Lisa Cooper has been working at the intersection of economics and social justice for most of her career. Today, she’s the founder of Figure 8 Investment Strategies, which brings a multi-cultural perspective to providing financial advice and investment management for individual and organizational clients. She also co-founded Global Talent Idaho, a nonprofit that helps skilled refugees and immigrants find appropriate careers in their new country. Lisa also spent a large portion of her career at Trillium Asset Management, a pioneer in the field of sustainable investing through ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) principles.
What’s the dent you’re trying to make in the universe?
Our BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is to help change the face of finance.
Our mission at Figure 8 is to help investors recognize and exercise the power they have to create social impact along the way. Investors have tools other stakeholders don’t, e.g., to influence corporate practices as shareholders and to direct capital flows to more sustainable ventures. It’s our goal to tap that investor power to fight climate change, protect and conserve resources, and create more equitable social outcomes.
We also want Figure 8 to serve as a model of inclusion. We believe that diversity of perspectives and backgrounds makes us a stronger, better team and we’re striving to be living proof of that, in a very white male-dominated industry. (Firms owned by women and minorities account for only about 1% of assets under management in the US.) Our staff is intentionally multicultural and it’s our goal to reach diverse clients, many of whom today are under-served by our industry.
What life lessons did you learn from your mother and father?
I’ve been blessed with exceptional parents. I’m so grateful for all they’ve imparted, especially:
- A deep sense of social justice—to consider the impact of every action on others and the planet, and to speak out when you can make a difference.
- A great love for the beauty in numbers and math (heavily influenced by my dad, a theoretical physicist).
- That it’s worth finding ways to make your passion part of your daily work.
- That good relationships require compromise, often on a daily basis (my parents’ 60-year marriage is a living testament).
- That laughter is essential, and that humor might be the most healing force in the world.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Everything! I somehow saw every profession I encountered as part of my future. I’d think, “When I’m a teacher, I’ll have students do the coolest projects,” and “It is going to feel really good saving lives when I’m a doctor,” and “I’ll probably have trouble navigating that left turn when I’m the bus driver.” I was pretty disappointed realizing this multi-faceted career model wasn’t possible—some days I still am. My parents say, “You always just wanted to be the boss.”
How do people respond to the pitch for an investment firm whose value proposition is sustainable financial returns and social impact through employment for immigrants and refugees?
Hmmm, I think we might need to hone our marketing pitch! Our value proposition is indeed delivering financial prosperity and intentional social impact for our clients. Our employment model is a critical part of achieving that, as it involves recruiting and training a team of investment analysts with deep knowledge of other sectors of the economy, multiple language skills, and a strong understanding of other cultures so they can evaluate things in context. In Boise, we’ve found a rich resource for that kind of talent in the refugee and immigrant communities. Basically, we’re building a smart global investment team to deliver value to an increasingly diverse base of clients.
Are you involved in shareholder activism?
Yes. Shareholder activism is an essential part of Figure 8’s work. We exercise our investor voice—and the voices of our clients—by filing shareholder resolutions, dialoguing with corporate managements and voting proxies on a wide range of environmental, social and governance issues.
As a new firm, Figure 8’s just been through our first shareholder season, building on the incredible work done over many years by our peers in the field. It’s early days for us, but we have big plans going forward, particularly around the intersections between climate change and forced migration, workforce inclusion on race and ethnicity, water conservation, and managing food waste.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your work?
I’m a big-picture strategy person and I love finding new ways to connect the dots… tracking global economic trends, identifying financial solutions to great challenges like climate change and poverty, blending those things together into investment portfolios for our clients, and making all that work from our home office in Boise.
I also love running a business and I’m completely gratified by being part of the growth and development of our team.
More than anything, I’m rewarded by helping clients find ways to balance the things that are most important to them.
What’s the biggest challenge your social enterprise model faces?
We’re committed to finding sustainable ways to serve less affluent clients, and that’s a big challenge. Smaller investors really need education and good upfront advice as they get started, but traditional fee models (based on assets under management) don’t work well for investment advisory firms—they struggle to break-even with small investors and the incentives are all wrong. We’re not the first or only firm to tackle this but we’re determined to find a way to make it work.
Is there a particular Figure 8 success story you’d like to share?
We encourage all our clients to think and plan for the long-term, so it’s early days to talk about success. But here are two client stories that really make us happy: one is a “traditional” client who’s very fortunate to have received a family inheritance, and we’ve helped her plan how to use those funds to launch an innovative, sustainability-focused new business. The other falls into the “early-stage investor” category—the son of parents who arrived in the US as refugees, who’s moving fast in his career, working hard and saving. We’re helping him invest for the long-term, in a way that fits with his values.
Why the name, Figure 8?
I spent my formative years as a competitive figure skater, so the name’s a bit personal—my mom came up with it!
When you skate a figure 8, the goal is to try draw two perfectly aligned circles with your blade, and then repeat that by tracing your original imprint multiple times. It’s a wonderfully iterative process—a sort of ongoing quest for elusive perfection—and it’s symbolic of the work we’re doing to encourage a more circular way of thinking about the economy and closing the loop around resource use.
And, the imagery of the two equal circles in the 8 signify balance, which is central to our work on multiple fronts: the balance between the financial and the social, between the domestic and the global, between our traditional high net worth clients and the newer “early stage” investors we seek to serve.
There are some cool social enterprises in Boise. Is there something special in the water?
Maybe! I moved here 20 years ago and I love our city. There is no doubt a special brand of “Idaho independence” and entrepreneurial spirit in this town. There’s a ton of community support for new ventures—and a general sense of “Oh, we don’t have that here? Let’s build it!”
I like to think the social enterprise piece is inspired by the intersection of that Boise can-do spirit and our incredible natural landscape—the foothills, the river, the high desert. We get reminded every day that we have some special things to protect, that we’re part of something much bigger.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
My usual: Greek yogurt drizzled with warm honey (has to be warm) topped with blueberries and granola.
What is your secret vice?
Listening to really sappy pop and country music. Only sometimes, not all the time.
Who inspires you?
My long-time inspiration has come from the late Joan Bavaria, who was my boss at Trillium Asset Management (which she founded) and also my dear friend. Joan was a visionary and accomplished many things: in addition to Trillium, she founded Ceres and the Global Reporting Initiative, raised two sons, and was truly pivotal in launching the field of social investment. But the thing that inspires me most about Joan these days, as we build Figure 8, is recognizing that she made a lot of mistakes along the way—and that she was able to tap a special kind of resilience to bounce back and keep going, with a smile on her face and kind words for those around her. I hope to be that kind of leader.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’d be a lot more patient.
(Can I also please add that I wish I could sing?)
What are you reading right now?
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative. It’s about inequities in the US justice system, especially with the death penalty, and it’s both profoundly disturbing and inspiringly hopeful. Key takeaway: the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.
Daily podcasts of NPR’s Marketplace interspersed with a mix of “happy place” music heavily dominated by JJ Grey & Mofro, Michael Franti, Patti Griffin and then a bunch of good ol’ classic Southern rock n’ roll. (Note that I did not list sappy pop music as it is a secret.)
Shark Tank! Sometimes I binge…
Rock, paper, or scissors?
Paper (100% post-consumer waste, unbleached, of course), because a blank sheet is the starting point for so many incredible creative world-changing ideas.
Orange. Yes, it’s bright and optimistic and all that, but it’s also another thing I got from my parents: our family home was filled with Scandinavian furniture and with a whole LOT of orange—so to me orange also signifies home, family, my roots.
What’s one question you’d like to ask yourself – and answer?
The question I’ve been working to answer for myself, and that I think is at the root of how so many of us think about money and finance, is “What is enough?” I’ve been so blessed and privileged in my life—I’ve really been grappling with the balance between the things I need to be healthy and happy and what might make more of a difference elsewhere. Not everything in life is a zero-sum game, but a lot of it is…how we choose to answer that question is a pretty profound exploration.
How should people connect with you on social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, website, blog address)?
You can catch me on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. You can learn more about Figure 8 on our website and follow us on Twitter as well. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can always dial me up the old-fashioned way at (208) 385-0078.