Written by: Florence His, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
A conversation with David O’Leary founder and principal of Kind Wealth, a financial planning firm focused on helping people take control of their money so that they can live life on their own terms.
Florence: Hello David, so glad we finally get a chance to sit down together to unpack the money and purpose paradigm we both hold close to our hearts. Say money and purpose in the same sentence and look at most people frown confused. A common perception is that these words carry opposite values that don’t belong together and cannot be reconciled in practice. But before we dig deeper into the sensitive and controversial concept of “doing well by doing good”, would you please start by introducing yourself and share some of the key moments of the journey that took you to where you are today.
David: Florence, nice to reconnect and thanks for having me.
Florence: So David, Tell us about your journey: where you grew up, went to school, previous jobs, why you took the steps you took…
David: I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada in an area filled with kids who, like myself, came from 2nd or 3rd generation European immigrant families. Separated by a generation or two from the harsh realities our grandparents and great-grandparents faced, we enjoyed privileged childhoods living in the tree-lined streets in upper-middle-class neighborhoods of suburban Toronto.
While my parents were careful to not spoil us, my brother, sister, and I had all the advantages a parent could wish their kids to have. We had to work hard but we enjoyed love, guidance, and support from two people who loved us deeply.
After an undergrad in English Literature, I went on to study business in grad school before going on to work on Bay Street in the investment management industry. By all accounts, I was enjoying a successful life and career. But my focus was entirely on myself and the people within my social bubble. I thought very little about others not in my immediate social circles; and certainly not about those with less privilege and access to opportunities as I had enjoyed. Cocooned in ignorance, I believed the fallacy that people just needed to pick themselves up the bootstraps.
I was knocked out of this complacency when I met a girl (who I was lucky would eventually agree to marry me). As a humanitarian worker who came from a long line of humanitarian workers, her influence led me to take a sabbatical from work to spend time overseas in Sierra Leone learning about microfinance and how it could help bring opportunity to marginalized communities across the globe.
The trip was an emotional roller coaster that left me, at once, angry, sad, inspired, and motivated to do something about the appalling inequality I had witnessed. I didn’t realize it then, but two years later I would move to South Africa. Four years after that, I would quit my job in the institutional investment world and move home to pursue work that I felt could make a bigger social impact.
This work included spending three years leading the impact investing division of the same INGO I had volunteered with all those years ago in Sierra Leone. It also included founding a financial advisory practice focused on helping Canadians reach their financial goals in a way that matches their values. This includes helping people think strategically about their philanthropy and impact investing. I spent evenings and weekends for several years working to get Kind Wealth off the ground.
Florence: What are you doing now: where do you work, what’s your firm’s purpose, how does it achieve its objectives, how are you measuring impact…
David: My mission is to open peoples’ minds to new ways of using money to create the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible (to paraphrase Charles Eisenstein). In practice, I split my time between running Kind Wealth, providing impact investment consulting for clients, and running an educational platform aimed at helping people get smarter about impact investing.
Kind Wealth is focused on helping Canadians take control of their money and reach their financial goals in a way that matches their values. We help clients take stock of their current financial position, uncover the values they hold most deeply, and define specific long-term goals that align with those values. Then we devise a financial plan that will take them from where they are now to where they need to be in order to reach their goals. And we partner with them throughout their life journey to ensure they arrive where they want to go. Through financial planning, we address issues like cash flow and budgeting, estate planning, insurance, retirement planning, tax planning, philanthropy, and responsible investing. I firmly believe that the more people secure that their own financial needs will be met, the more money and mental space they will have for thinking about making a positive impact on others.
My investment consulting and the educational platform I run are aimed more specifically at getting people to invest in ways that have a positive impact on the world. There are a growing number of ways investors can do this. ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) investing (aka Socially Responsible Investing) is all about investing in companies that are responsible about how they treat people and their environmental footprint. In this case, you might invest in one food producer over another (e.g. investing in Danone instead of Nestle) because one has a better track record of behaving responsibly than the other.
Impact Investing on the other hand means making investments that are not just behaving responsible while they produce typical goods and services. Instead, you’re investing in companies whose entire raison d'être is to solve some social or environmental challenge. For instance, one might invest in an early-stage business attempting to create a new technology that can extract carbon from the atmosphere at a much lower price than existing technologies.
Through my education platform, I hope people get smarter about impact investing. The education platform includes The Impact Investing Podcast, a newsletter, live group conversations, event invitations, career opportunities, and an Impact Investor Matching Tool (where investors sign up and tell me what kind of impact investments they are looking for and I help match them with opportunities that meet their criteria).
In my consulting practice, I work with a small number of high-net-worth individuals who I work with to align their investments with their values and to impact the causes that matter to them.
Florence: What are you working toward and What goals do you have…
David: I think about how and where I devote my time by placing it into one of three buckets: Awareness, Access, and Action. In order to move more capital into impact investments, we need all three of these things to happen.
Investors need to recognize that the field of impact investing exists and they must understand it. Many people still have not heard of impact investing and those who have heard of it, have a lot of misconceptions about what it is and how it is best practiced. The biggest misconception I usually hear surrounds that level of risk involved in impact investing (people often think it’s higher than it actually is). Education is the salve here.
Access is about making it easier for investors to access impact investments. Most impact investments exist in the private markets. This means that many of these investments do not trade on an exchange like the New York Stock Exchange and so they cannot be accessed easily in the places that investors normally go to buy investments. And since private market investments often have fewer disclosure requirements, regulators in many countries limit the sale of private market investments to “accredited investors” (people whom the regulators deem sophisticated enough to understand the risks involved). Unfortunately, the criteria to qualify as an “accredited investor” are often based on wealth, not knowledge. This means the vast majority of investors have a difficult time accessing these investments.
Finally, action is all about reducing the talk-action gap. Plenty of people are talking about impact investing, a much smaller number of people are actually doing it. That is partially due to the issues around education and access described above, but also may include having a lack of experience or confidence making impact investments, not enough data/information to conduct proper due diligence, or having trouble finding appropriate investments. All of my work fits into one or more of these buckets.
Florence: Thanks for sharing your story and insights with us David. How would you suggest people proceed if they want to learn more about how to make their money speak for their values…
David: For anyone wanting to make a positive impact on the world with your investments, start by talking to your financial advisor about it. Unfortunately, many financial advisors are sticking their heads in the sand on ESG and impact investing. But the industry will respond when enough clients demand these investments. Add your voice to the growing chorus of people by asking your financial advisor about ESG and impact investments.
Similarly, if you enjoy access to a pension or retirement savings plan through your employer, check to see whether you have ESG investment options available to you. If your employer offers a Defined Benefit Pension (which is increasingly rare these days), you won’t get to control how your pension assets are managed (they are instead managed by a large pension fund manager). But you can look at the reports you receive to see what investments your pension manager invests in and whether they are considering ESG factors when investing. If not, write to them and your HR department to let them know you have concerns. Again, the more people who speak up, the more the industry will respond.
If your pension is the Defined-Contribution variety (increasingly common these days) or you have a group retirement savings plan (e.g. 401k in the United States), then you get to decide how to invest your pension money. That said, you’re usually limited to a fairly small number of choices. Often times those choices do not include any ESG offerings. Again, you’ll want to speak to your HR department and/or your pension administrator (who is responsible for deciding what investment choices you have).
This kind of activism costs nothing and requires very little time and energy. It’s something all of us can do. And if we do it together, each of our small voices becomes a very large voice that can affect real change. It all starts with us, now.
Florence His, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Florence leads Business4People, an advisory, marketing, coaching, and investor relations platform she founded in Paris (FR) to support Mission-Driven Founders and Impact Investors internationally.
She serves as Director of Marketing and Head of Impact Investment at Crito Capital, a boutique Placement Agent headquartered in New York with a presence in London and focused on providing advice and capital raising services to small/mid-cap Private Fund Managers and Companies in the US, Europe, and Emerging Markets. Finally, she is also active as a Mentor and Global Partner at the Entrepreneurs Institute on their GeniusU online education platform.
Florence spent over 17 years in the investment, private equity, M&A, and risk management functional disciplines leading multi-disciplinary teams before embracing the entrepreneurial path.
She holds an undergraduate degree in organizational psychology from Yale University, an MBA from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business Administration, a Masters's degree in Sustainable Studies from the International Institute of Management in Paris, and speaks six languages.