture capital. These jobs connect money and meaning and prove that public interest and private resources can have a greater impact when they’re working together.
Behrman, NationSwell: How do you make sense of this moment in ESG?
Hartman, Tiger Global: I’ve been doing this work for about 15 years and have seen real evolution in this space. There’s been tremendous momentum and meaningful scale during a relatively short period of time. But with that growth, we’re also seeing some confusion and chaos. We need to get clear and be intentional when it comes to defining and pursuing ESG management.
I’m an ESG purist. What I mean by that is when I talk about ESG integration, I’m referring to the measurement and management of material environmental, social, and governance factors in the operations of a business.
Importantly, what I’m not talking about is impact investing, philanthropy, CEO activism, or corporate values. These are each, of course, critically important. But they’re just not part of ESG strategy. For me, ESG management is about viability, not morality.
That’s not to say what is good for the sustainability of a company isn’t good for people or the planet — it usually is. When companies are measuring and managing their inputs (including natural resources and human resources) more intentionally, strategically, and efficiently, everyone wins. From where I sit, thoughtful, strategic ESG management has become the baseline of doing business in a world that is more complex and constrained than it has ever been. There’s so much opportunity to build better businesses that are ready to manage the volatility that is here and is only going to grow with time.
Behrman, NationSwell: Tell us about the work you and your team are leading at Tiger Global, and why it’s noteworthy or potentially even showing early signs of advancing the field.
Hartman, Tiger Global: We are still in the early innings of our work at Tiger. We have a lot more to understand when it comes to purpose building responsible investment into our asset classes and investment strategies. That said, I’m proud of the progress we’ve been making and am excited about what’s to come for us — and hopefully for the venture industry more broadly.
In the last year and a half, we’ve established a strong foundation for what will be an evolving responsible investment strategy. Our work to date includes firm-level policies, new ESG-related diligence practices, and a suite of monitoring tools to better understand our portfolio companies and fund-level trends.
We still have a lot to learn about how to best integrate this work into a scaled venture model — one where companies are earlier in their maturity and limited in their resources, and where investors are often passive and minority shareholders. This is a totally different proposition than the work I did in private equity.
Nonetheless, while the challenges are real, so are the opportunities. I believe that supporting companies early in their evolution and embedding efficiency and ethics into operations from the start can have a profound impact for companies’ growth and for the world in which they operate.
Something else I am excited about is the chance to advance this work across the venture industry. While some impact-oriented firms or emerging managers have already started to integrate responsible investment strategies into their work, there is a massive opportunity to engage the larger, more traditional firms. Without a doubt, there is both value and necessity in us working collaboratively across the industry.
As an example, we recently signed on as a founding member of the Venture Climate Alliance alongside more than 20 of our VC peers. Over the last few years, Tiger Global has been taking steps to measure and manage our firm-level footprint, achieving net-zero status as of 2021. As we look ahead, we are excited by the challenge of building tools and resources, setting expectations, and sharing opportunity with our portfolio companies with the goal of helping them better manage the risks and opportunities posed by climate constraints. We’re also excited to help advance the net-zero conversation across the industry.
Behrman, NationSwell: What is something that you’re spending time thinking about when it comes to ESG?
Hartman, Tiger Global: When it comes to venture, I increasingly think that there’s an opportunity to reprioritize the acronym to be GES, instead of ESG. Putting governance last in the acronym can put it last on people’s minds. While, historically, some may have seen governance as a check-the-box part of this work, it is foundational. I think governance can and should go far beyond anti-bribery or anti-corruption.
Governance is management and management is talent. And talent is prioritized and prized by the venture capital industry. I think that if we can modernize governance and give the “G” more attention and recognition, we’ll see better outcomes in all dimensions, including companies’ abilities to engage on environmental and social issues, weather volatility, and outperform over time.
Behrman, NationSwell: Who are some peer leaders who inspire you?
Hartman, Tiger Global: I’m inspired every day by folks across the changemaking continuum. Truly. When people say they are depressed about the state of the world, I tell them they should meet some of the people I get to meet. I’ve been having some really exciting conversations with Lyel Resner, co-lead of the Startups & Society Initiative. I think his experience as a tech entrepreneur brings important perspective to the table and I have loved talking to him about the interplay between responsible investment and responsible innovation.
Shu Dar Yao at Lucid Capitalism also comes to mind. She is a force, highly creative, and has her finger on the pulse of what’s possible for the industry. We had such a great conversation when we were together recently at the Women’s Venture Capital Summit.
I would be remiss to not mention the inimitable Cheryl Dorsey, CEO of Echoing Green. Cheryl has been many things to me over my years of knowing her — a co-conspirator, super connector, visionary leader, and dear friend. Her work and wisdom have never been more important to the urgent problems we’re collectively facing. I would put Cheryl and the amazing EG fellows in charge of everything if I had a magic wand!
Behrman, NationSwell: What are you reading, watching, or listening to right now that is inspiring your leadership?
Hartman, Tiger Global: A piece of writing that I often find myself returning to and sharing with colleagues in similar spaces is “At the Edge of the Inside” a consideration of the works of theologian Richard Rohr. It emphasizes the importance of effecting change within an organization or system. If you’re on the outside of a system, you can’t fully understand or appreciate it. Conversely, if you’re too close to the center, you may not be able to see its shortcomings.
That really resonates with me. During the first decade of my career, I often felt out of place. Traditional business people sometimes considered me too alternative, while the activist or nonprofit community sometimes viewed me as disingenuous. Rohr’s piece helped me understand the importance of navigating those edges and building bridges. I highly recommend it to those working within conventional systems but pursuing unconventional goals.
On a lighter note, it’s essential to find joy, rest, and respite in our busy lives, which I often find when listening — and laughing — to the podcast SmartLess, hosted by Will Arnett, Sean Hayes, and Jason Bateman. It offers a delightful blend of entertainment and relaxation, reminding us to make time for lighthearted fun.
On a related note, I highly recommend the newsletter What Could Go Right, which offers a refreshing perspective amid today’s often negative news cycles. It’s easy to feel anxious or overwhelmed by the state of the world, but it’s essential to recognize the progress we’ve made and the potential for positive change. To address challenges as great as the climate crisis, we can’t rely solely on fear, scarcity, or reactive responses. We have to inspire and excite people by showing them what’s possible and giving them hope.
To learn more about how our ESG Next honorees are shaping business as a force for social and environmental good, visit the series hub. Tiger Global is a NationSwell Institutional Member. To learn more about membership in NationSwell’s community of leading social impact and sustainability practitioners, visit our site.