Katherine Brown: Practice Lead at the World Economic Forum

As practice lead for investors industries at the World Economic Forum, Katherine Brown plays a critical role in furthering impact investing—an investment approach which creates both financial returns and positive impact that is actively measured. Blending business finance with a social mission, Katherine and her team seek to advance impact investment and its positive effect on communities and people around the world.

With a world full of global issues to tackle and a growing number of investors interested in funding social enterprises, Katherine’s days are challenging, yet rewarding. “I can safely say that, in the three years that I have been at the Forum, I have never managed to get bored,” she says. We definitely don’t question that.

So how does one woman stay on top of so many world issues? Katherine says email alerts, changing technology and a “good old phone” are crucial to making it all happen.

What was your first job out of college?

I moved to New York City straight after undergrad, and as an art history and Italian major needed to get creative on the job front. I had just done an internship at Christie’s Auction House, but rather than go this route I decided to enter the culinary world instead (seemed more exciting at the time) and worked for Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich at their downtown pizzeria, OTTO. I was a hostess and a “coat check” girl for a few months, doing events with them as well, until I left to join a small lifestyle event marketing company. Everyone has to start somewhere!

(As a funny side note, I would frequently read investing books in the coat check at OTTO. I was constantly mocked by male customers for doing so, but this made me even more interested in learning about the field, and of course, more stubborn!)

How did your previous roles prepare you for this position in Impact Investing?

It took many years for investing to formally weave into my career, as my initial project after the event marketing company was in running my own small event business and drafting a business plan for a social enterprise. It was at London Business School where again finance and investing regained my interest, but at the time impact investing was extremely early stage and difficult to target.

I left my entrepreneurial venture and business school having picked up an ability to operate within a very diverse and demanding group of stakeholders and the capacity to turn ambiguity into an action plan. Joining the World Economic Forum provided an ideal proving ground while satisfying a need to blend business with a social mission. Managing the European community of the Young Global Leaders and leading their environmental and sustainability projects brought in the extreme ramp-up of people and project management, as well as the need to rapidly connect dots to create a coherent narrative. Impact investing was again one narrative that I worked on extensively in those years, and that stood out from the rest.

Following an impact-focused module with my cohort of Global Leadership Fellows, I formally took the lead on the Forum’s Mainstreaming Sustainable and Impact Initiative. I can tell you that there is not one skill listed here that hasn’t served me well in my career, along with a good dose of grit and determination.

How do you organize your day, and what are your primary areas of focus?

It’s phenomenally easy to get lost in emails right out of the gate, so I try to start my day by either reading or listening to global news, and I specifically focus on what is happening in the ever-changing space of impact investing. Every day brings new developments, and my role requires that I know who is getting involved and how. Then it’s off to the races–meetings with traditional investors, impact investors, social entrepreneurs and internal colleagues to strategize the best ways the leverage the capabilities of this network to mainstream this new field. The aim of the initiative is to unlock institutional capital to be deployed where it is needed most, as well as foster more scalable social enterprises to satisfy investor demand.

There is a heavy design element to my role as many of our engagements are in-person meetings with high-level decision-makers and the content of those meetings are what can make or break progress. When dealing with social investment issues like closing the global infrastructure financing gap or the role of business in mitigating long-term migration flows, you want to get it right. None of this can be done in a day, of course, but every day is a step forward if all goes well.

What are your favorite daily, go-to resources – or apps?

I have a ton of email alerts set at the moment, so I wake up to links announcing the daily updates from Google, the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), Reuters and more. The Forum even has a Weekly Agenda newsletter that I love to follow, especially as I can usually walk over to a colleague in the office to find out more about an interesting piece they wrote.

It’s a struggle to keep up with it all sometimes, but this is an exciting field and it comes with the territory. Technology has certainly enabled us to stay on the pulse! For me, this also includes a good old phone. When a story breaks or I need clarity on a new fund or mechanism, a “go-to resource” is often just a call away.

What are your favorite aspects of the work you do at the World Economic Forum?

I can safely say that, in the three years that I have been at the Forum, I have never managed to get bored. The learning curve is quite steep when it comes to global challenges, and the Forum functions in a whirlwind of change that reflects the world we live in. The Forum has a significant advantage in convening the world’s top leaders from business, government and civil society, and the need for multi-stakeholder dialogue is very real, and very palpable. Nobody else can do it at this scale.

To boot, I have incredible colleagues that take it all in stride. These are some of the most intelligent and mission-driven people I have ever worked with, and they both raise the bar and keep me motivated to drive towards a real impact. Some days it’s manic, other days you just have to laugh and take a deep breath. All the while, they’re digging in their heels and getting it done with a smile. In my experience, who you spend your days with makes the biggest difference in your job.

What types of challenges keep your mind running at night?

With a vantage point like the Forum, take your pick! Our work covers many global issues, such as climate change, economic inequality, resource scarcity, data security, gender disparity, mass migration and long-term risk in many forms. In fact, these are all topics that impact investing touches upon and aims to solve for. There are many brave people in the world working on innovative solutions, and investors looking to be a part of these solutions. Yet we still have a long, long way to go to see the needed change in the way business is done today to mitigate these issues. If you ask me what keeps my mind running in earnest, it’s the time in which we have to see that change come about before we’re past the point of intervention. As scary as that sounds, it’s one heck of a motivator to do my job well.

As an influential woman yourself, what tips do you have for fellow women to influence others—whether it be internal colleagues or external customers?

I have to tip my hat to other influential women on this one. I’ve observed and learned from them through the years that the best way to bring people with you on a journey is to fundamentally understand their interests, to gain respect by doing your job and doing it well, to be humble, to be nimble and to live your values.

The best way to bring people with you on a journey is to fundamentally understand their interests.

What is a career accomplishment you’re proud of?

There are two specific days on my professional career that stand out as game-changers. The first was when I received my acceptance letter to London Business School, and the second was when the World Economic Forum called me to make an offer. Both times I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest with excitement, and both came after a long period of intense work and perseverance. I wasn’t a shoo-in for either, and so I had to really believe in myself and buckle down to prove that I was the right candidate. Hindsight has made me a believer that indeed the best things don’t come easy, and that having a plan and really going for it can be very rewarding.

What do you want our readers to know about the work you do?

To say that we live in a complex system with a myriad of underlying agendas is an understatement. Understanding how each of those underlying agendas play on one another, not to mention how they can be aligned to drive positive impact, is essentially the job that my colleagues and I are trying to do every day. It is an intricate exercise in researching, shaping, trust building, collaborating, and all the while never being center stage. All of this is usually done from the sidelines, which takes a lot of faith that what you do is truly moving the needle. I’ve seen amazing examples of what can be accomplished when inspired and empowered people come together, which actually makes me quite optimistic. I’m privileged to be sitting where I do with the potential to have impact.

Finally, what advice do you have for our readers who want your job?

Go for it! It’s a fantastic time to get involved because momentum is building in the field and will continue as such. You can be an impact pioneer working as a capital provider with a big institution or small fund, or as social enterprise or even at an intermediary (like the Forum). Just find the path that creates the ideal narrative for your mission and values, and if that takes you to my job then I would be delighted!

Like This? Listen To Our Podcast Interview With Katherine Brown.