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  • 06.09.17

Meet The New Breed Of Activist Investors Who Are Trying To Give Silicon Valley A Conscience

Arjuna Capital, which went to Facebook’s and Google’s recent shareholder meetings with proposals for gender equity disclosure, is the most visible of these firms.

Meet The New Breed Of Activist Investors Who Are Trying To Give Silicon Valley A Conscience
[Source Photos: Unsplash user Tim Trad (buildings); Unsplash user Morgan Sessions (woman)]

Last Thursday, hundreds of Facebook shareholders at the company’s annual meeting in Menlo Park, California listened politely as top executives discussed the social media giant’s performance metrics and goals–until Natasha Lamb got up out of her chair and stood to face the board. She demanded that the company address its fake news problem by publishing a formal report about its prevalence on the site and its impact.

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“We are talking about content that is posted and disseminated with the intent to mislead, not the mainstream media, which the President refers to as fake news,” Lamb explained. While she spoke, CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg, and the rest of the board sat with their backs to her. Just once during her speech did Zuckerberg turn around slightly and make eye contact with her. He then turned back around.

Lamb’s proposal was denied. “We do have a special focus on trying to reduce the prevalence of false news in the system, and there’re a bunch of different ways that we’re going about this,” explained Zuckerberg. Facebook also denied another of her proposals for Facebook to disclose its gender pay data.

A few days after the meeting, Lamb seemed unfazed, though she conceded, “It can be a contentious atmosphere.”

After all, doing battle with some of the biggest corporations is par for the course for Lamb, who’s a managing partner at Arjuna Capital. This past week was especially busy for Lamb. First, she flew from Boston to Dallas so she could sit in on Exxon’s annual meeting. There, she was pushing the company to come clean about its environmental impact. When that ended, she hopped on a plane to San Francisco and made her way to Facebook. Two meetings in a week may not sound like much, but Lamb had a busy agenda: important proposals to share with the stockholders, people to meet and speeches to make.

For Arjuna’s clients, Lamb and her colleagues provide them with a impassioned voice for social and environmental impact. Most notably, the firm has convinced seven public companies–including eBay, Starbucks, Apple, and Amazon–to disclose data on gender equity. That issue is only one of the firm’s causes–Arjuna’s proposals focus on myriad social and environmental issues.

This week Arjuna went to Google to try and force its hand at divulging its gender pay numbers, something the Department of Labor is now looking into. That also failed to pass. She describes that meeting’s result as a foregone conclusion; “They continued to pay lip service to it, but would not commit to take action on quantitative disclosures.”

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Arjuna’s approach is just one of the most prominent examples of an investment strategy that is becoming a nationwide trend. While the firm has spent years trying to pressure corporate boards to address social and environmental issues, in recent months there’s been a clear increase in such investor-driven proposals. And data shows that more money is being funneled into these impact-based portfolios.

Investing With A Social Conscience

Lamb’s career has focused on the intersection of investing and social consciousness. She holds an MBA in sustainable business from Pinchot University. After graduating, she worked as a VP and equity analyst at the Boston-based Trillium Asset Management, which she describes as “one of the first sustainable investment firms in the country.” In 2013 she cofounded Arjuna with two managing partners–Farnum Brown and Adam Seitchik–who also hail from Trillium.

Natasha Lamb [Photo: courtesy of Arjuna Capital]
With a deep background in this area, Lamb is now trying to get results from the largest companies in the world. First and foremost, she tells me, Arjuna “engages with companies that our clients are invested in,” and tries to focus them to drive change. For Exxon, the firm has spent years pushing the company to disclose its climate change data. In 2013, Arjuna introduced shareholder proposals that demanded better disclosure of the energy giant’s environmental impact. In 2014, the vote passed. “They had never engaged the shareholders in such a constructive way,” Lamb says. Yet even with the disclosure, the gas giant denied any responsibility for climate change. As Lamb puts it, Exxon “very tactfully misled investors.”

But the proposal’s success helped propel the issue even further, says Lamb, adding that “institutional investors have taken up the cause.” Exxon is now being investigated for allegedly misleading investors by attorneys general in three states and Arjuna has continued pushing for better and more honest disclosure. While she was in Dallas hanging out with Exxon, another Arjuna representative was at Chevron’s shareholders meeting in San Ramon, California.

Beyond climate change, Arjuna’s most prominent—and arguably its most successful campaign—centered on better gender pay disclosure. Last year the firm began pushing nine gender equity proposals and saw decent results–Facebook and Google remain the two companies that have yet to respond, which Lamb says has a lot to do with the fact that the companies’ founders still own a majority of voting rights.

She finds Facebook’s silence on the issue specifically frustrating. “You would expect Sheryl Sandberg, given her pro-woman rhetoric, to be a leader in this issue,” Lamb says. But that resistance is only giving the movement more steam.

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A Nationwide Trend

Investors focusing on social and environmental issues are no longer a quiet minority. Lamb says the firm introduced this year about 10 proposals for better pay data. In total, 28 were introduced by a variety of different institutional investors, she adds.

The issue has evolved from one activist firm’s pet cause into a movement with many members. About 92% of investors surveyed believed that ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) issues have “real quantifiable impacts on a company’s performance,” according to a recent survey by Bloomberg Investor Relations. In short, more firms and investors alike are pushing for corporate changes that, at least for the short term, are based on non-financial performance.

Data reflects this too. A report from the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment found that investments in the space have grown 33% between 2014 and 2016. “There’s been an explosion of interest,” says Joshua Brown, CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management. “It seems to have happened overnight.” He believes that there are a few factors at play–most importantly, wealth is shifting to a younger generation. Older millennials, he says, are now entering their peak earnings years and are looking to invest in a way the reflects their values. So now is a perfect time for firms like Arjuna to take the lead.

Brown adds that a number of other firms focus on impact in different ways. Bridgeway Capital, for example, donates 50% of its profits to charity. He’s also seen a number of asset management companies making ESG principles a big part of their investment focus. “All of these things are happening at once,” he says. “It’s a really interesting time.”

Social responsible investing, of course, is nothing new. The practice has been around for decades, and was inspired less by materialistic than moral concerns. God-fearing wealthy Americans wanted to invest only in the portfolios of companies that did good. What’s happening now goes beyond simply not investing in companies that do harmful things, but heavily advocating for change. Lamb sees Arjuna has been leading this brigade and now more investors are taking up the charge. “There’s a business case for change,” she tells me. Environmental, social, and governance-focused investing has “seen above-industry growth.” Investors are finally waking up this, she says, as it’s not just about altruism, it’s about future growth. “Investors should be thinking about where the puck is going,” Lamb says.

That may be due to the fact that activist investors—whether impact-based or not—are becoming more mainstream. Well-known personalities like Bill Ackman and Carl Icahn have shown the investing world that a single voice can gain power and shift corporate strategy. A CNBC story from last year described the ripple effects that activism was having on the investment community. “Activist voices can be a positive force in keeping companies accountable and responsive,” it wrote.

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Things are more pronounced now, with activist voices taking on issues more socially conscious than the average Icahn public letter. Arjuna’s role, while still very small, is about making this investment strategy more normalized. Lamb doesn’t see the firm’s role as revolutionary either–in fact, it’s something necessary. “It’s become an institutional-level exercise in risk management,” she says.

And for Lamb, it’s about giving her clients what they want–the ability to seek out socially and environmentally conscious portfolios. It may ruffle a few feathers now, but in a few years she thinks it’ll pay off.

“We look to press the envelope,” she says. “We tend to identify critical issues early.”

Note: An earlier version of this article said Arjuna Capital was an arm of Baldwin Brothers. While it once was, it has since become independent. We apologize for the error. 

About the author

Cale is a Brooklyn-based reporter. He writes about business, technology, leadership, and anything else that piques his interest.

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