At a moment of growing inequality and division, who is advancing the vanguard of economic and social progress to bolster our most vulnerable communities? Whose work is fostering the inclusive growth that ensures every individual thrives? Who will set the ambitious standards that mobilize whole industries, challenging their peers to reach new altitudes of social impact? 

In 2024, Impact Next — a new editorial flagship series from NationSwell — will spotlight the standard-bearing corporate social responsibility and impact leaders, entrepreneurs, experts, and philanthropists whose catalytic work has the potential to shape the landscape of progress amid urgent need for social and economic action.

For this installment, NationSwell interviewed Francine Chew — VP, Head of Corporate Impact for Guardian.

Greg Behrman, CEO and Founder, NationSwell: Tell us a little bit about your leadership journey — was there a formative experience that helped you to arrive in impact work? 

Francine Chew, Vice President of Corporate Impact for Guardian:

I’m an immigrant from Jamaica, and I came here when I was 12 as a part of this program called Prep for Prep that provides leadership opportunities to academically gifted minorities in the New York City area. As a result of Prep for Prep, I went to Exeter, and then I had an opportunity to go to Yale — it provided an incredible foundation and access. 

I felt like I was Jane Goodall — like a scientist in the jungle, wondering what strange environment I had been lifted and shifted into. When I moved to Exeter and saw the differences in resources and even level of conversation and discourse between what I was seeing in New York City public school versus private education, it was clear to me that there was a whole other world.

My life, I think, is testament to the benefit that access and opportunity can provide, and I’ve wanted to pay it forward as a professional do-gooder. 

Behrman, NationSwell: What would you say are some kind of defining facets of your leadership that help you to be an effective leader in this space?

Chew, Guardian: Because I started out on the for-profit side of work and didn’t cut my teeth at a foundation, the profit and purpose has always been an easy marriage. I care more about the life-changing impact that comes from participating in a program that I’ve helped structure versus the number of students who’ve enrolled. 

For me, at the heart of this work is the question, “If not for this intervention, this involvement, what would not have happened?” The activity and the outputs aren’t enough — it’s the actual change that matters. 

Anytime you’re dealing with corporate social responsibility or corporate impact within the context of an organization, you have to be comfortable with the fact that you have a dual mandate to drive the goals and purpose of the broader corporate entity alongside those of underrepresented populations. Our job is to figure it out in a very creative way that satisfies both needs.

Behrman, NationSwell: As someone who is very comfortable being at the intersection of profit and purpose, do you have any unlocks for folks in making the case for the business value of social impact work?

Chew, Guardian: I think what we have not done enough of is building in mechanisms to do longitudinal tracking. The first part of that is beginning with the end in mind — you start by asking questions, especially with young populations, about how you can stay in touch, because asking for permission upfront means shaping the dollar allocation and use of funds. 

I think the second part of that is putting on the hat and saying, if I were the biggest skeptic in the world, what would convince me? I sometimes think about a story I heard about how President Obama won over the democratic apparatus to become the nominee. He didn’t ask, “Why don’t you see me as presidential?” He asked, “What do I need to show and demonstrate for you to get behind me?” 

That stayed with me — “what do I need to demonstrate?” It’s taking an unemotional approach and saying, “What metrics are convincing and how do you see the world so that I can better understand and align to that?” 

Asking what would have to be true and getting people to start answering some of these questions can help you bake in accountability — it means that they’re thinking about it in ways that they weren’t before, and then you’re getting them to become a part of the journey.

Behrman, NationSwell: What makes your approach to the work differentiated — are there any programs, initiatives, or partnerships that feel particularly exciting?

Chew, Guardian: Part of what’s exciting about here at Guardian is there’s a real commitment and follow through on the narrative of change: More than half of the executive leadership team at the firm is new, and with this shift has come new clarification of Guardian’s purpose of inspiring wellbeing through mind, body and wallet. 

When there is agreement and alignment on how we do that at the very top of the house, everything can flow through from a process perspective, including the work itself. There is a strategic coherence and a simplicity on what we’re trying to achieve, and internal alignment on our organizational goals.

Behrman, NationSwell: How do you think about collaboration with other corporate philanthropies or private foundations or funders? 

Chew, Guardian:  It’s something that we’re definitely open to in the future. Currently, our partnerships are exclusively with for profit and nonprofit organizations.  An example is the collaboration with EVERFI by Blackbaud to launch Minding Your Money (Guardian’s first-of-its-kind financial wellness curriculum that addresses the intersections of personal finances, relationships, and health and that helps young people learn lasting financial habits before they enter adulthood). There’s an opportunity for it to be white-labeled so that other organizations can fund the expansion of the program in schools across the country, because we can’t do it alone. While we touched 20,000 students this academic year, and that’s an awesome number, we would like to touch 500,000 students in a single academic year! The only caveat is that with everyone who white labels, I need to know about it so that impact is attributable back to Guardian. 

Even in the criteria for expansion and ecosystem building, the question we need to answer is, “What’s in it for us?” That’s the banker in me. Track who uses it, ask other people to use it so that the benefit can be broadly distributed, but I want credit for that too. At the end of the day I would like Guardian’s name to be in all of these conversations as the people who launched and led the work, and then I would also like there to be room for others to say, and then we took the baton that they passed to us, and we made it much more.

Behrman, NationSwell: Who are three peer leaders you admire, look to as exemplars or swap notes with? 

Chew, Guardian: There are so many people I admire who are doing this work, but one is Tia Hodges from MetLife Foundation. I’ve had the chance to know her through the charitable committee for the Life Insurance Council of New York, which I chair, and her willingness to partner, to serve, to share thoughts, is just so admirable. 

I also have this standing Friday call — we rarely cancel — with two women who I worked with at Prudential: Sarah Keh and Nisha Aidasani. We say we’re each other’s small council, a la Game of Thrones, and the call is an hour in which we carve out time to chat a bit about what’s happening personally and professionally. It’s a chance for people who understand the work, but also each other, to connect, share wisdom, and support one another. I truly value that group, and it just sustains me in many ways.

Behrman, NationSwell: What are three resources that you might showcase or lift up that have helped to inform your leadership? 

Chew, Guardian: I read the Wall Street Journal religiously and I used to read the Economist all the time. Even though we are focused on social impact, we can’t drive impact unless we are aware of the broader economic impact. So whatever the medium is that is most effective for you, It is incredibly important to be grounded in the economic realities of what’s moving our companies and our space.