A Healthy Outlook on Financial Futures

A conversation with MIB alumna Hattie Brown on food, finance, and the framework potential of ESG
Hattie Brown holds a bunch of bananas in front of a banana stand.

Hattie Browns journey to Fletcher began right on Tufts’ campus—as a student at the Friedman School of Nutrition.

Brown F20 came to Friedman by way of New York, where shed been working in the regulatory arm of a public finance firm. The work wasn’t quite resonating with her long-term career goals, and Brown found herself drawn to advocacy with food, frequently gleaning, supporting nutrition education classes, and volunteering with City Harvest. For Brown, this connection to service was personal. Having grown up in a low-income community, she gravitated towards work in under-resourced communities on questions of health and economics. 

“The way that products are marketed towards poor people is really predatory, from consumer-packaged goods, like soda and junk food, to credit products, and how people are denied access to affordable financial services,” said Brown. “That has been a key element of what I’ve been after in my career: how do you help people thrive, prioritize their health, build wealth, and live their fullest, happiest lives without being constantly berated with subpar products by groups who are not looking out for their best interests?”

Her commitment to understand and improve the intersections of economic mobility and health led her to Friedman, where she was thrilled to be surrounded by peers who cared about food policy as much as she did. It came as a surprise to Brown, then, that Friedman would lead her back to the industry shed left. Given her background in finance, a friend encouraged her to apply to the Kirchner Fellowship, an impact investing training program designed around entrepreneurship, food, and nutrition. While she was initially hesitant to return to the world of finance, she applied and was inspired by her conversations with the program directors. 

The fellowship changed everything for me. It was an introduction to impact investing, which I really didn’t know anything about,” said Brown. There is a way to find and fund companies that want to positively change the world and are created by people with a strong moral compass. I’ve learned that this is a powerful mechanism to address complex food systems and other societal problems.”

During the course of the fellowship, in which she met with founders and began conducting investment analyses, Brown decided she needed to hone her financial acumen and applied to Fletchers MIB program. Beyond her existing ties to Medford, Brown was drawn to the program because of its international edge.

Learning in an environment where you are confronted with such diversity in cultural backgrounds, different approaches to problem solving, and different educational and professional experiences is incredible. Its one of the experiences I cherish most in my life,” said Brown. Especially for a career in ESG, sustainability, and impact investing, thinking outside of the framework of a traditional business school education is critically important.”

Brown cites her coursework at Fletcher as particularly illuminating for her work today. “Jenny Aker was the reason I went to Fletcher. I still reference my notes from her econometric impact evaluation course on a regular basis.” Even less apparently connected courses, including those in the humanitarian space, have their relevance for Brown’s work today. 

“The ways we talked about designing programs and interventions for people in crisis situations, for example, is incredibly useful for thinking about sustainability of supply chains and the human rights issues that might come up in that context,” she said.

In all of her work, Brown prioritizes inclusion. She spends a lot of time reading and trying to learn from practitioners and leaders in the field, referencing Boston Impact Initiative, which seeks to address the racial wealth divide through a place-based investing model. She sees connections between sustainability, inclusion, and business longevity.

Like many in the field, I think about ESG as a framework for evaluating opportunities and risks associated with a particular investment and on an aggregated basis when looking at the fund level,” said Brown. “This is a basic framework that can be applied to any investment and any fund: what are the material issues associated with a particular company, transaction, and on an aggregated basis that would impact people and the planet? How will these issues impact the bottom line?”

At Kirchner, Brown wears two important hats: she’s the managing director of impact and ESG and also oversees four different fellowship programs, including the very fellowship she completed. With the fellowship program, Brown responds to the imperatives that first drew her into this work. Brown helped design their HBCU program, and fellows come away with better understanding of food security, regenerative agriculture, and venture capital.

Working in underserved communities where there hasn’t traditionally been access to equity capital, she uses bottom of the pyramid models to assess how companies are designing goods and services to meet the needs of the lowest income segment of society. An important aspect of ESG for Brown is building an inclusive economy that lasts for everybody.

In her prior role as a manager in Summit’s impact finance practice, Brown worked on a project with the US Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund and helped deploy nine billion dollars of coronavirus relief funds into CDFIs and minority depository institutions (MDIs). She found this work particularly gratifying, addressing equitable access to affordable credit and combatting predatory lending schemes in low-income and minority communities.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion in capital allocation is something that Im really passionate about. The venture capital industry has historically excluded women and people of color. It is core to the fellowship mission to move the needle on that by training and empowering a diverse next generation of investors,” said Brown.

"People tend to focus on the climate change aspect and find the social angle too big and complex a problem,” she added. “There’s a way that these intractable social problems play a role in ESG. We can think about it on a grander scale.”

Read more about Fletcher's MIB degree program.