A recent review found that female representation in UK financial services is around 23% on boards and only 14% on executive committees. The review has led HM Treasury to launch the Women in Finance Charter, which is aimed at tackling gender inequality in the sector.
As CEO of Ethex, Lisa Ashford is a rare breed – not just for rising to the top in a male-dominated sector, but for her role in the positive investment platform’s goal to make money do good.
‘When I started in the financial services and energy sectors over 20 years ago, I was surrounded by mostly men who were initially slightly amused by my presence as a young, smaller than average female with zealous determination’, Lisa recalls. ‘I was lucky enough to be in an organisation that recognised hard work, commitment and ability – regardless of gender or age. If you are in the right organisation these attributes will always win out over time!’
Many years after completing her Masters degree and after a long stint in the City, Lisa was recognised as an outstanding female candidate and awarded a scholarship to do an executive Financial Strategy diploma at the Said Business School in Oxford. ‘I ‘tooled’ up, got the skills I needed to step up and then found the right opportunity’, she tells us. ‘At the end of the day, regardless of gender, it’s about gaining the right experience and skills to do the job and then pushing yourself forward and using your network.’
As CEO of Ethex, Lisa is part of a majority-female organisation where women are fully represented across the team, senior management and the board. ‘Everyone is different and we all bring different skills to the table’, she tells us. ‘Personally, I find that being very approachable and open-minded allows me to really understand the needs of multiple stakeholders including business clients, retail customers, investors and employees. This is invaluable in a fast-paced environment where the market is constantly developing and evolving.’
And the market is indeed evolving, with the finance sector as a whole undergoing rapid, radical change. We’re in the middle of the fastest-growing divestment campaign in history, with all institutions – from churches and charities to universities and pension funds – being asked to move their money out of oil, coal and gas for moral and financial reasons. ‘Failure to divest could have a serious impact on share prices, as well as causing reputational damage’, Lisa explains. ‘Interestingly, we have seen the growth of investment in renewable and community energy projects grow on the Ethex platform to the tune of £23.5 million over the last 12 months.’
Investment in green energy projects is just one example of ‘positive investing’, or making money do good by choosing to invest in businesses that are changing the world for the better. These businesses have a clear social and environmental mission at heart and work in areas ranging from renewable energy and fair trade to social housing, organic farming and micro-finance.
It’s different from ethical investing, which is based on screening out companies engaged in unethical practices such as arms trading, tobacco or fossil fuels.
‘How we use our money is one of the most powerful ways we can make a difference and create a sustainable world’, Lisa tells us. ‘This includes the products we buy, the companies that we buy from, the businesses we invest in and the banks we trust with our money. We are used to making ethical choices about products we buy but there is now a growing movement of people who are thinking about the impact of their money: they want a financial return but also a social and environmental one, too.’
Some people call this the ‘triple bottom line’: People, Planet, Profit. Many now realise that paying attention to the people and planet part is good for profits, too – because sustainably run businesses will grow and be successful in the future.
On the Ethex platform, you can browse and compare positive investment and savings products according to the projects you want to support and the financial return you’re looking for. Some current projects offer up to 6% and have a great positive impact across sectors including community energy, social housing and community property.
A number of products are also eligible for different forms of tax relief; Social Investment Tax relief (SITR) provides benefits similar to EIS, where 30% of your investment can be recovered through tax relief. Other products are eligible for inheritance tax relief, which is an important consideration if you’re planning for the future.
Over the last year, the impact made by investment in Ethex projects is huge: over £23m has been ploughed into renewable energy, £311,000 has gone to microfinance projects in 60 countries, nearly half a million to organic food and farming, £2.1m to social care housing and quarter of a million to renovating historic buildings.
This bumper year means Ethex is now nearing the £50m mark for investment raised, since launch, into social businesses, charities and community organisations. That’s incredible for a small social enterprise that only started in 2013.
‘We’ve just secured further funding to expand the team, build out our infrastructure and get ready to bring in the next £50m!’, Lisa says. ‘We’re looking forward to broadening our investor community and helping more social businesses grow and flourish.’
As Ethex grows, it will continue to ensure opportunities are equally available to all and that the benefits and rewards are on a par irrespective of gender.
‘We’ve come a long way but there is still a way to go – especially when it comes to women represented in the boardroom’, Lisa tells us. ‘In more recent years I feel that there are many more women leading the way in fintech and I’m proud to have such inspirational peers. Disruptive business models are challenging the status quo and breaking down traditional barriers to entry. These are exciting times.’
Click here for more on Ethex and its current investment opportunities.
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