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 Maryanne Hancock, CEO of Y Analytics, about the importance of centering rigor in impact investing, ESG’s “Fearless Girl” moment, and the surprising lessons that impact leaders can learn from an economist and a can of beans.

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: Can you tell us how your professional and personal journey led you to this work?

Maryanne Hancock, CEO of Y Analytics: If I ever get asked to share a fun fact about myself, it’s that my parents were clergy before they met, married, and had me.  My father was a priest, and my mother was a nun, and they were both quite active in the social justice movement at large. My father founded programs for kids addicted to drugs during the late sixties and early seventies, a time when such programs were nonexistent. He met people at often vulnerable points in their lives, helping them build new lives. To this day, there are people alive due to the work he did.

My mother, as a nun, took to teaching in historically marginalized communities. This overall milieu of social work wasn’t just a job for them, but a way of life. Because of them, I’ve always believed you really need to stand in awe of the burdens that people carry, as opposed to in judgment. It’s a philosophy that encourages one to honor, assist, and appreciate people facing adversities, and the complexities of the adversities they face.

Originally, I aspired to become a human rights lawyer, pursuing an education in law, especially humanitarian and human rights law. But a detour through McKinsey shifted my journey. While I was there, I maintained a client roster from the private sector, and I engaged with industries I found fascinating, even if they weren’t glamorous — like waste management, logistics, and energy sectors. At the same time, I delved into social sector projects. Interestingly, the attendees at my logistics or waste management meetings hardly ever overlapped with those at my education or poverty alleviation discussions, which gave me the sense that these were inherently distinct swim lanes. But now at Y Analytics, whether it’s a company engaged in the circular economy and waste, or a fin-tech firm operating in Africa, I get to have all these different interests under a singular umbrella as part of my daily routine.

Behrman, NationSwell: How do you make sense of this moment in ESG? What’s the potential and the promise, and where are the pitfalls?

Hancock, Y Analytics: The image that comes to my mind for the moment we are in societally is the Fearless Girl statue — where you’ve got the bull and the little girl standing there, staring him down. The conventional interpretation of the scene is that the charging bull represents unfettered capitalism, or the “old boys club” of Wall Street, and the Fearless Girl symbolizes the pursuit of gender equality – a counterweight to the imposing minotaur with smoke coming out of its nostrils. 

But I think it symbolizes something bigger. To me, the bull represents this vast set of societal issues we grapple with every day – geopolitical unrest, war, climate change, a pandemic…some so big and so powerful that they feel unstoppable or immovable. 

And then, there’s this Fearless Girl, which symbolizes how we feel amidst all these challenges. But here’s the thing I’m left thinking about: while we can’t ignore the enormity of the challenges symbolized by the bull, what I’d love for everyone to do is to look around and realize that there are thousands of Fearless Girls facing them. The pitfall is to believe you are isolated , as if you’re the only Fearless Girl out there, yet what I see every day are thousands and thousands of people embodying that spirit. This includes teachers, nurses, doctors, firefighters, community members, and also Fearless Girl’s physical home in New York’s financial district underscores the role that entrepreneurs, and the millions of people who go to work every day in businesses, play in meeting the moment.

What’s been inspiring to me is witnessing real actions and conversations happening within businesses — conversations that were unimaginable just five years ago. While the collective efforts may not seem enough to combat the metaphorical bull, recognizing and affirming the existence of these millions of Fearless Girls is crucial. We’ll be a better force for good when we acknowledge how strong this collective truly is.

It’s undeniable that social impact and sustainability practitioners are facing headwinds right now, but there are tailwinds, too. And together, these winds are steering us to a zone of quieter, yet more authentic action. The tailwinds are strong, and interestingly, they align well with good business practices. For instance, utilizing lower-cost energy sources that are renewable is smart business. So is offering products that benefit rather than harm people, and implementing employee policies that create a desirable workplace amidst a talent-driven landscape. These factors reinforce the strength of the tailwinds.

On the flip side, the reality of legal repercussions, varying state approaches, the politicization of these issues, and the potential backlash for greenwashing, might lead to a toned-down announcement of new initiatives and commitments. And this quieter approach isn’t necessarily negative. In my view, it’s probably beneficial. The quieter stance doesn’t undermine the solid tailwinds and the consequential actions they encourage.

Behrman, NationSwell: What’s unique about the work you’re leading?

Hancock, Y Analytics: When the Rise Fund began in 2016, it aimed to accomplish a few objectives. One was to usher scaled capital into the impact space, as there were endeavors to fund social entrepreneurs onto a path of growth, yet they were lacking a significant pool of capital to propel them from early growth to a further stage. That was part of the concept. At that point, the largest impact fund stood at about $500 million while the average was about $200 million, but the Rise Fund came in at $2.1 billion, aiming to attract institutional capital. To ensure this, they committed from the get-go to treat the impact aspect as rigorously as the financial aspect. So they envisioned what later became Y Analytics, an organization meant to bolster capital into impact companies by increasing the confidence in their impact. That was the fundamental premise behind our creation. 

And as they came together, it was actually a call from Jerome Vascellaro, a longtime leader at McKinsey who was then the COO at TPG, and someone well known to my mentors, that led to my involvement. That first call was followed by an engrossing weekend brainstorming at the whiteboard about what this endeavor could evolve into. The prospect of being serious and rigorous about impact, coupled with people who could take action immediately, was just so intriguing to me personally. That’s what made me make the leap.

Here’s what I love the most about what we get to do: we get to turn to the vast amount of research that’s out there about what works to help some of these social and environmental ills, and channel that into our investment decisions and actually make a difference. It’s been so fascinating to observe the evolution of evidence-based approaches in different fields, from evidence-based medicine in the 1980s to evidence-based policymaking in the 1990s and early 2000s. Our big innovation, which I just loved so much, is that we started to do evidence-based impact investing at scale. This methodology allows us to tap into the profound knowledge of individuals who are dedicated experts in specific areas of their fields, from soil’s carbon capture potential to the impacts of digital banking on small to medium enterprises in emerging markets. It’d be almost problematic to leave that expertise on the table.

But it’s also about the unique capabilities of our team. Our roster has included nuclear physicists, economists, and others with diverse expertise; we can bridge the chasm between academic insights and investment professionals, translating intricate research into investment strategies. This human capability, which is unique to have nested within a private equity firm context, can help translate academic discourse and parse through the jargon for insights to inform actionable investment decisions. This multidisciplinary approach isn’t just cool, it’s immensely invaluable in driving forward our mission.

Behrman, NationSwell: To which leadership practices do you contribute your efficacy?

Hancock, Y Analytics: It all boils down to striving for authentic action. I think that’s the key. And by the way, we might not hit that mark every day, but that’s certainly our goal. 

There’s only one joke that I’ve ever been able to remember: You’ve got three folks on a deserted island, and there’s a chemist, an engineer, and an economist, and they have one can of beans and they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to open this can of beans. So the chemist says, well, if we heat it to a certain boiling point, it’s going to explode and we can get it open. And the engineer says, if we hit it against this rock just the right way, it’s going to pop open. And the economist says, assume we have a can opener. 

When I used to think about that, I would laugh and say, oh, that’s so silly. We all know someone who made a comment like that, but then as I delved into this work, I actually started to reflect on that. What if we all thought about what would happen if we had the can opener, that we had the tool we actually needed? We’d see the value of getting the can open quickly and safely, of conserving more beans because they didn’t explode, and seeing that value would actually inspire us to build the can opener, to create the tools we need. Even if it’s not perfect, or it’s just a prototype. It’s really helpful to have a working hypothesis.

Behrman, NationSwell: Who or what informs and inspires your leadership?

Hancock, Y Analytics: Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s work with All We Can Save is astoundingly well-conceived, an incredible set of resources for folks, and I admire the heck out of the entire approach from there. And I know he’s a fellow ESG Next honoree, but George Serafeim’s work with impact-weighted accounts is ground-breaking. It’s one of the closest analogs to what we do at Y Analytics.

Sara Menker of Grow Intelligence is a phenomenal CEO, coming from the commodities trading world, originally from Ethiopia. She has created a data company that really has a finger on the pulse of agriculture, physical climate risks and trends around the world. For example, her data immediately identified the drivers behind the current food crisis. She could see that fertilizer prices were spiking. She could see that crops in parts of Asia were failing because it was too wet. 

And lastly, I admire my colleagues at TPG Rise who are investing for impact with so much integrity and success. 

My favorite book would be “Tattoos on the Heart” by Father Greg Boyle.  From a podcast perspective, Hank Paulson’s “Straight Talk”  is excellent. He hosts some fantastic guests and covers really diverse topics. And then, for the psychology of doing the hard work of good work, I love listening to the storytelling of Dr. Bertice Berry. She’s an author, she’s a speaker, she’s done academic work as well in psychology, and she also does daily digital storytelling.

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.