Q&A with “Realities of Impact Investing” Speaker Catherine Gill

CG_HeadshotCatherine Gill is a Senior Vice President of Investor Relations & Operations at Root Capital, and we are excited to have her as a guest speaker  for our 11/9 event, “Getting Real About Impact Investing: Stories from the Field.” We had a chance to catch up with her beforehand to get a sneak preview of some of the things she’ll be speaking to on the 9th.

The 11/9 event will feature TED-style talks on impact investing! Boston-area experts, including Catherine, will be sharing compelling stories about failures as well as successes in the space, speaking frankly about the challenges as well as the rewards.

Register for the event on November 9th here, tickets are selling quickly!

What inspired you to pursue a career with positive social or environmental impact, and how did you get to your current position?

Like so many others, the original inspiration for me was Yunnus, Grameen and the development of the microfinance industry. This was the ‘aha’ moment when I knew that my career didn’t have to be a choice between two well established and seemingly separate avenues – for profit and nonprofit – but that there was all of this room to move between and work across sectors, to bring tools, know-how and learning back and forth. This was both revelation and road map to me as a young woman contemplating her role in the work force.

What are the most interesting, fun, and/or challenging aspects of your job?

The most interesting part of the job is working on something that you really really care about and that feels really relevant and important. I can’t overstate how lucky I feel every day to participate in something that, while undeniably daunting, is also profoundly motivating. That said, I hasten to add that a strong sense of mission is actually not enough. The vehicle by which that mission is pursued, that matters too. So, equally interesting, fun and critical is being part of a firm that works so hard at learning, at getting better and at creating a place where people can build meaningful and rewarding careers for themselves.

Can you give us a sneak peek of one of the successes or failures you’re planning to speak about on November 9th?

When I first got here 5.5 years ago, we had a strong narrative that highlighted our progress towards break even economics in our lending. We believed that showing we could turn a profit was essential to our ability to encourage other financial institutions to come in and help serve this market gap. We talked about this “demonstration effect” a lot. Starting in 2012 and then even more so in 2013, we were noticing a lot of competition for our best clients. This was the “good for mission, bad for bottom line” moment.
This caused us to articulate two important things. First, we realized that our economics were not the demonstration effect at all; rather it is the economics of our clients. Root’s real contribution is a track record of deals that are made and repaid, and of a good sized portfolio of growth-oriented businesses. How we priced it, what our cost of capital was, how much we paid our loan officers, whether we provided technical assistance or not – nobody was looking at those things closely because they were idiosyncratic to us. The second realization was even more profound. With our best clients getting picked up by other lenders who could offer more competitive pricing, we chose to reaffirm our commitment to our core competency of working with businesses that are not yet bankable. Root’s role is not to scale with our clients indefinitely but to de-risk them such that others want to serve them. In other words, the more successful we were in pursuing our mission, paradoxically, the worse our economics would be.

What is a trend in impact investing that you think will impact your career in the years to come?

Investing with a gender lens. Among the things of which I am most proud from my time at Root is being a part of the development and growth of our Women in Agriculture Initiative, a multi-part effort to grow the impact of our lending and advisory services to improve economic opportunities for women. When we launched the Initiative, one of the first things we did was create a loan product so we could connect investors directly to that portion of our client base that demonstrate leadership in leveling the playing field for women within agricultural value chains. It would be hard for me to overstate how strongly I feel about being part of rewriting the rules of the finance industry such that we can include the 2 billion women who currently sit on the sidelines  and who we ignore to our own detriment.

If you hadn’t ended up working in the impact investing field, where do you think you would have ended up instead?

I would have been a school principal or headmistress. I’m really interested in jobs where you have to be an expert in balancing the complexity of different stakeholders in order to build community. It’s so hard to do this but when you can achieve that kind of alignment, incredible things happen.

Register for the event on Monday, 11/9 here, tickets are selling quickly!

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