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Changing Companies Can Change Everything

MEMBER STORY: LORENE AREY

Lorene Arey

Forward Global Member since 2019

PHILANTHROPIC FOCUS
Gender equality and sustainable markets

HOW IT STARTED
Microfinance in developing nations

HOW IT’S GOING
Looking deeply at economic systems to create better outcomes for people and the planet. Moving greater resources through an equity and justice lens

What does philanthropy mean to you?

Working in service of others. Growing up in Mexico I saw a lot of poverty, and I didn’t understand why my family had a nice house while kids down the street lived in one-room adobe houses with ten other people. When my mother explained that they were poor, I didn’t think that was right; it just wasn’t fair. Even at five or six, I vowed to do something about it when I grew up. I always knew I would work in service of others, and I decided to focus on issues around poverty because of what I witnessed as a child. To me, philanthropy exists because there is injustice in the world. When you have what you need, you have a personal responsibility to make sure others do too.

How has your philanthropy evolved over the years?

Coming from business, I wanted to work in an area that was highly leveraged—$1 for $5 of impact, that sort of thing. I had this common but very wrong idea that business theories and solutions can map to philanthropy.

I truly had no idea what to do or how to do it! But three months after leaving my corporate job, I entered into the TPW (now Forward Global) program, and it was instrumental in helping me figure out what strategic philanthropy might look like for me at that moment.

Early in my philanthropic journey, I focused on the nascent field of microfinance. I had read a long-term study demonstrating that small loans have completely different outcomes for men and women. Across geographies, when men were lifted out of extreme poverty, they sought to increase their status, while women worked to improve their community’s welfare. After eight years of this work, though, I realized we wouldn’t see real transformation unless we grappled with the root causes of poverty.

Big corporations are part of the problem, and so many poverty-related issues are caused by multinationals with zero transparency or accountability. They can dump toxins in other countries and walk away with profits. But what if we could change the system by requiring companies to be more transparent, more accountable—to make them prioritize not just profit but people and the planet, too? If all three were equally important, it would be a radically different world. Once I began looking closely at capitalism, I shifted my focus to creating an economic system where companies voluntarily hold themselves to higher standards.

What role did Forward Global have in helping you shape and refine your philanthropy?

Forward Global really helped me think about the flexibility of using all my assets, not just the 5%. When I started in microfinance, I was working with an Indian organization and trying to get a bank loan to increase the amount disbursed to clients. We needed a million dollars in collateral, so I put that up from the foundation. Forward Global really taught me to think differently about funding and taking risks.

How did you pivot from microfinance to reimagining corporations?

Twelve years ago, I found out about an organization called B Lab. The founders created a set of standards, assessment tools, and certification process for “B corps” that do right by people and planet. When I became involved, it was becoming clear that without some legal basis, the certification had no teeth. We passed benefit corporation legislation in 38 states. If you incorporate as a B corp today, you are held to specific standards.

Today there are 5,000 B corps worldwide. Our original focus was small and medium companies, but now there’s demand from multinationals. We’re not set up to certify them, but it’s funny because when I joined the Board 12 years ago, the naysayers said big companies would never be interested in certification.

People are starting to really understand that we can’t continue with capitalism the way it is—we’ve got to change and companies have to be a force for good. The younger employees pushing corporations to change don’t want to be part of the problem, they want to be part of the solution.

What aspect of your work and philanthropy are you the most proud of?

Although I honestly didn’t know what I was doing when I started this work, I understood I had a lot of freedom to take risks and follow my gut. When I heard about microfinance, it was new, and people thought “the poor aren’t bankable” and that it probably wouldn’t work. But I saw myself as being in a position to take risks, and if I failed, then I have failed in the right direction. The big lesson is for philanthropists to take risks. That’s why we’re here. Companies aren’t taking risks; neither is the government. But how can we prove new models if we aren’t willing to take risks? And it’s okay to fail, as long as you’re failing in the right direction. With microfinance, it turned out to be a really good risk because it did work. It does help women pull themselves out of poverty. Again with B Lab, a lot of people said it’ll never work. I took the risk thinking, I don’t know if B Lab is going to cross the chasm, but if I am all in and we fail, we’re failing in the right direction.

What does taking an equity and justice lens look like in your work? Several years ago, my daughter and I were talking about equity and justice, and she looked at me and said, “Mom, you know you’re a white lady, right?” Her point was a good one: I’m Mexican but look white and that gives me real privilege. When I acknowledged this, I started thinking about the structures that helped me create wealth. And if I’m interested in systems—and changing them—I have to grapple with deeper issues around white supremacy and colonialism, and applying an equity lens.

We can take tough feedback so please be honest. Has Forward Global been receptive to making changes and thinking about its own privilege?

One of the great things about Forward Global is that I’ve always felt very supported. When I spoke to Forward Global’s CEO Renee about the organization’s privilege and the fact that its members are primarily white and wealthy, she heard me, loud and clear. That’s how the Equity & Justice Action Lab started. The Lab pulls that veil back and asks us to determine what it looks like to take responsibility and act in ways that can be uncomfortable. The curriculum is also changing. Forward Global’s 2022 Summit was a whole different ball of wax; we really talked about white privilege, and heard from nonprofit and philanthropy leaders of color. I don’t think anyone else is doing this kind of work.

How do you grapple with criticisms of philanthropy and that its existence is predicated on an inherently unequal society? That’s such a big question. It’s going to be a slow process, and I won’t see it fixed in my lifetime because the changes needed are so massive. I’ve learned that you can’t have the same people who created the old system create the new ones. One of the things about equity, diversity and inclusion is that for white folks—for me—it’s not about sharing power, it’s about giving up power. For me, that looks like enabling those people to come to the table, and then stepping away and giving up my power. Because I’ve had a lot of power for a long time. And you have to walk the talk. At B Lab, we decided to be an anti-racist organization which meant shifting the leadership. We brought in a fantastic new CEO, and decided to create a diverse new board of people with different backgrounds, skill sets, life experiences. Once we do that, I’m going to step away.

What role does impact investing have in fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion?

I started impact investing about 17 years ago. People were skeptical, but I couldn’t see any reason why the foundation’s money shouldn’t be invested that way. My money is increasingly invested alongside my values—in funds that are working on climate technologies; to help stop global warming; for regenerative farming practices. I now prioritize investing in organizations led by people of color.

What would you share with someone feeling apprehensive to start their philanthropic journey?

I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, and I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing or feel like I’m not doing enough. If we’re honest with each other, we’re all figuring it out. We’re going to make mistakes and unintended consequences are going to happen and it’s okay, as long as we course correct. We don’t need to have all the answers, because there are people who do, and they’re those closest to the problem.

For anyone who’s thinking about joining Forward Global, wherever you are in your journey, you are welcome here. I say, just join, the water is nice.