Millennial Impact Investor Conversations #4: Leonie Kelly

Meet Leonie, one of Invest with Impact’s Co-Founders as she talks about her career in impact investing and what inspired her to transition into this exciting industry.

Name: Leonie Kelly

Nationality: Irish

Current location: London, United Kingdom

Current role: Head of Impact Investing and Innovation, Zoological Society of London

Can you share a bit more about your career before getting into impact investing?

Before transitioning into impact investing, my main experience was within financial markets having worked as a financial analyst with Citi, Ireland. I completed a joint major in Economics and Geography at Trinity College Dublin. Throughout my undergrad years I had various internships and placements ranging from Human Resources, Financial Control, to hockey coaching and volunteering in schools teaching on topics such as climate change and sustainability.

What inspired you to transition into an impact-focused career?

I began my career over eight years ago, the ‘day Lehman’s died’. This day not only triggered a cascade effect across Wall Street that would shatter consumer confidence, but it piqued my interest in the intersection between society and corporate performance. I began to question how business can reconnect company success with social progress – how can we innovate to address social and environmental market failures? I didn’t know the answers to these questions and today I’m still learning, but I wanted to strengthen my skills in this area and was fortunately offered a place at The London School of Economics to complete my MSc in Environment and Development. Corporate Responsibility, Green Finance, Climate Finance, Impact Investing and Sustainability were all hot topics throughout my master year and I quickly realised this was an industry that I would love to transition into.

How did you transition into the space?

Throughout my master year I was heavily involved in LSE’s Sustainable Futures Committee where I participated in and was exposed to industry leaders within the Sustainability and Impact Investing arena. London is a great hub for seminars, conferences and breakfast sessions on sustainable finance and impact – and I found myself meeting a lot of exciting individuals working in the space that ultimately led me to Deloitte. My first impact-focussed role was as a consultant within Deloitte’s Sustainability team. I worked with a diverse range of sectors and clients ranging from financial services, to consumer business to energy and resources to charities, working principally across impact investing and sustainability advisory projects. During this time I got the opportunity to complete a fantastic secondment at the Prince’s Trust – this gave me the opportunity to apply my consulting skills in-house, but also enabled me to learn new skills around impact bonds, payment by results modelling and developing economic assessment methodologies to measure impact. I quickly realised that I wanted to move in-house and work with an organisation looking to innovate within the impact investing industry – I was afforded this opportunity at the Zoological Society of London.

What is your role today?

At ZSL I am focussed on exploring innovative conservation funding mechanisms to direct conscious capital to help save species on the edge of extinction. The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is an international scientific, conservation and educational charity whose mission is to promote and achieve the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats.

Our mission is realised through our ground breaking science, our active conservation projects in more than 50 countries and our two Zoos, ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.

What have you enjoyed most about this career path?

For me the most enjoyable aspect has been seeing the industry grow and take shape. It’s exciting to see new innovative forms of financing mechanisms being launched constantly, more and more investors are looking for impact evaluation customised to the social, economic and environmental issues they care most about, larger institutional investors are exploring impact investment opportunities and government are laying the foundations for positive growth by supporting the impact market. The impact market is constantly evolving, we are still testing ideas and exploring new opportunities – this for me makes it most enjoyable. You must think on your feet.

What have been the biggest challenges?

Impact investing presents a huge opportunity to harness the power of capital markets to solve social and environmental challenges. One of the biggest challenges is that we have no common language and there is a lack of shared frameworks – this ultimately contributes to confusion and uncertainty in the industry.
What advice would you give someone trying to transition into the space?

Having the financial know-how is a must in impact investing, being able to ‘speak the language’ is vital. Your financial knowledge must be balanced with a good understanding of social and environmental challenges, and it’s important to have showcased a desire and passion to support a cause you believe in. Invest in your own career, network, strengthen your skills, go beyond the day to day tasks of your job and get involved in your organisations innovation, CSR or corporate citizenship teams. Remember technical skills can be taught, but passion is the key to success.

What are your hopes for the future of the sector?

Two of the most critical challenges and barriers to growth within the impact investing industry is a ‘lack of appropriate capital across the risk/return spectrum’ and a ‘lack of high-quality investment opportunities with track record’ – I hope we can begin to overcome these challenges by seeing more seed, early-, venture-stage capital becoming available.

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