Najada Kumbuli: Aligning Assets with Values at Visa Foundation

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Najada Kumbuli, the new Head of Investments for the Visa Foundation. 

Najada Kumbuli, courtesy of Najada Kumbuli

1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession? 

I was fortunate to start my career in the field I was passionate about – impact investing. At the time, impact investing, or investing to generate a measurable, beneficial social and/or environmental impact alongside a financial return, was nascent, which provided both an opportunity to shape the trajectory of the industry and a challenge, as there were few companies leading the way, yet tremendous need to accelerate and scale their work. 

As I started out, I wish I had known that impact investing was more than the intersection of finance and social and/or environmental change. That in fact, it created the opportunity to bring multi-stakeholders, including investors, foundations, governments and social change agents, together to solve the biggest challenges such as climate change, gender inequality and extreme poverty.  This knowledge would have helped me earlier in my career to structure better investment opportunities by leveraging the knowledge and resources needed to  accelerate the pace of impact, like increasing access to capital for women entrepreneurs or reducing the carbon footprint by financing clean energy solutions. 

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge? 

Creating behavioral change by aligning our assets with our values! Our economy is not working for the vast majority of people and our planet is on an unsustainable path. Research shows that we need 30 times the amount of global giving and development assistance in new investments to reach the Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations. Government resources and grants are insufficient to solve global challenges. As the new Head of Investments at Visa Foundation, my greatest challenge and opportunity is to set the investment strategy and craft a portfolio of investments that not only supports the mission of the Visa Foundation but that also inspires others to reject the false dichotomy of aligning their giving with their mission while investing the rest of their assets in traditional stocks, bonds and mutual funds. Investing with purpose has the power to do more than giving alone. 

3. What inspires you most about your work? 

I am inspired by the pace of growth, innovation and adoption for impact investing. The sector has doubled in size over the last two years, according to Global Impact Investing Network’s 2019 report. According to the report, impact investors say their impact investing allocations will continue to grow, and this doesn’t capture new commitments made in light of the pandemic, which threatens to reverse much of the progress made in reducing poverty and inequality worldwide. 

I am also inspired by the catalytic role foundations have played in crowding private capital to shrink the $2.5 trillion investment gap to achieve the UN’s SDGs. Catalytic capital providers like the Visa Foundation have a unique ability to reduce the gap between real and perceived risk of an investment for the purposes of activating additional investment dollars that otherwise wouldn’t participate due to perceived market failures or barriers. These barriers could be things like investing in a region with a recent history of political instability or an unfamiliar customer base like women smallholder farmers in Latin America. 

4. How does your gender identity inform your work? 

My gender identity has shaped my career path and made me a better investor. I approach every investment opportunity with a financial, impact and equity lens, and I am not afraid to ask the tough questions or turn down investment opportunities. Research from both public and private markets shows that companies led by gender diverse teams outperform their peers. As a result, I prioritize gender-inclusive companies but also set clear milestones for those that are lagging behind to ultimately increase gender diversity and equity over time. 

In addition, I tailor my financial analysis by asking typical underwriting questions with a gender lens, such as, how do gender considerations inform your strategy, product offering and hiring practices, etc.? It has been remarkable to see how many times investees have come back to say thanks for my questions and push; that they have tailored their approach or identified an underserved market, like women entrepreneurs, which, ultimately, results in improved financial performance for them.

5. How can philanthropy support gender equity? 

Achievement of gender equity requires a cultural shift which takes time but can be expedited by philanthropic programs. One example of this is our program with TechnoServe in India, which has worked closely with small farming communities to ensure women are full participants, valued voices and respected leaders in farmer cooperatives. By having an explicit focus on women, philanthropic organizations, who focus on a wide range of issues and industries, can continue to raise awareness and help adjust the balance of power from front line workers and community organizations up to C-suites and board rooms. From our perspective at the intersection of philanthropy and impact investing, this means increasing the number of women who control capital, the number of women entrepreneurs who can access that capital, and the number of women benefiting from those businesses as employees or customers. 

6. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us? 

While there have been incredible strides made in working towards gender equality, we still have a long way to go. I hope that the next decade will accelerate the progress we have made in getting more women in positions of power; leading companies, investment funds, governments. I also expect there will be a greater movement towards intersectionality where the discussion isn’t just about gender, but also race, age, sexual orientation etc. 

More on Najada Kumbuli:

As Head of Investments for the Visa Foundation, Najada Kumbuli is responsible for leading investment efforts in support of the Foundation’s mission to financially empower unserved or underserved women-owned, micro and small businesses, including the allocation of $140 million in private market capital to support the Foundation’s Equitable Access Initiative as well as re-alignment of the broader portfolio of investments to reflect the values and priorities of the Visa Foundation.

Previously, she was Investment Director for Calvert Impact Capital where she led development and execution of investing strategies, structured and originated complex investment opportunities with other private and public investors, and managed the credit quality and impact performance within financial inclusion and renewable energy portfolios globally. Originally from Albania, she received a B.A. and B.Econ. from Macalester College in the U.S. and is now based in Washington, D.C. 

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Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.

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