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A Champion for Responsible Investing

Jun/11/2023 / by Melanie Fourie

Sustainability activist and senior Morningstar executive Shila Wattamwar on what keeps her going

Shila Wattamwar
Shila Wattamwar

Shila Wattamwar knows most of what there is to know about ethical investing.

As the head of organizational integration at Morningstar and former executive director of sustainalytics, she aims to deliver the resources that investors need for environmentally conscious investing.

To promote sustainable practices, Wattamwar has a website dedicated to the cause, Sustainable Me Today. It provides information on sustainability in a range of settings. In an interview, we spoke with her about her upbringing and South Asian influences, her career as a sustainability activist, and her personal life.

Where is home at the moment? Also, do share some details about your early life and how it influenced who you are today?

I currently live in Livingston, NJ. However, I’ve had the pleasure of living in a number of areas that host a rich cultural diversity. I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. Toronto promotes cultural acceptance vs. assimilation, so growing up there I was able to really see people practice their heritage and culture in the way they would traditionally.

Looking back, it was beautiful. As a South Asian, I was easily able to learn Bharatnatyam and Kathak, grow up with South Asian festivities almost every other weekend, and even take my native language class, Gujarati, for high school credit! South Asian culture was such a normal part of my life.

Later in life, after coming to the U.S. when I was 18 (my parents moved to Chicago to be closer to family), I continued to embrace my South Asian heritage. Living in places like Chicago, New York, and New Jersey certainly made that easy, with such a rich South Asian diaspora. Even now, I look to expose my kids to our culture and language as best as possible. I also actively support initiatives such as that look to promote the Asian community in underrepresented industries.

Growing up, though, probably one of the most influential things that shaped my life was practicing Bharatnatyam and Kathak. While I don’t dance anymore, I still believe it significantly shapes the way I think and am able to visualize and think in patterns. I feel so fortunate to realize that embracing your culture can give you strength and perspectives that can be powerful, unique, and lead to great opportunities.

When did you first realize you wanted to advocate for sustainability, and what drives you toward championing this course?

I had my first exposure to the concept of sustainability early in my career when I was on a project that identified companies that derived revenues from initiatives focused on more responsible and sustainable water, energy, and waste practices. We were pitching this strategy to a large pension fund that was looking to invest millions in these types of companies. So I started learning more about why this was important.

I slowly began understanding why climate change was happening, the inequalities people face, and the dire effects of all that. It was so interesting and compelling. It just made sense that we should be driving capital towards companies positioning themselves for a more sustainable future. So after having my second son in 2014, I decided that I wanted to focus on this area full-time. Part of me found it really interesting. Part of me wanted to do something that mattered to help create a better world for my kids. I’ve focused on sustainable investing for almost 10 years since that realization and continue to do so.

But I now realize that it’s more than just driving investment dollars into sustainability. The sustainability of our planet depends on all people understanding this concept and making more sustainable and responsible choices. So, in 2021, I started my website SustainableMe.Today. It provides people with a platform where they can find information to help them bring sustainability into their lives. The coffee they drink, the clothes they wear, the groceries they buy, etc. It’s bringing sustainability into the contexts that people already know. So it’s easier to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

You joined Sustainalytics in 2015 and worked your way up to executive director. What does the company entail, and what were some of the highlights of working there?

Sustainalytics is an investment research and rating company that focuses on assessing companies (some publicly traded and some privately traded) on their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives. This covers the ESG risks a company faces, the impact they have on society, revenues based on negative or positive product lines, and how they’re approaching climate change. Sustainalytics is now a full-owned Morningstar business, as Morningstar acquired Sustainalytics in 2020.

Working at Sustainalytics is like seeing every single thing you’ve learned in an MBA program come to life. I’ve been exposed to and have learned so much at Sustainalytics, and I am absolutely grateful for the opportunity. I can write so much here but, in summary, I’ve been able to not only see but also help grow the sustainable investing industry as well as the company itself. Positioning our research in the tools investors use, we’ve helped bring that research into the core workflows that investors think about. These include stock selection, fund selection, reporting to understand exposures to sustainable issues, regulatory reporting, etc. It’s not just research; it’s a means of letting people invest in a way that aligns with what they value.

This growth also facilitated the growth of our company, from about 150 people when I joined to almost 3,000 now. We added locations, had to figure out how to handle rapid new headcount, started new business lines. We became more focused and disciplined, and embraced processes that lent themselves to prioritization and scale. Being part of the evolution of the sustainable investing industry over the last 10 years has been so fulfilling.

You’re the head of organizational integration for Morningstar. What does your role there involve?

My focus is on aligning and integrating our primary initiatives across our organization to drive scale and adoption. I was asked to take on this role. I had experience doing this for ESG research as Sustainalytics was integrated into Morningstar. I also think it’s a real testament to how companies like Morningstar bring that sustainability expertise into their central operations.

What inspired you to start Sustainable Me Today, which provides resources and information to those striving to make life more sustainable?

It is important for everyone to make more sustainable choices. Why is it important? Because 780 million people live without clean drinking water. The United States still has one of the highest gender wage gaps in the developing world. We’ll have to increase food production by 50% to meet the needs of 10 billion by 2050. There are a lot of challenges we face in this world, and our choices can help!

Of course, we all hear about this concept of sustainability, but because there is so much noise around it, it can feel overwhelming or like just a new trend. So, I thought it was important to start bringing the concept of sustainability into the everyday parts of people’s lives. To bring sustainability to them so that they can more easily and reliably start living a sustainable lifestyle. I started SustainableMe.Today, to create a space that provides people of all ages with the readily available resources and information they need to connect sustainability across aspects of life that are most important to them and empower a more holistic integration of sustainability in daily life. For me, it’s about providing education that drives action.

What are some objectives you have going forward for SustainableMe.Today?

My primary objective is to create a space where people can easily find information about sustainable living. Many schools, community groups, and corporations reached out to me, telling me how helpful the information has been. I especially get great feedback about my son Soren’s podcast and the inspiration stories I post on the website.

Another objective is to also work with those groups directly — groups of kids, community groups, or corporate employees. These help them better understand why it’s important that they pay attention to this concept of sustainability and how they can more tangibly start living a more sustainable lifestyle. Helping to really drive action through education.

Your son Soren, in the sixth grade, is a remarkable warrior for sustainable living and on the Sustainable Me team. He obviously learned a lot about sustainability from you. Tell us a bit about his journey. When did he first displayed an interest in the topic? How has he grown and helped other kids in his role as a contributor for Sustainable Me?

First off, I just want to say how proud I am of my son, Soren, for his podcast. We choose the topics together. But after that, he does all the research that leads to the podcast, which I help him a little bit.

In fact, it all started with essays. One year, as a Christmas gift, Soren wrote me an essay on the topic of gender equality. It was his way of relating to the work I was doing. He wrote a few more essays. But the podcast was a more engaging way to spend more time with each other and relate to something together. Also important, the topics Soren speaks about are topics that he’s going to face throughout his life. I wanted him to appreciate how important they were. Soren is also a naturally good speaker and truly enjoys writing. So I thought that this was something that could help build on some of his stronger skills.

As you can imagine, however, being an 11-year-old, Soren’s participation often requires quite a bit of strong encouragement. But Soren does indeed enjoy the topics he learns about, and I often see him telling some of his friends and certainly our family members about sustainable living, which of course warms my heart. As he grows, I hope for the podcast to grow as well, in content, with interviews, and even with a team of kid contributors.

You’re a board member for Chefs for Impact, a non-profit promoting sustainable food and eating through chefs and industry experts. Tell us how they do this, and how you’ve contributed.

Chefs4Impact is a wonderful non-profit organization that helps educate adults and children about sustainable food systems. It works with renowned chefs around the world, providing education to kids through the NYC school systems and community organizations. The organization partly funds these initiatives by hosting outstanding chef demonstrations, dinner and wine events throughout NYC.

I hope to support the initiative by helping them grow their impact, either by expanding into new areas. Or by broadening the audiences that benefit from their education. At this point, however, they’ve come a long way. I look forward to helping them with their strategy for continued growth.

Who do you rely on for support?

As the saying goes, “it takes a village.” I am lucky enough to have the village to support me! My husband has always been a very hands-on father, which has always been extremely helpful. And then my in-laws and, at times, my parents are a very big part of my kids’ lives. It helps all of us feel supported. The community we live in is also helpful. I feel I have about 20 houses within a 5-minute distance I can call on in a case of emergency. Or even for just for some simple help! And of course, paid help has always been a part of our lives. These include full-time nannies to after-school help and even live-in au pairs.

The point is, we’ve never shied away from saying that we need support. Both my husband and I knew early on that we were going to need help if we were going to raise kids and pursue heights in our careers. And once we accepted that, we embraced it and appreciated all the help we could get.

As a mom and busy career woman, how do you practice self-care?

Well, sometimes it seems that no matter how much self-care I prioritize, it never seems to be enough. But I do know it’s very important, so I really make time to indulge in the things that make me happy: socializing, traveling, cooking, meditation, etc. And it, of course, helps to have a very supportive husband.

But one of the primary things that has really offered me balance is the perspective I have on “self-care.” I used to think it was all about having some “me” time. And while I still need my own time, I really try to adjust my perspective and look at some of the time I have with my kids or put into work as self-care.

For example, working on something at work that leverages my strengths really brings out passion and energy in me, and I’ve learned to appreciate that. Or playing 4-square with my kids or having a conversation with them while we’re driving to an activity can also feel so special, and I’ve learned to appreciate that time as well. So, self-care to me is about feeling relaxed and happy, and I try to find that anywhere I can.

What’s the way forward regarding your passion for sustainability? Do you have any other related projects?

I think the way forward for me is to really support sustainability in two primary ways:

1. Helping people live more sustainably through education that leads to action. This is through my website, through the talks I give, and even through a book.

2. Supporting important sustainability initiatives

By leveraging my experience, insights, and network. I love working with companies that are driving for a positive impact, whether it be helping them strategically grow or helping them articulate and disclose their sustainability story for investors. My current passion is working with a company in the mushroom/mycelium space, as mycelium provides a more sustainable source for a multitude of areas ranging from plant-based meats and textiles to alternatives for traditional plastics. The company is doing such interesting, innovative, and important work in the space of sustainability.

I’ll also mention that I am in the midst of publishing a book—a coffee table/bedside book of sorts—that is meant to help people integrate a new sustainable action into their lives every week. The book will showcase a fact or statistic around an issue, along with a sustainable behavior to help address the issue. The primary objective of the book is to promote sustainable behaviors by making them easy and compelling. I don’t have the release date yet, unfortunately, but please look out for it!

What is your input for those wanting to reduce their carbon footprint?

It takes 2,720 liters of water to make one T-shirt. That’s how much an average person drinks over a three-year period. Also, industrialized countries waste an estimated $680 billion every year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

 Based on those facts, two of my favorite tips are:

1. Consume less.

2. Repurpose your things.

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