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Alumni stories: Elsabé Schimmelpennick van der Oye and Duncan Lee talk about sustainability

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Two paths, one destination: meet alumni Duncan Lee and Elsabé Schimmelpenninck van der Oye who are each working in their own way to make a difference to the environment.
man and woman smiling

Duncan Lee got a little more than he bargained for when he headed to Hong Kong from London in 2007 to “experience life in a new place”.

However, 14 years and a couple of financial and political crises later, he’s still there; enthusiastically so in his current role as director of Investment Environmental, Social & Governance, Group Investment for AIA, the largest independent publicly listed Pan-Asian insurance group.

“ESG and sustainability are increasingly important for all responsible companies as they realise their stakeholders extend beyond the shareholders and to the communities they serve, and I find it interesting,” he says.

“There’s a lot to do to raise awareness and further the sustainability agenda, for example, through policy and regulatory enhancements, but ‘so far, it’s been a blast’.”

Duncan Lee

Duncan qualified at A&O in 1999 and was a senior associate in Derivatives and Structured Finance (DSF) until 2004 when he went in-house at Bank of America in Canary Wharf. Three years later, he “got an itch” for change and joined Barclays Capital in Hong Kong, which was looking for someone with a legal background for its investment banking business.

“I was curious to see what life was like on the front office side,” he says.

That was in 2007 – a year before the global financial crash, which had implications for the business deals he had worked on. His “escape route” was an internal opportunity at Barclays that took him back into the more familiar structured products and derivatives.

In 2015, Duncan and his fiancée (and now wife), Iris, took a year out to travel, refresh and recharge their batteries. Getting back into the job market was anything but straightforward.

He eventually went to AIA Group as a contractor to provide investment legal advisory and transactional support. Upon being made permanent in 2017, he became involved in ESG on the investment side, and soon found himself running the programme, alongside his other work.

It opened up a different range of possibilities. “For a start, it meant working closely with the Group Chief Investment Officer who was passionate about ESG and very much led from the front. My personal profile increased within the firm, working with colleagues from other areas and other members of the Group Executive Committee.”

But it was a juggling act to keep up with his investment legal responsibilities. So, toward the end of 2019, with ESG too becoming a core focus area for AIA, Duncan opted to lead investment ESG efforts full time.

“ESG permeates Group Office’s thinking at AIA,” says Duncan. “Stakeholders expect it, the President and Group CEO will frequently speak on ESG matters and AIA’s achievements, as demonstrable proof that the firm is serious about ESG and following through on its commitments published in documents such as the new Group ESG Strategy launched in March 2021.

“Further embedding ESG within the Investment function has sometimes been challenging,” he says. “However, everyone recognises the overall direction of travel.

“At AIA, we believe in ESG as part of our corporate purpose to enable our customers to ‘live Healthier, Longer, Better Lives’, and are keen to demonstrate to our stakeholders that we can do it well and create even more value in the communities we serve.

“We want to achieve so much in relatively little time. We’ve been patiently implementing change based on alignment and consensus – but ultimately there has to be demonstrable
progress or you start asking yourself challenging questions as to intent, and our investors will certainly demand it.”

There are “implications”, says Duncan, in decisions such as exiting from coal mining and coal-fired power generation in direct managed investments, which the group announced in March 2021.

ESG and sustainability are increasingly important for all responsible companies as they realise their stakeholders extend beyond the shareholders and to the communities they serve.

Duncan Lee

“As Asia is still developing, some countries will burn more coal in industry and power plants. This may mean, without exception, we cannot invest in their national electricity generation companies if they use coal. However, when they transition to renewable power, we can invest or reinvest.”

“We’re not an impact investor; integrated ESG risk management, the desire to drive sustainable behaviour and generate sustainable long-term financial outcomes shape the way we invest, but we are mindful of the impact our investments have.”

Even with group-level standards within its investment governance framework, occasionally it’s a challenge to “think about certain things differently”, he says. “Portfolio managers, for example – are they constantly thinking about all the right ESG issues as they make investment decisions?”

“Mindsets need to evolve, with persuasion, influence and constant communication. That’s why top-down messaging is so important. And luckily, at AIA, we have this.”

Other aspects of ESG work, including regulatory consultations, investor communications, research into ESG in companies and scoring, are being introduced into the governance framework. “Strategic decisions have to be implemented through AIA’s group-level machinery accompanied by communication, advocacy and influence; the mentality and discipline you learn as a lawyer is a benefit in this context, and I’m grateful for my A&O experience and having worked with great people across the firm.”

Duncan’s A&O years remain a career highlight. Among his alumni contacts are Roger Lui, Yvonne Siew, Matt Hebburn, Simon Sinha and Marcus Norton, a member of Duncan’s 1997 intake at A&O “who showed great foresight and embarked early on a career path in sustainability, and is now a senior executive at one of the leading environmental non-profit organisations in London.”

For his part, Duncan sees no reason at present to consider another move. Hong Kong’s vibrant, cosmopolitan society has lost none of its fascination and interest for him. It’s easier to travel around than London, thanks to its public transport system, and the diverse nationalities and interests among its population are reflected in the cuisine of an active restaurant scene. For its size, Hong Kong provides keen hikers like Duncan and Iris, who is an asset manager for a property development company, plenty of options; in normal times, they take advantage of its position as one of Asia’s key travel hubs to travel overseas.

“I came to Hong Kong to experience life in Asia and make a living. For me, we still have that, and I am very lucky and happy.”

...ultimately there has to be demonstrable progress or you start asking yourself challenging questions as to intent, and our investors will certainly demand it.

Duncan Lee

Storytelling is a vital communication tool – just ask A&O alumna Elsabé Schimmelpenninck van der Oye. She’ll tell you it’s what connects dreams with reality in the world of conservation, biodiversity and sustainability.

“I would love to be that connector,” she says. “People remember the story long after they’ve forgotten the figures.”

A former Banking associate in the Amsterdam office, Elsabé became part of that world when she joined Lookfar Conservation in 2021 as Director of Sustainability Strategies. She’s working on strategy to connect data, finance and storytelling.

She says: “Coming from the business world, it feels like a gift just to be allowed into the conversation.”

Elsabé Schimmelpenninck van der Oye

Her own story is one of discoveries made and opportunities taken. She unexpectedly discovered, during a two month internship with A&O in 2004, that she loved law and especially the Banking practice, and stayed eight years.

Opportunities took her to Paris in 2012 where she worked for ING Bank and then, four years later, to Chicago.

She and her family settled in the suburban village of Glencoe. She became involved in politics through the local Sustainability Task Force, first as a member and then as its head at the request of the Village President. It was a baptism by fire.

People remember the story long after they’ve forgotten the figures.

Elsabé Schimmelpenninck van der Oye

“I’d always been subconsciously aware of the various topics,” she says. “Growing up in the Netherlands, this knowledge is built into us with things like the emphasis on cycling, the waterways and land reclamation.”

It’s knowledge based on feeling, not study, and the prospect of promoting awareness among Illinois business people drove her “back to the books”. She enrolled at Harvard Business School for an online course on sustainable business strategy. “That gave me guidance. Sustainability is my passion but I want to approach it in a structured way.”

Then Covid-19 and another unexpected move “threw us a curve ball”. Her husband, Pieter Drost, accepted a transfer back to Paris – just as Chicago went into lockdown.

“Imagine selling your house and moving in the midst of the pandemic, with two young children, everybody working from home – and a new puppy. It was interesting.”

Her move to Paris coincided with the expansion of Lookfar Conservation, whose founder, Scott Stone, she had met in Glencoe, and she became one of four directors – all ex-lawyers.

Lookfar describes its mission as defending wild and wondrous places and working with the people living in and among them. It helps mostly small, front line conservation groups in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa with biodiversity conservation, ecological restoration, and regenerative agriculture projects, focusing on project design and fundraising, data technologies, sustainable business models, and storytelling.

“We focus on what we can do and on what is working,” says Elsabé. Her experience in banking and financial law might seem a world apart but it “enabled me to do what I do now. Hopefully those worlds are merging.”

She credits A&O – “such a wonderful school” – with teaching her the skills she now brings to the table, including how to talk to and connect with people of vastly different experience, and the ‘can do’ approach.

From her new perspective, she is astonished by the gap between the not-for-profit (NFP) and business worlds. This is regrettable because they need each other. NFPs, though minnows in financial terms, have a big impact.

Resources resulting from their work underpin commercial efforts.

However, people immersed in fieldwork can find it daunting to engage in the boardroom where discussions might touch on financial return on investment (ROI), for example, which is alien to their ambitions.

“I see it as a personal mission in a sense to try to connect these two where I can,” says Elsabé. “I want to empower NFPs at least to have access to knowledge of finance.

“People need to have the confidence to talk to each other.”

The pandemic, she says, has shown not just how easily technology can connect people but how unevenly distributed it is. People in many countries continue to do everything by hand, carrying a clipboard into the field – the starting point for a project called Clipboard to Cloud that Lookfar is working on with one of its partners, Fair Trade Certified.

“Briefly, we want to unleash the power of technology to connect producers to consumers and to create more transparency in supply chains,” says Elsabé. Giving farmers a mobile device to upload crop details to the cloud, via an app, saves a tremendous amount of time. “Farmers can scale up and are directly linked to each other, brands and consumers. So Clipboard to Cloud will be enabling a better, fairer future.”

I want to empower NFPs at least to have access to knowledge of finance.

Elsabé Schimmelpenninck van der Oye

Two other projects involve GPS mapping. One, being developed in Ecuador in partnership with Fundación Jocotoco and Third Millennium Alliance, will help farmers transition to sustainable land use and regenerative agricultural practices and to measure the amount of carbon the trees on their land are capturing, opening up the possibility of selling carbon credits to those needing to offset emissions.

The other, a project called Restor launched by Crowther Lab at ETH Zürich, aims to record and connect ecorestoration work around the world by creating a Google Maps for restoration efforts.

Elsabé says: “Much restoration work is local and those involved don’t know about other projects, even nearby, who they could share knowledge with. Restor is another creative use of technology and data.”

Attending A&O’s virtual spring conference on ESG was like “coming home” and meeting like-minded people who have “taken different paths but evolved the same way”.

“It is my impression that A&O is taking sustainability seriously. It isn’t a separate pillar but something to be integrated into every part of society and by introducing the topic into deals, A&O is doing exactly that.

“The power that big firms like A&O have to change the mindset and create awareness with clients is wonderful.

“Like Matthew Townsend said at that A&O conference, it’s good that more people are now joining the conversation.

“It all starts with speaking to each other, connecting – getting a better understanding of what each party is doing. The transition has started and if we keep on connecting, I believe everything is possible.”

Reconnect with Duncan Lee and Elsabé Schimmelpenninck van der Oye.

Duncan Lee

Director, Investment ESG, Governance & Legal, Group Investment at AIA

A&O: 1997-2004

Elsabé Schimmelpenninck van der Oye

Director of Sustainability Strategies at Lookfar Conservation

A&O: 2005-2012

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