Wowed at the Women on Wall Street Conference

by Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)

“We all live on a waterbed where each move we make has consequences. We always have to take things long term view when faced with short term problem. There are times when goal is to survive – but that is tactic, not a strategy. Sustainability is about long term balance and longevity.” So said Seth Waugh, CEO of Deutsche Bank, in his opening remarks to the 3000-strong women attending the Women on Wall Street (WoWS) conference on Tuesday, October 22nd at the Grand Hyatt in New York City. This year’s theme was Positioning for Sustainability: Our Work, Our Lives, Our Planet.

Mindy Lubber, President of Ceres, a coalition of investors and environmental leaders working to improve corporate environmental, social and governance practices, gave the keynote address. She emphasized the value of integrating sustainability into the corporate culture and, most importantly, establishing benchmarks to measure the actual implantation and effect. “There should be benchmarking from the board room to the copy room. Things should be studied from every level – are the goals being set and met? There needs to be metrics that are verifiable.”

She voiced her excitement about the time and place we are at now, especially in light of the current economic crisis. “When I mentioned to people that I was going to give a speech on sustainability to 3000 women from Wall Street, their response was ‘Isn’t this the worst time to possibly get together?’ To me, that couldn’t be further from right answer. We are sitting at the perfect time. This is the moment of opportunity where capital market leaders have to be open to rethinking the fundamentals of economy to reflect the true cost of doing business [including the cost of acting in a way contrary to sustainability]. We must acknowledge the risk of ‘short-termism’.”

Lubber urged immediate action. “We are, for the first time in history, about to leave the next generation a planet that can’t be sustained. We are being told that we need to reduce carbon footprint by 80% by the year 2050 to make sure next generation has future…We need to do it because it’s right and it’s about building an economy that is sustainable.” She listed several ways to achieve that, including cooperation between corporations, government, educational institutions and non-governmental organizations.

The keynote speaker also suggested putting an actual financial cost on the carbon produced by the corporation’s activities so that companies will have actual financial consequences for the carbon they’ve produced. “Carbon pollution is free now. We need to put cost on carbon (although not in a punitive way) because when something has an environmental cost there should be real [financial] cost to send the right market signals.” She suggested pricing it and building it into market models. “Carbon could be biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century.”

The main panel, modified by Vickee Jordan Adams, Senior Vice President and US Director of Media Communications of Hill & Knowlton, addressed how to achieve a more expansive concept of sustainability, ranging from the traditional economic stewardship concept to sustainability (i.e., work/life balance) in personal life.

Roelfien Kuijpers, Global Head of DB Advisors with Deutsche Asset Management, sees the importance of corporate creativity in establishing solutions to the global environmental issues. “Wall Street has always been great place for innovation, creativity, teamwork… In that setting, there is a tremendous opportunity for leadership.” She continued, “We have to incorporate sustainability in everything – we need to talk about it within strategy planning. If it becomes part of corporate DNA, it becomes part of true change.” But, as a native of Holland, whose government has long been taking sustainable measures to address the environmental impact of global warming on the low-lying country, Kuijpers acknowledged the value of government contribution as well.

Majora Carter, President of Majora Carter Group, LLC and the founder of Sustainable South Bronx, a non-profit promoting sustainability in the economically-challenged area within New York, talked of the opportunities associated with the current financial crisis. “Now is not the first time that we as country have undergone tremendously awful economic straits. And it was at those [times of economic difficulty] that some of the most amazing things have happened here.” Expanding on the concept of sustainability from one merely dealing with the environment, Carter sees this as an opportunity to create a sustainable economy from which all could benefit. “This could be the kind of economy that lifts all. There are many places in the United States where the birthrate is as bad as in many developing countries. Poverty here is not talked about here but there are communities here getting poorer and more toxic. We [have the opportunity to] alleviate poverty and environmental issues [through sustainability].”

Publisher of Body & Soul magazine, Janesse Thaw Bruce thinks consumers making connection like never before between their health and health of planet. “It’s a teachable moment.” She added, “The key component is balance – both personal and environmental balance. Work/life balance gives you the strength and tools to create further sustainability in the world.”

Dina Habib Powell, Global Head of Corporate Engagement at Goldman Sachs, discussed their 10,000 Women program as part of the sustainability discussion. On work/life balance as a part of sustainability, she shared the following words of wisdom that once got from a colleague at Goldman Sachs. “She used to get up everyday and try to be BEST employee and mom she could be but then realized that she was just kidding herself – no one on any given day is the best at both. So now she looks at it as an aggregate – if she managed to do both well –at say, a B or B+ level – she feels pretty good about it.”

And what about the rumors that funding for and interest in sustainability and other financial issues will dry up in these difficult economic times, as recently reported in The New York Times? The panelist dismissed this, agreeing that while in the short term there may be some reduction in funds, the truth is that sustainability is here to stay. Kuijpers drew a parallel to the recent financial crisis with regard to the importance of cooperation in sustainability. “Core sustainability is about interdependence. Banks cannot survive without Wall Street and Wall Street cannot survive without banks.” And we all need to co-operate towards sustainability.

Afterwards, the 3000 women in attendance gathered to network and socialize over cocktails and talked of looking forward to meeting again at next year’s gathering.