As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Vicki L. Benjamin.
Vicki is a cofounder of Karner Blue Capital, LLC and has been its Chief Executive Officer since it commenced operations as an investment adviser in 2018. Ms. Benjamin was a partner at KPMG from September 2005 until February 2015, when she joined Calvert Investments, Inc. as its Chief Financial Officer. Since January 2017 she has served as the President of Calvert Investments, Inc. Ms. Benjamin is also an Executive Vice President of the Karner Blue Center for a Humane Economy, Inc. She received an MBA from Bentley University McCallum Graduate School of Business.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I come from a long line of animal lovers — my great grandfather rescued wildlife throughout his life despite indigent circumstances and having 13 children; my grandmother followed in his footsteps; and my kind mother had 13 stray/sick cats in her small mobile home when she passed away. One of them, a feral cat, named Mama Kitty (she was pregnant when my mother took her in) resides with me today. My mother’s death in 2016, and the subsequent sorrow, was the inspiration for Karner Blue Capital.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
My co-founder and I assumed, perhaps somewhat naively, that everyone, if given the opportunity, would want to improve the treatment of animals, and would, therefore, enthusiastically support an investment product centered around doing just that. Our goal is to provide investment products that will enable investors who care about the treatment of animals, the degradation of their habitats, and the planetary risks posed by declining biodiversity to align their investments with their values.
Unfortunately, and somewhat incredulously, we have learned that new ideas, particularly those involving money and savings, require extensive socialization and a longer pathway to investment, especially, for animal advocates, whom historically, have had the mindset that the only way to aid animals is through volunteering time and/or money.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
My experience working with the founders of Calvert Investments fundamentally changed my perception of the role of corporations in society and their responsibilities to stakeholders outside of their shareholder base.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Through investment in animal welfare and biodiversity industry leaders, and engagement with those companies that lag behind, Karner Blue Capital seeks to earn financial returns for its investors, influence the behavior of corporations and better the lives of animals globally. We believe that companies can reduce business risk and create shareholder value through the elimination of animal cruelty, seizing the opportunity to appeal to the vast and growing segment of consumers and investors who care about animals and the protection of nature.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Remain focused on your mission. It is easy to get distracted by day-to-day missteps and unforeseen events, but if you remain consistent and steadfast, you can eventually achieve your goal.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis?
The pandemic has heightened the level of insecurity and uncertainty in everyone’s life, and coupled with the veracity and frequency of news updates, has increased anxiety. Maintaining positivity, lessening fear and mitigating inconveniences, has been challenging, but necessary to ensure harmonious work and home environments.
All that said, my pets seem to have been affected most profoundly. My dogs are both Pomeranian’s, and thus, predisposed to anxiety, seeing their owner and others with our faces covered, has exacerbated this condition- one now requires medication to combat this anxiety.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The concept of values-based investing is not new, however, incorporating the treatment of animals and biodiversity into the traditional set of “values” is a less conventional approach, requiring investor education and a longer pathway to investment. The pandemic has caused tectonic shifts in the investing marketplace which, have, in turn, extended the investment runway, particularly in newer products, maybe for the foreseeable future. We have used this additional time to refocus our messaging and socializing some of the most profound animal/ ecological/human connections, including the issuance of a press release that highlights the relationship between humanity’s poor treatment of animals and the transmission of zoonotic viruses.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I, like everyone, suffered bouts of anxiety and fear. To avoid these difficult moments, I made sure that my mind was continually engaged. For instance, I made a goal of walking 12,000 steps a day and downloaded audible, so that during those walks, I could listen to books. I stacked my nightstand with hard copies of books of different genres, from Robert Frost’s “Road Less Traveled” to “The Boy from The Woods to Spillover, irrespective of cultural enrichment. I played word and number games and tried new recipes. The words I lived by were tolerance, kindness and forgiveness.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the post-COVID economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post-COVID economy?
Virtually every industry will be touched by COVID as companies are forced to develop new ways of operating in a post-COVID environment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that forward-looking CEOs are seizing this period of disruption to accelerate corporate restructuring plans that were previously scheduled to occur over many years. Interestingly, the economic disruption caused by COVID sets the stage for leaders to accelerate solutions to society’s most pressing and intractable challenge — climate change.
Limiting the planet’s average global temperature to below a 2°C rise from pre-industrial levels is essential to mitigate the risk of irreversible catastrophic planetary impacts. The oil and gas industry now has a unique opportunity to accelerate the transition to renewable fuels as the demand for oil has plummeted. The food crisis presents the agriculture and food processing industries with a golden opportunity to develop innovative planet-based products and sustainable sourcing solutions that will enable billions of people to be fed while avoiding both the conversion of forests to land for crops and concentrated animal feeding operations, which house animals in inhumane and unhealthy conditions that create the potential for antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The construction industry has an opportunity to use the slowdown and supply chain disruptions to accelerate the transition to sustainable concrete and asphalt products as well as innovative wood building technologies.
The economic shock that has occurred in almost every industry creates the possibility for the rapid development and deployment of entirely new models of doing business that reduce or avoid the planetary harm that was caused by doing business as usual under the old models. During periods of extreme economic turmoil, disruptive technologies such as those offered by Zoom, Beyond Meat, and Tesla, have an opportunity to lead our society into the future and become the new norm.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
There is ironically much overlap in the industries that promote global warming and those that facilitate the spread of pandemic diseases. For instance, those industries that extract resources from the environment, including oil and gas and metals and mining, or those like agriculture, that convert forest to land for crops or ranching, can and do disrupt biological hot zones. Concentrated animal feeding operations that produce domesticated meat products also offer a hot bed of zoonoses due to the close containment of the animals and the unhealthy living conditions of those animals (many of which are given antibiotics to stave off the possibility of a bacterial infection). The commercial transportation and leisure industries, including airlines, hotels and cruise ships, offer endless opportunities for viral spread and contagion, working as a vector of transmission and contribute significantly to the warming of the environment. This duality of this gives most of us a moment of pause, to consider the dramatic, negative, impacts our activities have on the planet, and how we can and must mitigate them. This situation offers the circumstance to encourage and demand changes to prior operating protocols and offers the widespread opportunity for rapid acceptance of alternatives. Examples, of these types of companies include ZOOM, Beyond Meat, and Tesla.
The corona virus does not discriminate in selecting its victims and, until a vaccine is available, our best response is to commit to a coordinated response where individuals work together collaboratively out of concern for their own health and the health of their fellow citizens.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the post-COVID Economy?
Karner Blue Capital intends to grow its business in the post-COVID economy by designing and managing innovative investment strategies that will focus on companies who are leaders in their industries with respect to animal welfare, biodiversity protection and environmental stewardship — thereby using the capital markets to move forward the behavior of corporations for a better tomorrow.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Recognize the inter connectivity of nature and human beings, and practice conscious consumerism- all of our actions have accountability to more than just ourselves
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Abraham Lincoln, “Folks are generally about as happy as they make-up their minds to be.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
Information regarding our investment process and strategies can be found at our website KarnerBlueCapital.com.
For more specific information on our mutual fund, interested investors can visit AnimalImpactFund.com.