"If you could wave a magic wand to fix one of the defining issues of our time, what would it be?"
So begins an investor’s journey with Ethic, the New York asset manager that claims to help wealthy clients "treat people and the planet with respect". Those who sign up are encouraged to record a 30-second video defining "what sustainability means to you" and spend time acquainting themselves with "your mission's pillars".
Founded by three ex-bankers – a Brit and two Australians – Ethic might look like a hippie twist on any number of investment managers seeking to cash in on the booming trend for bets that meet ESG (environmental, social and governance) standards.
It manages a mere $1.3bn (£950m) and its strategy hardly comes out of left field: Ethic’s four biggest holdings – Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google – are America's most valuable companies.
Ethic's website lists around 42 staff and three dogs – "chief smile officer" Byron, and security hounds Roux and Gigi.
But now the New York start-up is betting a sprinkling of royalty will catapult it into the spotlight. This week, Ethic announced the Duke and Duchess of Sussex would join as "impact partners" .
The move marks the latest venture from the Duke and Duchess, who have been involved in a series of technology tie-ups since declaring financial independence from the Royal Family.
Alongside deals with Spotify and Netflix, Prince Harry has joined BetterUp , a Silicon Valley mental health start-up, and the Aspen Institute's Commission on Information Disorder – a group designed to fight misinformation.
"You already have the younger generation voting with their dollars and their pounds all over the world when it comes to brands they select and choose from," he told the New York Times, suggesting that investing was the next frontier.
How many hours the Sussexes will be putting in at Ethic is unclear: the company said their roles would include participating in company content and events.
They will be investing their own money through the company, however. The couple were also revealed as shareholders in a recent $29m (£21m) fundraising round that valued Ethic at $110m, according to financial website PitchBook.
ESG is one of the hottest acronyms in the investing lexicon. According to Bank Of America, around $3 in every $10 has gone into sustainable funds so far this year as a generation of millennials enter their investing years, hastened by trading apps such as Robinhood .
Ethic doesn't directly cater to those smartphone-wielding masses, despite its stated ambitions to bring sustainable investing to "many millions around the world". Access generally comes via a private wealth manager.
"The vast majority of the wealth we help invest is controlled by Boomers and their parents," Jay Lipman, its 33-year-old British co-founder, told the Telegraph in 2019 . "These are the kinds of people who drive a Prius or a Tesla, they recycle, they compost."
While most ESG investing is relatively crude, letting people pick a range of funds that exclude fossil fuel or firearm companies, Ethic says its technology can dig deeply into investments, uncovering links to the tobacco industry, for instance, and allows users to build a personalised portfolio based on what they think are the most important causes.
Prospective customers are asked to curate a "personal mission" by choosing topics such as racial justice, animal welfare and climate change. An algorithm then personalises their investments.
Ethic was founded in 2015 by Lipman – who attended privately-owned Epsom College in Surrey and studied at the University of Edinburgh – and Australians Doug Scott and Johny Mair. All three are former Deutsche Bank employees.
Its New York office bears typical hallmarks of a tech start-up: ping-pong tables, kombucha and tie-dye t-shirts.
While it does not disclose customer figures, it is believed the average client invests roughly $2m, suggesting it boasts less than 1,000. A significant number of those, however, are believed to be high-profile: celebrities, actors and sports stars.
Alongside the Sussexes, investors include American actor Ashton Kutcher, while many other famous, though anonymous, people are believed to be backers. According to Meghan, the pair were introduced to Ethic through a friend, believed to be among its A-list clients. Lipman apparently sealed the investment from the Duke and Duchess at their $15m mansion in Santa Barbara.
One slightly less glitzy backer is Theo Osborne, the brother of former chancellor George Osborne. His venture fund 9YardsCapital, which George later joined as a partner , invested in 2019.
Despite the sustainable shine, one Ethic customer says its genius lies partly in tax efficiency: its software smartly takes advantage of opportunities for "tax loss harvesting", a technique that lets people sell loss-making investments to limit the taxes on other gains.
Early investor Sheel Mohnot says: "They are just incredibly bright… some of the best financial modellers that I know."
He indicates the company could launch a service for everyday consumers at some point in the future, capitalising on the investment app boom that has valued Robinhood at $35bn. "The goal is to ultimately make it easier for everyone to invest in line with their unique values."
That, however, would rely on the craze for sustainable investing continuing. Lipman says ESG is ultimately a good investment: board diversity prevents groupthink and ethical firms suffer from fewer lawsuits.
But not everyone agrees. "There’s a 100pc chance that this entire ESG space will end up in a bubble, eventually," says Joachim Klement, an investment strategist at Liberum Capital. "The upside is basically subject to whatever your fantasy may imagine. We have no test case of how these things react in a proper recession.
"Expectations for the future will grow to unrealistically high levels."
A soaring market in recent years means sustainable investing has so far proved profitable. Klement says the true test of ESG – and, therefore, of start-ups such as Ethic – will be when that is not the case. Should that happen, the Sussexes’ new project may need all the star power they can provide.
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