Born in a small English village, Sophie Purdom moved to Acton, Massachusetts, as a young girl. Her first business experience was helping out with her family’s e-commerce health supplements company. In high school, she helped start Power Down which promoted the school’s energy conservation efforts. With the money saved from increased energy efficiency, the school was able to hire two additional teachers. After this early success, Purdom arrived at Brown fired up to study environmental science.She threw herself into public policy, working for Providence’s Office of Sustainability on a sustainability plan for the city and an urban agricultural program. As part of Brown’s Climate and Development Lab (CDL), a think-tank run by Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental studies and sociology, she went to United Nations climate negotiations in both Warsaw, Poland, and Lima, Peru. There she realized that working with business leaders was the best way to effect change.
So, she says, instead of running around talking about “moral issues and incorporating a carbon tax just because it’s the right thing to do,” she was “bugging the oil and gas executives about carbon asset risk and fiduciary duty.” Business leaders, she believes, have to address the risks of warming temperatures and rising seas because corporations have a fiduciary duty to deliver shareholder returns.
“Couching climate change in terms of economic and business risks is a pretty new field,” she says, “and for me it tied everything together.”
Back at Brown, Purdom focused on the Socially Responsible Investment Fund, a student group that manages a portfolio of University operating funds. As sustainable investing gained notoriety, Purdom began working as an intern in the Brown investment office. President Paxson encouraged the creation of the Brown University Sustainable Investment Fund, a newly endowed donor option. This past spring, Purdom was a teaching assistant in a course called The Theory and Practice of Sustainable Investing, in which forty-four students wrote a fund tear sheet, suggested fund managers, and pitched stocks to the Sustainable Investment Fund.
Now, as she heads off to her new job at the Boston-based management consulting firm Bain & Company, Purdom hopes to combine environmentalism and finance. “I think we’re at this pivot point where the tension between these two worlds is starting to break down and is becoming a point of collaboration,” she says, “where finance realizes it needs sustainability and sustainability realizes it needs finance.
“I don’t think there are many points in history where you realize you’re on the edge of something dramatically new—and I’m convinced that we’re there.”