Arlene Isaacs-Lowe: “Companies need to align their purpose with their commercial goals”

Words by Florence Robson

To mark the launch of The Conduit’s social entrepreneur breakfast series with Moody’s Corporation, we speak to Arlene Isaacs-Lowe, the organisation’s Global Head of CSR, about creating an effective and impactful CSR strategy, supporting SMEs and her advice for female and minority founders.

It seems like every business now needs to have a visible commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). In your opinion, what’s driving this trend?

The dynamics of our global political environment is causing the role of business in society to be challenged and redefined, and there’s a heightened sensitivity towards reshaping capital into a force for good. The investor community is insisting that companies focus on long-term value and mitigate perceived and real risks by acting responsibly.  That means that their business models will need to become more inclusive so that they can operate in healthy markets and provide opportunities for everyone, as well as gain access to the best talent. They also need to reduce their environmental risks – and that can have varying implications across different types of businesses.

What personally inspired you to focus on CSR?

Prior to being appointed Global Head of CSR, I led commercial operations for the ratings agency business in EMEA. In that role, I observed that our current and prospective customers were thinking about how our values aligned with theirs as they considered whether or not to engage our services. It soon became evident that this was not a fad but an evolution in Europe, which is only now starting to hit the United States. It was clear to me that we needed to consider our purpose in society, as well as our commercial goals, and align both of those with our stakeholders.

How did you design Moody’s CSR strategy?

We started by asking our employees what they thought were the most pressing social issues. We wanted to have the greatest impact that we could, and we knew that wouldn’t necessarily come just from writing a cheque. Instead, we looked at areas we could support with our products, expertise, skills of people, as well as with capital. We narrowed it down to three focus areas: economic empowerment for SMEs through our Reshape Tomorrow™ initiative; Activating a sustainable environment; and helping young people to meet their potential with a specific focus on preparing them for careers in in technology, economics or finance.  Across all of these focus areas we prioritise women and people from underserved communities with untapped potential. 

How is Moody’s supporting SMEs with the Reshape Tomorrow programme?

Data shows that small and growing businesses are the greatest contributor to job growth in both developed and emerging economies, but they also face the biggest challenge in terms of access to capital, particularly credit. At Moody’s, we have an expertise in assessing credit, as well as providing credit training for large institutions, that we can use to help SMEs to be better prepared to access capital to scale. From a business perspective, those SMEs could eventually become our customers, so we want to advance their growth as quickly as possible. Most importantly, it provides a meaningful way for our employees to share their skills and expertise in this area, and to feel that they’re really making a difference.

Why have you chosen to focus more specifically on supporting female and underrepresented founders?

This decision was an outcome of our employee feedback; they wanted us to focus on women and underrepresented groups across all three of our CSR pillars. It is not surprising, given that diversity and inclusion is embedded in the culture of Moody’s.   

We know that when women-and BAME-owned businesses thrive, they have a synergistic effect on other aspects of their communities, including health and education, especially in emerging markets What’s more, we know that capital is disproportionately distributed to businesses owned by underrepresented groups; if we can help to solve that disparity, it will have a significant impact on economies more broadly.

How do you approach designing programmes for Reshape Tomorrow?

We’re very intentional about seeking scale in our activities. We select Reshape Tomorrow partners based on that principle; we want to collaborate with organisations that will identify beneficiaries and provide programming we can support at scale, as well as helping us to engage with entrepreneurs directly. For example, we work with WEConnect to support bootcamps from women entrepreneurs in cities including Paris, Lagos and Frankfurt. At each bootcamp, our employees work with about 25 women, but we’re also launching our credit curriculum virtually via the WEConnect platform to make it available to 7,000 businesses.

Why are you partnering with The Conduit on this new breakfast series?

Reaching the Conduit’s community is a great way to achieve scale in terms of our objectives, while also providing opportunities for our London-based employees to mentor some of the social entrepreneurs in your network. We’re shaping the topics for each breakfast based on the needs of the community, as well as drawing on our research and its wider implications for both entrepreneurs and social investors.

What advice would you give to female and BAME founders and aspiring business leaders?

For a women or BAME-owned business it’s essential that you familiarise yourself with what’s available in the landscape and understand the objectives of the people who are potentially providing capital. Not all capital is good capital. You need to be explorative and discerning. It can seem daunting but, with the support of organisations like Moody’s, you can make the appropriate decision to grow your business without compromising your mission.

To learn more about partnership opportunities with The Conduit or Moody’s Reshape Tomorrow initiative, get in touch.