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Geeta Aiyer -President, Boston Common Asset Management

Ranjani Saigal

Geeta B. Aiyer, CFA, Founder/President/Portfolio Management

Geeta is Chief Strategist for investment products at BostonCommon Asset Management. She was previously President of Walden Asset Management and has over 25 years of investment experience. Her prior work experience includes positions at United States Trust Company (Boston), Cambridge Associates, Inc., and in rural development/public administration in India. She has founded two other companies, Walden Capital Management (1994) and East India Spice Inc. (1987), makers of critically acclaimed Instant India all-natural curry pastes. She received her MBA from Harvard University and her BA (Hons) and MA degrees from the University of Delhi, India. Geeta serves on the advisory boards of The Worldwatch Institute, the New England Foundation for the Arts, and Ubuntu at Work, a global non-profit for women. She is the 2010 recipient of the Women’s Venture Fund’s Highest Leaf Award.

What is Boston Common Asset Management? 

Boston Common Asset Management, the firm I founded ten years ago, is a sustainable investment firm. We have about $2 billion in assets under management, invested mainly in global stocks. We combine rigorous quantitative and fundamental analysis with thorough ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) research to build diversified portfolios of high quality companies that we believe are undervalued. We invest for the long term and are activist shareowners. We engage managements of portfolio companies to be more transparent, accountable, and manage for the long term. We are dedicated to the pursuit of financial return and social change.

What was the motivation for you to create this company? 

It gave me a chance to combine my training and experience in finance with my passion and commitment to the environment and social justice. I found traditional investment management too short sighted and restrictive.

The world faces economic and ecological challenges. It is clear that we are uniquely interconnected and aware of our shared fate on a small planet. We share the exciting opportunities of emerging market growth, but also have high levels of financial debt and ecological debt. Our current financial system, which has created so much opportunity and growth, is also at the center of market failures. Through short term thinking, by not pricing negative externalities such as carbon pollution, we have begun to threaten entire species, and the world our children will inherit. We can no longer afford to stand by as uninformed, disengaged, passive financial market participants. It was easy for me to see that finance needs sustainability to make it complete, and sustainability needs financial support and creativity to bring it about.

What are the personal /environmental attributes that have helped you succeed in you career?

Luck, hard work, passion and a great team.

What challenges have you faced in your career path?

I have been working in this field for almost 25 years! Whenever you start a firm, or challenge traditional thinking, or become activist there are invariably skeptics. You are repeatedly challenged to prove yourself and your thesis.

What advice would you give women trying to follow your career path?

It’s wonderful though sometimes stressful work. Women can excel in all aspects – as they bring many strengths: analytical skill, balanced risk management, advocacy, and client-centric thinking. My advice:Be passionate about your work. Be empathetic to clients and colleagues.

What lasting impact do you expect your work to have on the world?

I hope that through our long-term record, on both financial and “change” dimensions, our approach to long-term, engaged, responsible investing will be here to stay. Investment thinking is complete only if it considers the social and ecological context in which companies operate. In addition, our work as engaged shareowners has empowered progressive forces in many companies and communities, bringing issues of good governance, environmental and social responsibility to the forefront of shareholder concern and corporate accountability.

What is your secret to maintaining a work -life balance?

Realizing that balance is not achievable in a daily tally, but rather over longer periods of time. So, when you fall behind (or there is a big need) in one major area of priority (kids, spouse, work, community, extended family) you put more into that area, in concentrated doses. In those periods, you are very imbalanced, but that is how long term balance is achieved. 

What is your approach to parenting?  

I have two wonderful daughters! With our busy lives it is important to be very good communicators so we can stay connected. I feel I can only help them if we are connected, so lifelong communication should seem natural. To achieve this, I try to be very engaged and interested in every aspect of their lives, challenges, teachers, friends, activities. As far as possible, I read the books they read, listen to their music, watch their shows … this makes conversation easier. It’s hard, but I try to be non- judgmental. I also try to have lots of conversation with them about my day, my work, any and all subjects.

What activities outside of work are you involved in?  

Over the years, I have served on boards of environmental, educational, social change and arts organizations such as Worldwatch Institute and New England Foundation for the Arts.

I enjoy classical music and am a huge fan of classical dance – I am a supporter of MITHAS.

I am concerned about violence against women. I recently founded a non-profit Women’s Rights Network, and its first project is called “India’s Daughters”. Convinced that women deserve their citizenship rights to liberty and equality, we confront violence, and uphold civic society efforts.

What is your immediate and long-term plan for  Women’s Rights Network ?

There is a lot of amazing work being done by activists here in the US, in India, in other parts of the world. Our immediate goal is to sustain their momentum, create sharing networks for knowledge and training, and take our lead from groups working on the ground, about where and how we can help. It is too early for our group to make long term plans.

What suggestions do you have for other women who would like to contribute to impacting this space?

Violence against women is such a complex and pervasive issue. The negative impacts are not just on the individual or family or community, it is also on the city and affects tourism and commerce. It is so incomprehensible to see humankind turn on itself, hurting those who sustain it. Because it is wrong, and cannot be allowed to go on, there is much to be done. The key is to start somewhere and get involved. Contribute time, money, or create awareness, use the Net, or join organizations.

What do you do for fun?

I love languages: currently working on Spanish. I have dabbled in Japanese, Arabic, Persian. Back in India, I learned Bengali, Marathi, Urdu, Malayalam, in addition to my mother tongue Tamil, and the mandatory English, Hindi, and a bit of Sanskrit.

What kind of support have you valued most from your husband?

An invaluable sounding board, with encyclopedic knowledge, thinks I’m great, and is always willing to help me!

What support from you has your husband valued the most?

I’m a steady optimist, I think he is very smart and a wonderful human being, we share almost all responsibilities to our nuclear and extended families.

What is your personal philosophy of living life?

Ethical living, personal responsibility, community service.

What was your happiest moment in life?

When I got into the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). My father was there to see this and was very proud of me.

When there were low points in your life what advice did you value the most to pull through?

The most valuable insight was “I am not defined by this one failure.” It helped me build resilience, to pick myself up, and start over.

Do you have a fitness routine?

I enjoy dance-based exercise classes: Bhangra, Hiphop, Zoomba. Enjoy Pilates, doing weights and long walks.

How would you define your spiritual training?

I was raised in the Advaita philosophy (Vedanta), with an emphasis on knowledge.

Do you have a beauty advice?

Get at least 7 hours of sleep as often as possible, workout regularly!

What are some of your favorite books?

Non Fiction:

My Experiments with Truth: Mohandas Gandhi
The Scramble for Africa: Thomas Pakenham

Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison
White Tiger: Aravind Adiga

What is your favorite song? Any favorite musicians?

I like listening to lyrics as well as melody. To pick a few: Begum Akhtar (Mere humnafas, mere humnawa), MS Subbulakshmi (Main hari charanan ki dasi), Mohammad Rafi (Mere mehboob tujhe meri mohabbat ki qasam), John Lennon (Imagine), Michael Jackson (I’m talking to the man in the mirror), TM Krishna, Chris Daughtry (I’m going home), Alicia Keys (This girl is on fire)

Do you like to cook? What is your favorite dish to make?

Yes, but no fancy dishes, just everyday food. I enjoy making interesting salads, combining different ingredients to create variety and balance.

In the late ‘80s, I started a company called East India Spice, making a line of all-natural curry pastes called Instant India. We sold through gourmet and natural food stores (Williams Sonoma, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s), and to university and hospital dining rooms directly and through Sysco. It was great fun, making the product, delivering samples, doing cooking demonstrations, writing recipe newsletters, attending food shows. The products got great reviews from food critics in magazines like Bon Appetit and was a finalist at the premiere Specialty Foods show (NASFT)! It was a decade too early, and I was doing this on the side while still working as a portfolio manager during the day, so I sold the business. I learned a lot, and the cash flow from this venture helped sustain my family during my first investment firm start up, Walden Capital, during the 1990s.

Could you share a few fun facts?

I hiked up to 18,000 feet in the Himalayas and finished one Boston Marathon.  As President of the Students Union at Delhi School of Economics, led a “gherao” of the Vice Chancellor’s office. 

Any piece of information you wish you had known growing up?

Take bigger risks when you are young. Act on your ideals, live by your passion. Don’t be afraid to close a door if it is damaging to you – other doors will become visible. (this is the opposite of what most young people are told, which is, don’t close any doors)

If you have any questions for Geeta Aiyer please send it to info@lokvani.com. 

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1.Congratulations! March 22, 2013Shuchita 

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