Annie Chen, Founder and Chair of RS Group.

As a business and finance hub, Hong Kong is also becoming an important center for talented individuals who are dedicating their careers to sustainability, an agenda that is becoming increasingly critical to business success. Sustainability as an industry has attracted more women than many others, and the sector in Hong Kong is no exception. To celebrate #IWD2021, IFC on March 8 launched a series of interviews with women in the Fragrant Harbour who are championing the sustainability agenda in Asia. 

Our next interview is with Annie Chen, Founder and Chair of RS Group, a mid-sized, Hong Kong-based family office that has built a 100 percent sustainably invested portfolio. After practicing tax law in San Francisco and Hong Kong for nearly a decade, Annie joined her siblings in managing the family office established by their parents in the late nineties, and in 2010 set up RS Group to manage her wealth.

How would you describe your work? 

RS Group is a family office that primarily manages my personal wealth, and it’s through this family office that I carry out my philanthropy as well. We’ve developed a 100 percent sustainably invested portfolio across different asset classes, and we take a very holistic approach to our investing and our philanthropy, which should be aligned. Very often we see family offices that invest in all kinds of things without thinking about what they’re investing in, including investments in companies that create problems that they end up trying to solve on the philanthropy side. This non-alignment doesn’t make sense, and so we’re very intentional about trying to be very careful about what we do or don’t invest in. We have a very strong ESG lens, and we also add an impact lens where appropriate. 

Since 2013 we’ve paid particular attention to climate change, and we now integrate a strong climate lens to our investments. We invest across asset classes, though we do avoid very quant-type approaches and we don’t do trading, as we see ourselves as long-term investors. 

We tend to do a lot of our investing through fund managers, and so we look for very dedicated, professional and high-quality managers with strong ESG DNA. We do a lot of due diligence and very robust monitoring, and we tend to stick with our managers for a long time, depending on both investment and impact performance. 

From a sustainability standpoint, what are the three biggest challenges you face as an investor? 

As well as investing our own assets, we also advocate to our peers, as we want to bring more people on board with sustainable investing. However, we also recognize that people need time to develop their own way of thinking about impact and sustainability. To this end, we incubated a platform called the Sustainable Finance Initiative a few years ago, and while we now have a good group of impact and sustainable investors that have joined the platform, it took time for them to develop their own frame of thinking about sustainable investing. 

The other issue is the lack of talent. Asia is still a bit of a laggard when it comes to both the practice and education of sustainable and impact investing. There has been a lot of talk for a long time, but the translation of discussions into action has been rather slower, and there have not been a lot of opportunities for people to get experience and training in impact investing. Therefore, the talent pool is still rather thin, but we have seen a steady increase in opportunities lately.

The third thing is products. In the last few years there has been growing interest in ESG and more lately climate issues. You have a lot more investors aware of and asking for different products, and COVID is also making people a lot more concerned about the planet, especially public health issues and environmental threats of our own making. All these things are giving momentum to changes that are already happening. 

RS Group is an all-woman team, was this intentional? 

There are five of us, and you’re correct, we’re all women. People frequently assume this was intentional, but it just so happened that the people we found who were aligned and passionate about this all happened to be women. We’ve had male colleagues before including interns, but it’s the women who have stuck it out! Were always on the lookout to introduce a bit more gender balance within our team. There’s no reverse discrimination going on here! 

What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome in your career? 

On a personal level I would say building confidence in the idea that this is the right thing to do. When I started, this was called ‘socially responsible investing’, and a lot of mainstream financial advisors would say “that’s not going to work, you’re limiting your investable universe by screening all these things out if you apply this lens, and that’s going to hit you financially”. But we’ve managed to make a very respectable return that averaged out over a number of years at 5 percent, which is sufficient to support our operational and philanthropic needs. 

What needs to be done to make the industry more inclusive of women?

I think that women have an advantage in family offices, as family offices don’t only deal with investors, but tend to be complex setups that also deal with the needs of the family, whether it’s succession, wealth planning, or other more tailored needs. You need to deal with a lot of interpersonal relationships, where women tend to have a better touch. 

When you were young, what did you think about women’s leadership and women’s empowerment? How have your views changed? 

When I was very young, I rued the fact I was born a woman. Then I went through a phase of thinking women are much better than men. At this point in my life I have reverted to a more balanced view. There are differences between genders, and I’m not one of those people who believe that absolute equality is everything, because I think nature does have a role here. I’m all for having equal opportunities for different genders. We’ve moved into an era, at least in the developed world, where people have the means to really carve out their own pathway. 

In terms of opportunities, women are in a fairly decent place in Hong Kong. That said, a lot still falls on the woman domestically speaking. And recognition of the value of homemakers is quite backwards. Not only in Hong Kong but worldwide. 

What advice would you give other women looking to forge a similar career path? 

Know yourself. It’s a journey. People change as they move to different stages of life, but if you’re focusing on career, get in touch with your values early on. If you’re not sure what they are, then take a hard look and develop them, and try to integrate them as much as possible into your career choices. Women are good at being resourceful. Don’t be afraid to look outside the box for opportunity.