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Justina Lai

justina lai

MBA 2009

Sonen Capital

your job

Briefly describe the mission of your organization and how your role contributes to it. What does a typical day look like?

Sonen Capital is an investment management firm focused on impact investments – investments that seek to generate both competitive financial returns and purposeful, measurable, positive social and/or environmental impact. We manage assets on behalf of high net worth individuals, family offices, foundations and an array of wealth managers and advisors. We invest across asset classes, geographies and sectors through pooled multi-manager vehicles and customized portfolio mandates.

I am a member of the investment team where I focus specifically on the firm’s private markets – private debt, private equity and real assets – strategies. My day is principally spent on building a pipeline of and conducting due diligence on impact investment opportunities globally as well as structuring and executing transactions. I also spend some of my time interfacing with clients and prospective investors, educating them on our products and the impact investing space as a whole. Finally, as impact investing is a relatively new industry, I spend a fair bit of my time on field building activities including industry speaking engagements and conducting informational interviews for professionals looking to move into the space.

your inspiration

What made you go into this profession? Why are you doing what you are doing?

I began my career in investment banking and direct private equity (growth equity and leveraged buyouts). I loved investing as a job function – growing businesses, thinking as an owner, understanding the macro and the micro investment contexts, etc. – but did not find the work to be particularly fulfilling. I went to Stanford in the hopes of finding a way to combine my investment mindset and skillset with something more meaningful to me.

During my time at Stanford, I discovered the world of impact investing and the ability to harness the power of capital to “do good.” I spent my summer investing in agricultural enterprises in Rwanda and found that I could apply very much the same disciplines and mindsets I had developed in traditional private equity investing toward solving very different problems in an entirely different context. I enjoyed the challenge of applying another lens beyond risk and return – the third dimension of impact – to investing. And, in fact, I found that the impact story could oftentimes be the driver of an attractive market opportunity. I loved the idea of being able to combine the discipline and rigor of conventional investing with achieving the kind of positive social and environmental impact that aligned with my personal values.

I joined Sonen Capital because I believed the firm had assembled the most experienced, accomplished and diverse team applying a disciplined and rigorous approach toward constructing investment portfolios across asset classes and impact themes at scale. In addition, I believed the firm filled a critical gap in the impact investing marketplace by providing investors with the ability to allocate to professionally-managed, well-diversified portfolios often to managers or strategies not readily available in the marketplace.

Finally, I loved the idea of playing a part in growing a nascent industry and working toward systems-level change – seeking to change the way businesses are run and the way the capital markets value (internalize) positive and negative externalities.

your advice

What recommendations do you have for current Stanford students interested in pursuing a career in a similar capacity? What skills or knowledge should they focus on at Stanford? What tips do you have regarding the job search?

For students seeking a career specifically in impact investing, I would recommend building “bridging” experiences and skillsets. Most of the firms in the space are also small and, therefore do not have the resources to provide formal training programs. As such, most firms are looking for individuals with the hard skillsets and investment experience (either in the public or the private markets) but also an understanding of – or, at a minimum, a demonstrated interest in – social and/or environmental issues.

However, beyond the investment function, there are many other functions and opportunities within the space including marketing, investor relations, macro research, network/fieldbuilding, and operations roles, amongst others.

Make use of your networks but do your research before any informational interview. First impressions are critical and you are likely to make a better impression if you have done your research, know what you want to do and why and have a specific ask.

Finally, there are several industry networks with active job boards including the Global Impact Investing Network (the GIIN) and US SIF, amongst others. It is often useful to check them on a regular basis to get a sense for the types of roles and firms working in the space.

your life vision

How do you make this unconventional career path work in your life?

I would not have chosen any other career path. Impact investing has given me the ability to have a positive impact on the world each and every day, not only through my personal activities but also through my work professionally -- to directly align my personal values with my professional endeavors.

More tangibly, after graduating from business school, I spent 3.5 years focused on impact investing and program related investments at the Rockefeller Foundation before joining Sonen Capital in January 2013. Stanford’s nonprofit/public service loan forgiveness program provided me with support for my student debt payments while working on a nonprofit salary at the Rockefeller Foundation.

 

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