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On Driving Corporate Social Responsibility and Being a Powerful Voice for Change: An Interview with Arlene Isaacs-Lowe

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Arlene Isaacs-Lowe president of the Moody’s Foundation and global head of corporate social responsibility for Moody’s Corporation. A numbers guru, Arlene worked in New York’s financial services sector for over two decades, first as a CPA and portfolio manager for MetLife, later as the owner of a minority-owned investment management company, and for the past several years in a range of senior roles at Moody’s Corporation. In her interview with BlackHer, Arlene shared what she’s learned during her brilliant career.

Angela:  You are a global business executive. Can you tell us about your background?

Arlene:  I’ll start with some of the early influential moments in my life that shaped me. One of those influences was high school. I attended Brooklyn Technical High School, which was an all-boys school until just a few years before I started. When I was there, the school had two hundred (200) girls and six thousand (6,000) boys! Aside from the obvious gender imbalance, there was also a racial imbalance—there were not many Black or Hispanic students.

Despite these extremes, high school was when I realized that women were just as capable of competing academically as men. Most of the girls were more focused than the boys and better students overall. This was a formative experience for me and shaped how I thought about myself and interacted with men.

College was also formative. When I started at Howard University at 17, my mother gave me her entire life savings for tuition. It was just enough to pay for one year of my schooling, but her gift gave me a sense of how much hope she had in me. It inspired me, and I knew that I could not fail!

College was a great experience for me. My time at Howard was the only time in my life where I felt that my accomplishments were judged based on my ability, not my race. Howard is also where I studied Black History for the first time. That class changed what I expected of my life – I learned about Black people overcoming, and I thought if people who were slaves could survive and thrive, I certainly could succeed.

At the same time, I had no career role models for success in my family, so I faced challenges in making astute decisions. I was the first in my family to go to college. My parents had great work ethics and provided a moral compass, but they could not give me advice on college or my career.

I ended up getting advice from friends, who were, in turn, being advised by their family members on how to succeed. Somebody told me to get an accounting degree and to take the CPA exam; others advised me how to dress for job interviews.

Angela:  It’s great that you had others who could advise you through college and into your first job.  Can you tell us about your career?

Arlene: Yes. After graduating from Howard, I entered the workforce as an accountant. I enjoyed my work, but I soon realized that I wanted more than to report on the decisions of others – I wanted to make the decisions. I returned to study at Fordham University to get my MBA in finance with a concentration in real estate. I completed my degree while working full-time, and I also married and had my first child in graduate school. After completing my MBA, I transitioned from an accounting role to an investment role at MetLife.

I learned a lot at MetLife and, in the mid-’90s, I left the company with some colleagues to start an MBE (Minority Business Enterprise) real estate investment firm. We did well, but not as well as we wanted to. In 1998, I joined Moody’s as a real estate analyst. I thought I’d work here for a few years to learn about the capital markets, and then leave and make a lot of money on Wall Street. Twenty years later, I am still here.

My career as an analyst advanced quickly at Moody’s. My portfolio of coverage expanded to include a range of financial services.  The company managed through the financial crisis, and post-crisis, under increased regulation, restructured our core business to separate our commercial activities from our analytical work. I was asked to be part of the commercial group, i.e. the business side, and it was one of the best moves of my career.

Soon after, an opportunity arose – to run Moody’s commercial operations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA). It was a huge job! I interviewed and convinced the hiring panel that I would be more adept at cultural fluency and therefore would be better at managing the team and managing new and existing customer relationships. At the time, I was recently divorced and an empty-nester; suddenly I was moving overseas to spend two and a half years living in London and traveling throughout the regions that I oversaw. It was a great experience for me, and during that time Moody’s market position in EMEA was transformed.

While I was abroad, I witnessed the growing importance of Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (“ESG”) issues for businesses and their stakeholders in Europe. I knew it would only be a matter of time before it would take on significant importance internationally.

Because of my personal commitment to philanthropy, familiarity with our corporate culture and international business perspective, I was asked to consider the role of president of the Moody’s Foundation. During the interviews, I said that it would be a more compelling opportunity if I could also develop and drive a global Corporate Social Responsibility (“CSR”) strategy that was aligned with our business and authentically represented who we are and what we do. My aim was to integrate our assets – the skills and experiences of our people, the innovation of our products and services, our brand and reputation in the global capital markets and the grants provided by the Moody’s Foundation – to enable more impactful outcomes for those societal issues we can help to solve.

Angela: What is Moody’s? Does it play a part in the average American’s life?

Arlene: Moody’s Corporation essentially consists of two operating arms: Moody’s Investors Service, a credit rating agency that is more than 100 years old, and Moody’s Analytics, a leader in providing risk management expertise. We have more than 13,000 employees worldwide. Moody’s Corporation plays a huge role in the global capital markets, which can translate to a significant, albeit, indirect role in the average person’s life. We provide tools for investors to assess risk which influences investor demand and ultimately the cost of capital. In turn, the cost of capital influences the price consumers pay for goods and services.  Likewise, states and local governments have credit ratings which influence how they finance the cost of essential services to their constituents.

Angela:  What tips can you share with Black women who want to succeed in the way you have in finance or the corporate world?

Arlene: What was relevant for me may not be the same for others, but I think the following have contributed to my success:

First, we must be good at what we do.  Being recognized as an expert in your field is critical. Being recognized for your technical skills – meaning demonstrating subject matter expertise in an area, is critical.

Second, we must master “soft” skills – the ability to build authentic and solid relationships within and outside the company is a key driver of career advancement at more senior levels—and that is especially true for Black women. I am a member of the Executive Leadership Council which years ago commissioned a research project on senior Black women at Fortune 500 companies. The findings were instructional for me. One “aha” moment was an outcome that suggested that while we (Black women) thought we had strong relationships with our bosses and peers, Caucasian leaders in the same companies who participated in the study, suggested that those relationships were not as strong as we thought. One indicator was that if you have never been invited to lunch or dinner, or to the home of your boss and other C-suite leaders, your relationships are probably not as close as you think.

The question then was, what contributed to that barrier? Could it be fear that interacting with and giving feedback to a Black woman might be misconstrued as bias? Because of this fear, Black women have to take a few extra steps as we consider how to seek and receive authentic feedback that will help shape how we are perceived—and ultimately how we advance. We have to ask for feedback, even in an uncomfortable situation—while also trying to put the other person at ease—so we can hear what we need to hear about how to succeed. The less defensive we are, the more forthcoming people will be. While it can require more work, developing closer relationships also opens an opportunity to be authentic, which is so critical to success.

Third, take risks. Black women tend to be risk-averse. This is often because we are supporting a LOT of people – not just our nuclear families. I think people who take more risks are likely to experience greater accomplishments. My decision to move to London where I knew no one made a huge difference in how I was perceived by the leadership team, my peers, and external stakeholders. My ability to connect with an influential network, demonstrate cultural competency and achieve success outside of my comfort zone was invaluable and it really boosted my self-confidence.

All this mattered when I said that I wanted to lead a transformative CSR strategy at Moody’s. I believe that our leadership provided the opportunity because I had shown my ability to take on tough projects and make them work by being effective at influencing and collaboration.

Angela:  We hear a lot about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) these days. Is it important in corporate America?

Arlene: CSR is an emerging aspect of how corporations think about their long-term value. It has been prompted by a couple of things. First, as the millennial workforce grows, their views about the kinds of companies they want to work for are hugely influential in terms of how companies present themselves. Likewise, the growing interest by external stakeholders (customers and investors) regarding the company’s Environmental Social and Governance (“ESG”) characteristics also matters. ESG criteria are in general a set of standards for a company’s operations that socially conscious investors use to screen potential investments. I’m quoting Investopedia: ”environmental criteria consider how a company performs as a steward of nature. Social criteria examine how it manages relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, and the communities where it operates. Governance deals with a company’s leadership, executive pay, audits, internal controls, and shareholder rights.”

So, corporations are expected to do more than pursue short-term performance at the expense of long-term company value. They are also expected to be “contributing” corporate citizens.

Many folks expect corporations to reflect and promote socially conscious values even as they pursue commercial successes. We see this especially overseas. For example, in Europe, consumers often ask the question “What is your environmental footprint? What are your human rights policies?” These are key business questions.

There’s a global change in mindset as well about corporations, which CSR programs seek to address. Surveys, such as the Edelman Trust Barometer show that our most trusted relationships are with our employers, not with nonprofits or government.  Today, more and more people are relying on their employers to represent their values, not other institutions.

The CSR strategy that I have developed for Moody’s speaks not only to the company’s long-term value but also to our cultural values and purpose. It brings together the innovations of our business, the passion of our employees and the impact of our philanthropy to focus on empowering people with financial knowledge, activating an environmentally sustainable future and helping young people reach their potential.

Angela:  You are a Black woman in a powerful position in corporate America. Does your presence change the conversation at the table?

Arlene: It doesn’t unless we make it so. This is true even in the key focus area of our CSR strategy to create greater financial inclusion for small and growing, women-owned businesses and those from underserved communities by empowering them to hone essential business skills. I often find that there are a number of people of color who are seeking and would benefit from this type of support, but people of color are not making decisions about what and who gets funded. Moody’s Foundation uses a definitive diversity and inclusion lens when selecting programs to support and we are very intentional about ensuring that those programs also apply that lens in terms of the people they reach. Those of us who are at the table must use our voices to change things.

Angela:  It’s time for the miracle question. You go to sleep tonight, and you wake up tomorrow, and it is June 2020, and the Miracle has occurred for Black women. What happened? 

Arlene: There’s a Black woman in The White House! At least 15 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black women. There is at least one Black woman on every board and beauty in the US and around the world has been redefined to include our physical attributes.

 

 

 

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