Welcome to our blog series on millennial impact investors! Hear their stories in their own words, and get insights on the varied pathways into the sector. To kick us off we hear from Ashley Lewis, one of the co-founders of Invest with Impact, who began her finance career at age 16 and is now running her own start-up in the impact investing sector.
Name: Ashley Lewis
Current location: Paris, France
Current role: Founder of Ongeza Fund, an organization that helps facilitate exits for the impact investing space.
Can you share a bit more about your career before getting into impact focused investing?
I started my career in finance at the age of 16. At the time I was overly ambitious and curious and asked my local bank to hire me so that I could learn as much as I could about the finance industry and make some money at the same time. Throughout college I interned with a number of organizations including the FDIC and Vanguard and ultimately launched into one of Vanguard’s leadership development rotational programs. At the end of the program I began working in Vanguard’s institutional asset management business focused on endowments and foundation. This is where I learned more about alternative asset classes. I then transitioned to the institutional asset management arm of Goldman Sachs in Chicago. Then things got a little crazy. I ultimately left my job at Goldman Sachs to join the United States Peace Corps in their social/small enterprise development program. I moved to Togo, West Africa and worked with a number of social ventures providing solutions across the country in sectors such as energy, agriculture, micro-finance and artisan development. I even co-founded a women’s empowerment training initiative that still continues today.
What inspired you to transition into an impact focused career?
My inspiration was from the fact that I wanted to use my finance and business skills to make a positive difference and I knew that I wanted to take my career global. I started to get the itch in 2008 and began to do pro-bono nonprofit/social venture consulting work through Service Corps, an off-shoot of Net Impact. At the time, the term impact investing and social entrepreneurship was just being coined and micro-finance was all the rage. This is where I started.
It wasn’t until I was deep into my time in Togo when I started to research the sector more that I came across the term impact investing and realized that this is exactly what I had been looking for all this time.
How did you transition into the space?
I knew that I had a lot to learn and I was on the fence as to whether I should directly pursue an MBA or get more in-field experience. Ultimately I decided that I wanted to continue to work and learn from doing. I knew that there were a number of organizations providing fellowships but I only found one that was providing a robust fellowship focused on impact investing that would actually give me the opportunity to deploy capital and that was with LGT Venture Philanthropy. So I applied and was accepted to their program and moved to Bangkok where I managed their early stage accelerator program and was responsible for their activities around the country. I then went to work on their Africa strategy based out of Uganda.
Did you take advantage of any training programs or University studies to prepare you for this transition?
I look at Peace Corps as the ultimate training experience. While in Togo I lived on $8 USD a day (which is roughly 65% higher than the average!) It was in Togo where I learned the realities of designing products and services for those with minimal daily incomes, launching social ventures, how to embrace and integrate cultural difference, etc. Without this experience that lasted years, I don’t know how I would be able to identify sustainable social ventures and be able to ask the “tough” questions.
I also completed an MBA but this was after my transition into the space.
What regions and sectors have you focused on since?
I have now lived and worked across four continents including the US, Europe, Africa, and Asia. My sectoral exposure includes agriculture, health, energy, natural resource management/environmental conservation, ICT, women’s empowerment, and artisan development.
What have you enjoyed most about this career path?
This career path so far has been an extremely fun and challenging. I have enjoyed living and working across a number of regions and learning more about the challenges being addressed and the solutions being developed. I’ve also found that this sector brings together some of the most fascinating people and learning from these individuals has been extremely helpful for my own development.
What are your hopes for the future of the sector?
I would love to see the impact investment sector continue to be a diverse pool of talent. Most of the organizations that I have worked for an interacted with have gender parity which was a refreshing change from my days in the finance sector in the US. I also would like to see a greater representation of local talent from emerging markets raise to leadership positions. This is beginning to happen with more investment managers being hired locally in their country of origin. I think that these individuals often have the cultural, language, and technical know-how to effectively deploy capital.