Career Growth as an Exercise in Courage: An Interview with Lisa Hall

BlackHer is all about advancing Black women’s personal, professional, and political power by telling our own stories. This week, we were thrilled to catch up with Lisa Hall, a leader in the field of impact investing. Ms. Hall is a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University at the Beeck Center, which engages global leaders to drive social change at scale. Lisa is also the founder of Bayview Impact Advisors, which was created in 2018 to provide education, research, and strategy services to family foundations and endowments seeking to make impact investments. She was previously Managing Director at Anthos Asset Management, headquartered in Amsterdam, the Netherlands where she launched an impact investing initiative for Anthos, a large European family office. Lisa also served as CEO and President of Calvert Foundation from 2010 to 2013, following her tenure as head of the investment portfolio from 2005 to 2010. Lisa currently serves on the boards of City First Bank in Washington, DC, and Habitat for Humanity International. She also serves on the Investment Committee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation and is a member of the Board of Overseers for the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

Me: Congratulations on your new roles and work! This sounds like such an exciting and busy time for you. What is your focus at Bayview Impact Advisors and the Beeck Center?

Lisa: Thanks! I’m excited to have several new platforms to pursue my passion to build inclusive economies in the U.S. and abroad by advancing impact investing. At Beeck Center, we’re doing this by engaging in research and organizing convenings for policymakers and investors. An example would be my work on Opportunity Zones, which is legislation recently enacted as part of the new tax bill. It allows for the deferral of capital gains in exchange for investments in low-income census tracts. This new tax benefit has the potential to improve access to capital for many underserved communities across the US. But if Opportunity Zones and Opportunity Funds are not implemented equitably then those who live in these communities might not benefit.

Me: It sounds like impact investing. Finding a way to make money and do good at the same time!

Lisa: That’s right. At Bayview, we’re leveraging impact investing as a critical tool for social change by working with foundations and endowments. It’s well known that foundation assets are a key vehicle for creating social good. It’s exciting that foundations like F. B. Heron Foundation and now Nathan Cummings are going “100% mission.”

Me: 100% mission. I like that.

Lisa: Yes, it just makes sense. Foundations can do more good when they press their endowments into service of their missions. I’m so excited to have been involved as a member of the Investment Committee, in the decision which Nathan Cummings Foundation just announced that they will be moving to align 100% of its endowments with its mission and values.

Me: Lisa, you’re a leader in your field but you’re also a leader for Black women more broadly because you’ve made it to the top. You’re a serial CEO. This is why we need your perspective. The current issue of Harvard Business Review has a very interesting article called, Beating the Odds. They did an analysis of the 532 Black women who graduated from Harvard since 1977 and reached out to a sample of these women for interviews. They wanted to understand how these women had “beaten the odds” and get their thoughts on why more Black women have not been able to crack the “Black Ceiling.” You are one of these amazing women. What do you make of the lack of representation of Black women in the C-Suite even among your fellow Black female Harvard grads?

Lisa: It’s a good question. I think you are asking how (and when!) we going to get to the highest levels of representation.

Me: That’s right.

Lisa: One of the things I say, especially to Black women is, we have to find the courage to “call the question.” And, I mean that in that in the parliamentary sense. Often, as Black women, we are sitting in rooms where we are clearly underrepresented and we sit in silence and get frustrated and resentful. I think we have to ask the question. I’ve been able to do this in my role as an investor where it is my responsibility to ask lots of good questions. For example, why aren’t there any women (Black or White) on your board? What’s the composition of your senior leadership? What opportunities have you created so that Black women and men have the sponsors they need? How are you making sure that your people know the path forward? Asking these questions is not just about equity and inclusion. It’s also about investing in the highest performing companies which adhere to best practices in governance as well as social and environmental matters

Me: I heard this from Michelle Wimes too. That corporations need to be more transparent about the path to, for example, becoming a partner in a law firm.

Lisa: It’s important. We initially had a team of 3 women and 1 man managing impact investing at Anthos Asset Management. And in our due diligence process, we always asked about gender representation on the board, senior management team and investment committees. Senior management often commented, “Nobody’s ever asked us that before.” The women working at these funds also appreciated the question being asked and would thank us privately after the due diligence meetings ended.

I think the challenge is that often we see questioning as challenging authority. But it’s not. Questioning is our job. It’s key to making a change.

Me: I think you’re right that maybe we are programmed to stay quiet and settle for “good enough.” But it’s tricky right? I would never want to blame Black women for our lack of progress.

Lisa: That’s right and I’m not trying to blame the victim here. It’s hard to be courageous. There are so many stereotypes to contend with. We don’t want to be the pushy B-word. But sometimes, while it seems easier or more comfortable to not ask the questions, it’s short-sighted. If we don’t ask them, who will?

Me: I hear you. We’ve got to stand in our power, exercise agency and have self-confidence.

Lisa: Yes. We’ve got to be courageous around work, politics, and economics. It can be tough, especially for Black women entrepreneurs. My generation was raised – not to be too aggressive or take too much risk. It is ingrained. But that can hold us back. I hear about women entrepreneurs who have strong revenues and solid profitability but don’t want to scale their operations because they are unwilling to take on equity or borrow. Again, I get it. There are barriers. There is more downside for us. It’s hard to be courageous when we have so much to lose.

Me: You know I looked up the word “courage” on Google and it derives from the word “heart.” Brene Brown talks about it like this.

“The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and, today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics are important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics are often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world, that’s pretty extraordinary.”

Lisa: I like that. One thing I do when I am trying to be courageous is to remember that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Me: Amen.

Lisa: By showing up courageously, we are honoring the legacy of Black women and men who literally put their lives on the line so that we could have more, do more, dream more.

Last year my husband died at age 50 after a valiant two year battle with cancer. It has been the worst experience of my life — the death of my beloved partner of 18 years. But like so many others who have experienced profound loss, I’m still standing. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, but everyone is capable of surviving difficult, even tragic and traumatic experiences. I have work that I am still called to do in the world. When you are knocked down it is possible, I would say it is necessary, to can get back up. Nothing in life is the end of the world. That’s what resilience is all about. I don’t think there is any way around suffering or vulnerability. Sometimes things just don’t go the way you would like but it doesn’t mean you have to stop striving and thriving.

Me: Who inspires you?

Lisa: My teenage daughter. She experienced an incredible loss this year with the death of her father. Sometimes I say, “Honey, you deserve a pass.” But she actually pushes back on me and says, “Mom, lots of folks have suffered and they don’t get a pass.”

Me: Wow! She is so wise.

Lisa: Yes. She is so resilient. She’s been knocked down and every time stands back up. I so admire her courage. You know, I agonize when I see my daughter suffer or struggle. But then I realize, it’s in the trying and in the struggle that she is succeeding.

Me: What additional advice would you give Black women as we work to advance in our careers and stay open but also skillfully navigate the realities of the workplace?

Lisa: A friend and mentor whom I really trust gave me great advice. When I first met him, I was in a position to become a new CEO. We were out for dinner and I said, “I’m so exhausted of trying to figure out what people want from me and when I need to be “on.”’

He said, “Lisa, you always have to be on,” and that shook me a bit. He must have noticed my reaction because he said. “But not now. Not with me.”

So that’s a very important piece of advice I would give to young Black women. Know who and where your safe spaces are and go to them. Frequently! You just can’t be “on” all the time. It’s not physically or mentally healthy. It is not sustainable.

Me: Amen. At the PowerRising Summit in Atlanta, folks talked the downside of having to “code-switch” and pretend. I think realistically there are adaptations we will always have to make to navigate the workplace but there also has to be room for us to show up as ourselves. It occurs to me that these safe spaces we’re describing are the opposite of “The Sunken Place” in Jordan Peele’s, Get Out.

Lisa: Haha! Yes. I think that’s right. There is one other piece of advice that this same friend and mentor offered. I told him that I was trying to be careful to “not lean too far over my skis.” And he said, “Yes, but you know that in skiing it goes both ways. You can also lose your balance and fall if you lean too far back.”

Me: So, it’s a balancing act being a CEO, senior executive, or professional career women.

Lisa: Absolutely.

Me: Is there any other advice you’d give to the BlackHer community?

Lisa: Just that we are all in process and that we must allow ourselves the time and license to reinvent ourselves. If I’ve learned anything this year it is that life rarely goes as planned and that’s OK. One of my favorite singing groups is Sweet Honey in the Rock. They’ve been singing acapella together for 45 years and I’ve been following them for decades. They’ve played in large venues like Carnegie Hall in NY and the Warner Theatre in DC and used to sing mostly folk music and gospel. But they have lost members of the group over time and now have new members and a new sound now. and I saw them perform recently at a very intimate venue, the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. It touched me how beautiful their music is even though they have evolved quite a bit and now include jazz songs in their repertoire and have added a male instrumentalist to the previously all-female group.

This experience of seeing them in their latest incarnation reminded me and reassured me that in my career, I can change venues, so to speak, and delete or add something to the mix and it will still be great. I can also do things that are different than what other people are expecting. I can reinvent myself. It just requires courage.

Jocelyn