November 1, 2012

Letter to the Editor: The Path Toward Sustainability

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To the Editor:

Re: “Student Organization Urges Cornell to Divest Endowment From Fossil Fuels,” Oct. 26

I refer to your story published Oct. 26 on a student organization urging Cornell to reinvest 30 percent of its endowed funds previously invested in traditional energy to sustainable companies and renewable energy.Given the visibility of our multi-billion dollar endowment (and hence the leadership role it could play), a resolution from the Student Assembly for the trustees to effect such a change would represent an important first step on the path toward greater sustainability. I am delighted that Cornell students care about sustainability and are beginning to hold our alma mater accountable for its decisions. In addition, Cornell also needs to sign the United Nations Principles of Responsible Investing because how our endowment invests its money needs to be consistent with the University’s mission.Much has been written about our New York Tech Campus that is supposed to be a beacon of sustainability to showcase how applied science and engineering would lead changes to create a better world. An important element of sustainability that must not be overlooked is the role of capital, and impact investing seeks to explore what this role should be.For impact investing to work, however, a mindset change is required. People must begin to move away from the traditional bifurcated world where one seeks to either maximize financial returns or social and / or environmental impact, depending, for example, on whether one is an investment manager or a grant officer. Universities have a crucial role to play to shift this mindset and Cornell, with our vast resources and ability to offer multi-functional interdisciplinary studies, is particularly well suited for this task of retraining our young people.Three years ago I embarked on a new career in impact investing after spending more than 25 years in finance and investment banking. My decision was driven by the belief that financial professionals need to better understand the social and environmental impact of their actions and social sector professionals, including those in the nonprofit world, need to learn the discipline of financial sustainability.It was for this reason that I visited Ithaca last week — to speak with a number of faculty members to explore starting a new program that promotes impact investing including the possibility of creating a new student run social venture fund to provide hands-on experience for students (both undergraduate and graduate) to work with local social entrepreneurs, as well as the global Cornell community, to design sustainable and scalable solutions to our world’s most pressing social and environmental problems.With the University wide business minor initiative that has just been launched, the time is ripe to open a dialogue on what exactly a modern business education should include. If we merely succeed in teaching finance and accounting to a few more graduates, then surely it would be an opportunity lost.

P. Ming Wong ’86, M.B.A. ’89