Following "a life changing experience" at Oxford University, Giles Gunesekera was inspired to put his learnings to good use and create Global Impact Initiative (GII) , a program that brings much needed capital from the corporate sector into the non-profit space - a "beautiful intersection" of his worlds. Giles tells Industry Moves about some of his passion projects at GII, including an impact fund set up to support the empowerment of girls and women, and names the amazing people, in and out of the industry, that have influenced his life and career.
Q&A with Giles Gunesekera
What lead you to found Global Impact Initiative (GII) in 2015?
I was fortunate to be selected to attend Oxford University in 2013 which turned out to be a life changing experience. My class had thirty-five people, twenty-six nationalities and twenty different industries represented by an age demographic of 35-65 years of age. I experienced the benefits true diversification brings! This experience reinforced to me the power of seeking alternative ways to think about issues and provided an enhanced framework to solve problems.
GII seeks to use idle investment capital sitting in retail and institutional saving accounts to solve social problems. The framework we use is the United Nations Sustainable development goals (SDGs) which range from: equality, poverty, employment, healthcare, clean energy, sustainability, agriculture and technology. GII works to create bespoke Impact Investments; seeking both a positive financial return and a positive social impact. We work with Sovereign wealth funds, central banks, insurance companies, corporations, pension plans, endowments, foundations, family offices, private banks and retail investors to create investment solutions in partnership with some of the world’s most successful investment managers.
You’ve described impact investing as a “beautiful intersection” of your worlds, both personally and professionally. Can you expand on this?
After many years of working in the corporate sector and volunteering in the non-profit sector, I came to the realisation that I needed to combine the great ideas that exist in the non-profit sector with the capital that exists in the corporate sector. I know through experience that the business and the social sector can co-exist and impact investing was the avenue for me to fulfil these ambitions.
Can you tell us more about your women and girls empowerment impact fund that you’re working on? You’ve said that this is the world’s first actively managed impact investing strategy focused on Women and Girls. What was the decision-making process behind this structure?
It is the right of the oppressed to speak up and it is the duty of those witnessing to speak out. As a son, father and husband, I have had amazing female role models in my life. I have been frustrated about how poorly society, and especially the business community, treats the female population and this strategy aims to address some of the inequity. Women and girls need to have equitable rights of opportunity because it produces benefits across societies and economies. The strategy will be liquid and have investments in both developed and emerging markets. The strategy has been designed to have the look and feel of a globally diversified, equities product.
How are the funds used to make a difference for girls and women?
Investment in women and girls carries with it the potential for maximum impact – both financially and socially. The strategy we have developed has dual purposes. It will invest in companies and enterprises that enhance and empower the careers of women and educate girls. Our mandate to invest in girls is deliberately broad and will incorporate health, water, sanitation and education. The increasing financial empowerment of women as investors and consumers will be matched by an empowerment of women as managers, executives, entrepreneurs, allocators and deployers of resources.
What do you feel are some of the issues that need addressing so that impact investing can become a mainstream option for both institutional and retail investors?
Investment capital is being used in a sub-optimal way. There are billions of dollars sitting idly in investment and retirement accounts that are not being invested in line with the values of the investor. We can use this "idle" investment capital to solve social problems now. The way to mainstream this asset class will be to ensure the money is managed professionally, generates a positive return and with observable social impact. Scale can be achieved by using listed, liquid options in combination with direct investments and united with robust impact measurement and reporting. Large scale solutions that we are developing at GII will allow impact investing to be done at the scale necessary to effect positive change by engaging greater sums of capital.
"It is the right of the oppressed to speak up and it is the duty of those witnessing to speak out."
Can you tell us about your partnership with World Wide Generation and the Affordable housing project?
This is an innovative impact investing strategy in affordable housing with the holistic delivery of all seventeen of the UN SDGs. The project engages governments, businesses and civil society and will be a model that we will roll out across the Asia Pacific and Africa. The first project will be launched in India later this year.
Women and Girls and Affordable Housing are just some of the many projects that you’re working on. Can you tell us about some of the other projects?
We are also building Impact investing strategies for a variety of clients that focus on Indigenous Australians, Environment, The Arts and Education. All the strategies have been formulated by using the UN SDGs as a base and are focused on improving the infrastructure of these industries with strong bonds to social impact measurements and reporting.
What is the process behind monitoring the social benefits of specific impact investments?
I work with my clients to ascertain the social impact they want to create. We then work with external firms that specialise in impact measurement to ensure it can be measured and reported on.
You’ve recently received an ‘Outstanding Alumnus’ award from Oxford for translating your Oxford learnings into a sustainable business with a high social impact. How does it feel to be recognised for your efforts in this area?
This was a truly humbling experience. Oxford has an 800 year track record of excellence in education, so their acknowledgement of me as a leader who has translated learning into a business with high social impact is the highlight of my career to date.
What excites you the most about your career?
There continues to be global interest and activity in impact investment as business, governments and communities seek new solutions to enable an inclusive and sustainable society in the face of social and environmental challenges. I am excited that I can deploy my skills, experiences and values into an innovative, growing and exciting market that is impact investing. I continue to witness a more engaged corporate sector keen to do more for the community and their employees in tackling social issues and love playing a role in helping them achieve their objectives.
Who has had the biggest influence on your life/career so far?
I learnt at a young age, through the example of my Mum, that every human being deserves to be treated with respect, dignity and humility. My Dad, a distinguished Doctor and educator, also exemplifies the trait of caring for others. My parents also showed me the importance of love and family and in 1997 I was fortunate enough to marry my childhood sweetheart, Suzanne Pereira. She is an amazing, strong, intelligent, gorgeous woman who, along with my two wonderful children Willis and Isabella, give me reason to attack life.
I have been very fortunate to have some amazing mentors and leaders to learn from – Professor Amin Rajan, Professor Lalit Johri and Graham Rich. They have been incredible friends and supporters. One of my greatest leaders was Damien Frawley (now CEO of QIC) who worked with people’s strengths to extract maximum benefit for the team and organisation. He created a harmonious, positive and results orientated environment in which every player knew their role and the position they needed to play. A true, inspirational leader.
"I learnt at a young age, through the example of my Mum, that every human being deserves to be treated with respect, dignity and humility."
Can you tell us about the journey that lead you to join Amnesty International as a volunteer in 1990?
The challenges that have positively shaped my life is that of living with bullying and racism as a child. The bullying thankfully dissipated over time but did resurface in corporate life. The overt racism also dissipated but sadly in a world that is becoming less tolerant of diversity expresses itself in many different forms. The learnings from this experience have helped me to be resilient and to embrace diverse views and opinions. My belief that every human being has rights led to me joining Amnesty International in 1990. I made a conscious decision that I want to do community service alongside developing my business career which has led me to being involved as a Volunteer and Director of many not for profit enterprises ranging from Human Rights, Disabilities, Arts and Sport.
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
I was born in Christchurch, New Zealand and we moved to Melbourne when I was two. My childhood was spent on the Mornington Peninsula and I attended Haileybury College in Keysborough. Childhood was full of sport, music, flying and an amazing family full of loving aunties, uncles and cousins who remain, to this day, my best friends! I completed tertiary studies at Monash and Melbourne Universities before moving to Sydney in 1998.
What was your very first job?
My first professional job was working at Colonial on the demutualisation project. It was a fantastic role as I had to track down policy holders and tell them they were about to receive thousands of dollars of free shares as Colonial was being listed.
What’s something that most people wouldn’t know about you? I flew a glider solo at the age of 14 and an aircraft solo at the age of 16….all before I could get behind the wheel of a car!
To find out more about Global Impact Initiative and their projects you can visit their website: www.globalimpactinitiative.com.au.