Growing up in Philadelphia, Courtney Thompson was introduced to the basic concepts of economics at a young age, thanks to her parents, who are both economics professors. “I can recall some early lessons about opportunity costs and scarce resources that have stuck with me,” Thompson says. She followed in her parents’ footsteps by studying economics at Williams College, where she chose to focus on economic development, including research projects on microfinance and inequality in emerging markets.
Graduating in 2009, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, Thompson joined an economics consultancy where she spent the bulk of her time analyzing the U.S. housing market and historical performance of mortgage-backed securities. “It was really interesting and timely work,” she says. “I learned a lot from the analytical mindset of the people I worked with, and it brought my interests in the social implications of finance full circle.”
When she started a job in strategic consulting for small businesses and foundations, Thompson was introduced to the concept of impact investing—and the idea of joining a bank. “A light bulb went off,” she says. The Morgan Stanley Sustainable Investing Fellowship while at Columbia Business School soon followed, which allowed her to work in Morgan Stanley’s Wealth Management Division. “I had a front-row seat to a growing market segment and the ways in which investments can potentially deliver positive impact alongside financial returns. To me, that was a big strategic opportunity for the firm that I found really exciting and merged my academic and career interests.”
In 2017, she brought that passion to Morgan Stanley full-time. Thompson shares her insights on The Scale of Sustainable Investing in this Morgan Stanley Minute.
Before you were hired full-time, you worked at Morgan Stanley as a Sustainable Investing Fellow. Talk a little about that.
As a Sustainable Investing Fellow, I spent the summer of 2016 working in Morgan Stanley’s Wealth Management division on the Investing With Impact Platform, which provides solutions for individual and institutional clients to achieve unique social and/or environmental impact objectives alongside their financial goals. Throughout the course of the summer, I gained exposure to a diverse set of clients, Financial Advisors and asset managers, while collaborating with colleagues across Morgan Stanley, including at the Institute for Sustainable Investing.
The fellowship not only expanded my professional network and understanding of sustainable investing decisions, but also helped to clarify my career goals. Being exposed to the many ways in which sustainability is embedded within Morgan Stanley’s business model, as well as those of other firms and investors, taught me the power of capital markets to help improve transparency and drive positive social and environmental outcomes.
The Global Sustainable Finance group is responsible for collaborating with teams across the firm to deliver market insights and solutions that help our clients invest with environmental, social and governance considerations in mind, whether that’s gender diversity or plastic waste reduction or climate solutions. No two days are the same, and I get to learn from colleagues in every line of business. Whether I am working with Financial Advisors, portfolio managers or research analysts, I think of my role as a strategic internal partner who can drive innovation, connect the dots and amplify the firm’s activities.
I would say I spend at least half of my day thinking about data. We are building tools and using data in new and creative ways to make sustainability insights more transparent for our end clients and more actionable for our investment teams. As sustainability becomes an increasingly central focus of the investment process, the need for quality data will only increase.
Since joining the firm, I have seen sustainable investing move to the forefront across all of our business segments. Interest among our clients—including individual and institutional investors—has increased exponentially. And as the industry continues to mature, we are also finding greater evidence on the financial performance of sustainable investments.
Thanks to my mom, who has researched and advocated for gender issues in the labor force, gender equality has long been a passion of mine. When my husband and I sat down to think about our investments, we decided to invest in a portfolio that tilts toward gender diversity as an investment theme. We wanted to do something meaningful with our money, but it was also important to make sure that our investment decisions aligned with our risk profile and long-term financial goals. With increasing evidence that more gender-diverse firms outperform their peers, this approach to sustainable investing is allowing us to do both.
The intersection of finance and sustainability is quickly evolving and is simultaneously impactful, analytical and strategic. I see many opportunities to keep Morgan Stanley at the forefront of solutions for our clients—including new investment products, digital tools, data analysis and thought leadership—especially with the possibilities that data can unlock.