Lily Trager explores the career defining moment that landed her the role of Director of Investing with Impact at Morgan Stanley and shares her advice to follow your passion.
A Defining Madagascar Moment
Lily Trager’s transformational study abroad program set her career path toward Impact Investing.
Most defining career moments happen when we are just outside of our comfort zone. Lily Trager’s happened when she was halfway around the globe on the island of Madagascar far away from familiar faces, language and culture.
As a student of Bates College, Trager, now Morgan Stanley’s Managing Director, Head of Investing with Impact for Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, was studying anthropology in Madagascar. There, she met several women entrepreneurs who “had essentially no access to capital and little, if any, formal education but had managed to start their own businesses,” she recalls. One started with a single room for rent, expanded with multiple guest houses for tourists, was able to send her son to private school, and eventually became committed to civic work as a local politician. “With ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit, she completely transformed her life,” says Trager. “I saw how business success could transform the future of one family and wanted to help more people to achieve this.”
An only child, Trager was born in Montana, raised in Oregon by a single mother and had a “very adventurous upbringing.” Growing up, Trager loved being outside, was an athlete as well as a clarinetist who toured all over Europe with an Oregon state-level band during high school. This active, engaged and outdoorsy lifestyle is what led her to college in Maine, where there was good skiing, and the study of anthropology seemed like a perfect fit.
But from that transformational moment studying in Madagascar, Trager knew “anthropology was not right for me” and that she wanted to “explore the intersection of business and doing good in the world—for your family, your community and globally.” That’s when she devoted herself to Investing with Impact, which she describes as “helping to connect investors to opportunities that generate financial returns as well as positive environmental and social impact.”
After graduation in 2006, she joined a mainstream investment consultancy, where she was able to learn the foundational tenets of investing, portfolio management and manager due diligence before joining an independent wealth management firm focused exclusively on sustainable and impact investing. In 2009, while continuing to work, she started attending Bainbridge Graduate Institute, now Presidio Graduate School, a values-driven business school that integrates systems thinking, social justice and environmental responsibility into every aspect of the curriculum. She earned an MBA in Sustainable Business.
Observing many of her peers attend more well-known or name brand business schools, Trager feels grateful that she veered from the expected. “I always found myself working alongside my mentors and peers to carve my own path,” she says. For example, in 2012, with two of her best friends and industry colleagues, she co-founded WISE—Women Investing for a Sustainable Economy—a community of women contributing to the global growth of the environmental, social and governance investment industry. “What started as monthly meetings in our often-cramped NYC living rooms has grown to more than 1,000 members across eight chapters globally,” says Trager.
Then in 2014, she had another opportunity to co-create a new role when she came to Morgan Stanley. Today, by leading Wealth Management’s Investing with Impact Platform in coordination with the firm’s broad sustainable finance efforts, Trager works closely with advisors, consultants and their clients to generate positive environmental and social impact through high-performing investment products. She is “constantly thinking of ways to connect our clients to new and innovative investment solutions that address the greatest sustainability challenges of our time such as climate change, inequality, diversity and inclusion.”
Many of Trager’s heroes and heroines are pioneers who have been actively engaged in sustainable and impact investing for many decades. Trager started working in the industry “before the term impact investing was coined in 2007,” she explains. “In many ways, my career growth parallels the broader industry, from a niche investment sub-sector to more of a core investment process and a way that the financial services industry delivers value to clients.”
When asked about trends on her radar, Trager points to “impact reporting—how we represent the non-financial performance, the environmental and social impact, the actual difference we're making in terms of improving people's lives and protecting the environment,” she says. “We’re seeing the demand for and an acceleration in the availability of quality data to help catalyze innovation.”
Having been named to Morgan Stanley MAKERS, Trager says: “I feel so honored to be part of a practice of identifying and celebrating women of accomplishment,” she says. “My fellow MAKERS’ trials and triumphs are absolutely inspiring. It’s about the contributions to the world made not only on the clock but outside of the office as well.”
Trager offers a few keys to success that she identified early on and continue to serve her well: “Follow your passion, find the right mentors and role models, and don’t be afraid to do the unexpected.”
A millennial herself, Trager recognizes that this investor segment has a strong interest in not only sustainable investing, but also in working for purpose-driven companies in values-aligned roles that contribute to the greater good. Looking ahead, she sees the broader effects of impact investing as a “very powerful” driver of ultimate change: “To me, sustainable and impact investing is one of the biggest advantages that Morgan Stanley has and what keeps me so excited to come to the office every day,” still thinking often about those women in Madagascar, true MAKERS in Lily’s eyes.