Geeta Aiyer: From Managing $2 Billion to Fighting Violence Against Women

Founder, President, and Chief Strategist: Boston Common Asset Management, LLC
Founder: Direct Action for Women Now Worldwide
Hometown: Boston

aiyer-WOY-finalist_0With a fervent passion for the environment and social justice, Geeta Aiyer, a former IAS officer in Maharashtra, has built a great business. Boston Common Asset Management, which she founded in 2003, now manages over $2 billion in assets. She has built a strong investment record and substantially improved the policies and practices of portfolio companies. In addition, Aiyer has founded two previous companies, Walden Capital Management and East India Spice, as well as an NGO, Direct Action for Women Now (DAWN).

Aiyer was honored with the 2013 SRI Service Award at the SRI (Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing) Conference and was the 2010 recipient of the Women’s Venture Fund’s Highest Leaf Award. In 2013, Boston Common received a Human Rights Award from Political Asylum Immigration Representation Project (PAIR) and was named one of the top 100 women-led firms in Massachusetts.

QUESTION: Can you tell the readers about your work and what you enjoy most about it?
: Boston Common Asset Management, the firm I founded eleven years ago, is a sustainable investment firm. We have over $2 billion in assets under management. We combine rigorous quantitative and fundamental analysis with thorough ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) research to build diversified portfolios of high-quality, attractively valued companies. We invest globally and for the long term and are activist shareowners: we engage managements of portfolio companies to be more transparent, accountable, and to manage for the long term.

We are dedicated to the pursuit of financial return and social change. Since inception in 2003, we have built a strong investment record and substantially improved the policies and practices of portfolio companies through shareholder engagement.

My work gives me a chance to combine my training and experience in finance with my passion and commitment to the environment and social justice. I found traditional investment management too short- sighted and restrictive. Our current financial system, which has created so much opportunity and growth, is also at the center of market failures. Through short term thinking, by not pricing negative externalities such as carbon pollution, we have begun to threaten entire species, and the world our children will inherit. We investors can no longer afford to stand by as uninformed, disengaged, passive financial market participants. And all of us are investors through our retirement savings!

I believe my work at Boston Common, linking finance and sustainability, is at the vanguard of where investment thinking needs to go. Finance needs sustainability to make it complete, and at the same time, sustainability needs financial support and innovation to succeed. I love working with our visionary clients, and our passionate team, to build an integrated, successful model for engaged, sustainable global investing.

Q: To which charitable, community and professional groups do you belong and why?
Over the years, I have served on boards of organizations working in areas I care deeply about: Environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club Foundation, Earthworks, and Worldwatch Institute, social justice organizations such as YW Boston, and cultural organizations such as the New England Foundation for the Arts. For some years I have been engaged with a few India-based service organizations, such as Pratham (education). I enjoy Indian classical music and am a huge fan of Indian classical dance — I am a supporter of MITHAS.

I am deeply concerned about violence against women that persist despite development and education. Last year, I founded a non-profit Direct Action for Women Now (DAWN) Worldwide. Our aim is to harness civic society resources in India and the US to be engaged and not apathetic. DAWN’s first project “India’s Daughters” is focused on holistic care for survivors of gender-based violence. Our second project seeks to engage men and boys for prevention of gender-based violence. In both projects, we are working with and through the many strong and committed NGOs in both countries, to deepen and broaden their impact and effectiveness.

Professionally I am affiliated with the CFA institute, social investment organizations, and alumni groups from Harvard Business School.

Q: What are your hobbies and interests?
Sharing long walks, chats, books, movies, TV shows, cooking, music and dance with my husband and two daughters! We volunteer together to cook and serve at a local church on Thanksgiving day. We have also done service/tourism trips together to Ecuador, Tanzania and India, enjoying the opportunity to see new places while working in the local community.

I love languages: currently working on Spanish. Hoping to rekindle my spoken Japanese. And through more frequent trips to India, revive fluency in Marathi and Bengali.

I am an activist in my personal life. I attended the Keystone Pipeline Rally in DC (2013), and engage for peace, women’s rights, immigration reform, and safe working conditions in global supply chains.

Q: In what way you feel you have most positively influenced the local community and your company and professional field?
In the field of finance and investing, my work through Boston Common and my prior start-up Walden Capital, has been pioneering. We have sought to integrate Finance and Sustainability into global portfolio management, and used our voice as shareholders to urge companies to take responsibility for the social and natural environment in which they operate. I have written and spoken about our integrated approach at numerous gatherings of thought-leaders, financial institutions, religious organizations and academics.

Boston Common’s tenacious shareholder engagement has brought about lasting changes for employees and the environment through its impact on company policies and practices. For example, we recently worked with an investor coalition representing over $3 trillion in assets, calling for reform of the apparel supply chain to ensure worker safety after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in April 2013. As a result of our leadership, Adidas, a portfolio company with whom we have a long history of engagement, joined the Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety, a binding commitment to source from Bangladesh while creating the necessary safeguards, subject to independent monitoring and worker participation. We have a long list of such accomplishments, where our work has made a difference.

As the head of a firm, I have tried to build a culture of purpose and teamwork. We try to walk our talk, by offsetting our own carbon footprint, valuing diversity and giving back to the community. Our team was severely tested during the market crisis — we collaborated to keep our firm intact, avoiding layoffs by taking significant pay-cuts that began at the top.

On a personal level, I enjoy teaching kids, especially young Indian-Americans about the history of the two wonderful cultures they belong to. For some years, a group of us ran a cooperative culture class for our children.

From the day I started earning, I have tried to give away at least ten percent of what I earn, an idea from the Christian notion of “tithing”. In the early days, shelters for the homeless in Boston, and children’s organizations in India were my priorities. Now I am able to support more and different organizations. I am also a member of the Women Donors Network (WDN) a progressive group of women supporting causes we believe in.

Q; Your rare talent?
I can wiggle my ears! Growing up, I got a lot of admiration for this “talent”! More seriously, as an investor and the head of an organization, three attributes have helped me: empathy (meeting people where they are), confidence (to act, often without full information), and tenacity (to work hard through setbacks).

Q: Your favorite book?
The Prize by Daniel Yergin; India after Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha

Q: Your favorite quote?
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Martin Luther King, Jr. This inspires me to be an engaged citizen of the world, to stand up and be counted.
Q: Your core value you try to live by?
A: “..of those to whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48). I feel blessed to have so many privileges, and welcome the chance to give back.