by Sarah-Eva Carlson
- USA -
The concept of investing in what matters is not new to me. In fact, it’s where my life as an investor began. I was in the 8th grade and had won a cash award. Since I wouldn’t need the money until college, my father suggested that we invest. “It’s a good time to invest in the U.S. market,” he advised, “you’ll end up with $3,000, maybe more.” These returns were good news in my family of four children, but I was looking to get even more out of my investment. I wanted it to piss off my older brother.
My father brought me to see his financial advisor, Mr. Beard, who gave me two options: American or European stocks. “The American market is going to tank in a year or so,” he predicted. “Let’s put you in European stocks.” This was in the mid-1990s. Dad’s nod said, I told you that he’d know better than me.
During the eight years that I invested, the U.S. market continued to soar while the European market stumbled along.
The myth passed down in my family was that I netted a loss. I thought I nudged a small return, but definitely not boasting material. For this, I’d long nursed a grudge against Mr. Beard and lost my faith in investing.
But over the last year and a half while the rest of the world became disillusioned with an imploding investment community, I began to renew my faith. I was being invited to after-work brainstorming sessions for a new, personalized sustainable investment model that seemed more like a dream than reality.
The dream went like this: Individuals would be able to build their own personalized investment portfolios that reflect their beliefs, values and interests. The service would accommodate small investments, be the best on the market and available for free on the Internet. It would have a simple interface that allowed users to explore the largest database of issue-based indices, or lists of tradable stocks. The issues covered would include every possible view, study or angle as it related to the environment, politics, labor issues, women’s issues, sports and more.
Non-profits, experts, consulting firms, academic centers, blogs and publications would provide the content, many of them sources used by sustainable mutual and exchange traded funds (EFTs). Each provider would have to reveal details about how their information is gathered and the methodology used. As well, we would track the historical performance of that content against benchmarks.
Users could drag and drop the lists that mattered most to them into a symbol that looked a bit like a peace sign, but really spelled the name of the new financial product Investars was creating: a YOU. By giving everyone access to the best alpha-enhancing research available on Wall Street, users could filter out all the “sells” or companies deemed bad investments. Simple color-coded graphs would help determine which research best improves the performance of a unique portfolio. Then, users would be able to select between a number of brokers, each providing competitive pricing that was presented transparently in clear YOU-esque language, and invest right there on the site.
As an added bonus to the benefit equation, content providers like NGOs would receive fees when their content was used, creating new revenue streams for them. When I heard this, I began to dream too.
I dreamed of being able to bring together all the reports being done by NGOs on child labor to get as close as possible to what didn’t yet exist: a current list of all companies with child labor violations in their supply chains. I wanted individual investors to have the ability to say no to something so tragic. I dreamed of individual voices, usually not heard by major companies, actually having the collective ability to make a difference. I dreamed of investing being transparent, easy, fun and rewarding.
We dreamt it, Investars built it, and then, I got offered the job.
Over the past year as my role in YOU moved from dreamer to launch coordinator, I have often thought about my first foray in the investing world. At fourteen I wanted something badly enough to believe that an investment could do more than make money. It could change my world.
I’ve also thought about how the years my father spent working in a NGO on economic and social policy didn’t translate into financial advice worth following. Many still assume that listening to their conscience comes at a price and those who “do good” can’t possibly know much about making money. YOU brings transparency to these assumptions. Responsible companies often outperform irresponsible ones and do-gooders are exceptionally good at judging responsibility.
Now I’ve seen from the inside how we will soon be able quite literally to invest ourselves into what truly matters: politics, the environment, world peace, health issues, our personal passions and gifts. We’re in an age where we can use technology to find our soul-mates in a database; I think of YOU as a way to find our soul-vestments.
YOU is not meant to replace or even compete with sustainable mutual funds, faith based funds or sustainable ETFs. We strongly support their work and will direct individuals to them from our site. Rather, YOU is a complementary product with different abilities and benefits.
Consider the woman who is invested in a sustainable mutual fund. She has recently battled breast cancer, is a working mother, has a parent suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and is passionate about human rights and alternative energy. To her, these are all extremely important issues – they are about sustainability and the world she’d like to help leave behind. The sustainable mutual fund in which she invests has defined sustainability according to its own set of criteria that might not include companies that are in the wind energy industry, bring jobs to her home state, provide programs and benefits for working parents, or support specific medical research. She also wants to track child labor reports from all NGOs to be sure that she divests immediately, reinvesting only once the company changes its behavior. Her YOU will let her achieve all this. So in having both, she’s invested with a fund whose managers she trusts to act sustainably and responsibly, but she’s also invested in what matters uniquely to her.
Lastly, YOU allows users to define the level of risk they’re willing to take with an investment, which is important in a post-2008 world where we were all unknowingly leveraged far beyond what probably would have made us comfortable.
YOU is just beginning. I’m working with organizations around the world on my dreams, beginning with building a database that includes every issue we may hope to have cared about in ten or fifteen years.
Recently, I tracked down the fund and they found my files. It wasn’t so bad, my returns. In light of last year, they’re very good. But the real numbers didn’t matter then and really don’t now either. It was always about a brother and matters of love. Why do I bother? Because it’s the only way to be sure that what matters to me ends up becoming me. That’s how we change our world. I invite you to help.
Investars YOU was beta launched June 1st 2009 at www.investinwhoyouare.com.
Sarah-Eva's article is part of our focus on
Sustainability & Responsible Stewardship.
The author updated this article on August 4, 2009. - Ed.
About the Author
Sarah-Eva Carlson is currently coordinating the launch of Investars YOU. She has worked in magazine advertising sales and most recently for a global security and legislative expert network. She holds a M.Litt. in International Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland and a Masters in War Studies from King's College London where she researched the role of the imagination and storytelling during war and peace-building.
Sarah-Eva researched the Dakota internment after the Conflict of 1862 (the so-called “Sioux Uprising of 1862”), uncovering a collection of letters that she was the first to have orally translated by tribal elders. Her work was published in The Annals of Iowa. She currently divides her time between New York City and her family farm in Illinois.