Attaining impact: interview with Sarah Santhosham 

ESG-talks is a series of interviews with ESG professionals with diverse educational and professional backgrounds, whom we regard as role models. This series aims to encourage participation in the ESG and responsible investment (RI) space, to attract talent from different sectors and industries, and to widen the conversation. 

Sarah Santhosham studied Classics at Oxford University, and not so long ago completed an Executive Master of Public Administration, Global Public Policy and Management (joint degree of New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and University College London). Currently, she is Head of Engagement and Sustainable Investment at the Scott Trust Endowment, which supports the Guardian Media Group.

Apart from her choices in education, we discussed some of the decisive pillars of  Sarah’s ten-year spanning, exceptionally rich career, marked by several impactful roles such as Vice President at her own university’s student union, campaigning for and organising student communities, Senior Caseworker for an MP and Shadow Minister for Employment, National Expert in Brussels, and Senior Policy advisor for several different government departments, to name just a few.  

It is fascinating to see how different pathways can lead to the ESG sector. First, you attained an MA in Classics from Oxford. How do you think this area relates to your career trajectory? 

Classics is a very good starting point, as it is an interdisciplinary subject. In school, I liked learning languages such as Latin, German, Russian, and History, too.  Then I had the opportunity to attend a two-week long summer school in Dorset, where we learnt Ancient Greek, which I also found captivating. I was interested in History, too, and that is how Classics seemed the right interdisciplinary area to pursue. At university, I ended up studying Hellenistic poetry from the second century BC, which gave insight into an intercultural understanding of Greek identity created in Egypt. All the interdisciplinary and intercultural threads seemed to come together.  

Do you have a similar work-related experience which broadened your horizon early on? 

At the age of sixteen, I did my work experience at a Quaker Magazine called The Friend. One of my tasks was to report on a United Nations conference focused on small arms and light weapons. This was very informative on how diplomacy works and what progress looks like in the international system.  

After that, I volunteered as community organising during university summer holidays. The aim was to empower so-called ordinary people to make change in their communities. It is about shifting the bonds of power: to sow the firm belief that anyone can make a change. One peak experience of mine was a six-week-long campaign, when I also met the most amazing people and stories. 

Your education and work experience are strongly intertwined. One interesting and relatively recent highlight is you being a Fulbright Scholar whilst taking an Executive Master of Public Administration degree? 

My undergraduate degree in Classics, though it gave exceptional insight into complex theoretical notions, is not strongly related to the field of my work now. In 2021, I applied for an Executive Master of Public Administration (MPA), a joint degree between New York and London, aimed at mid-career professionals. It is like an MBA (Master of Business Administration), but for public policy. I went for this degree and applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to complete it. 

I was keen to complete a master’s degree in the US. We all think that we know a lot about the country, but I think we need to immerse ourselves into a culture and experience it fully to get a clearer picture. From the moment I arrived in New York, I encountered an incredibly warm and welcoming community of people from the most diverse backgrounds and interests, from photojournalists focused on racial justice, to human rights lawyers shining a light on abuses around the world, to people working on improved access to finance for their communities in the US. 

Speaking of different cultural experiences, I also remember when I worked in Brussels, in 2016, just after the Referendum. There were people from twenty-six nations, working together, with great diversity in background and age, too, and with different expectations and ideologies. These are the challenges I enjoy. 

Continuing to reflect on your earlier roles, worked on several occasions for the UK government. How did you end up working for the Rt. Hon. Stephen Timms MP, Shadow Minister for Employment almost right out of the University? 

Yes, I just finished my undergraduate degree, and I worked as a part time community organiser at the Centre for Theology and Community, when I started to work part time for my MP. After a couple of years, I wanted to develop different skills, so I applied for the government’s graduate scheme.  

In that scheme, my first role was in a call centre, which I found very challenging. It was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done. Managing people is a complex and difficult skill to learn, particularly when you have to manage people who do important but routine work and deal with challenging callers. My biggest question was how I make people valued in this context. In the end I grew to love this job. 

Have you ever planned or mapped out your career and your next moves in advance?  

My only plan was to always get a role that is more impactful than the role before. Also, I was focusing on using my skills to make a difference. This, of course, means continuous learning. It is also an important factor to work with people with whom I share values. Taking part in networks and peer-groups has always been very important for me. Looking back, these simple factors always led to next roles that were of incrementally bigger impact than the former one.  

Who had a more decisive impact on your career: peers or mentors? 

I was lucky to work with people whom I hugely admire, who weren’t formally mentors, still, they fulfilled that role. It is important to have good relationships with people you are working with, regardless of where they are in the hierarchy.  

About peer-networks: when I first moved to London from the university, I knew about half a dozen women who were also trying to make impact through their careers. We used to meet once a month for brunch, and just talked about our current issues, as we had a lot in common. A core group is still in contact from those times. Similarly, in Brussels we had a little group meeting up for lunch monthly, and I am still in touch with them. It is reassuring to feel that you are part of something.  

Currently you work as Head of Engagement and Sustainable Investment for The Scott Trust Endowment. How did this role come along? 

During my master’s I did a course on impact investing, which I loved. Before I started my master’s I worked on G20 negotiations at the Treasury, which increasingly focused on the financial and economic risks of climate change and regulations around this area, and I was interested in transitioning into sustainable finance. After exploring some roles, I was happy to find a role that supported the Guardian, an organisation I have always admired for the impact it makes on so many different areas, to develop their work around sustainable and impactful investing.  

We are looking at exactly one decade of career span of yours. What do you consider your biggest success?  

My biggest success is the impact I had on people and teams. For example, when I worked for my MP for the area I grew up in, I wanted to find a way for young people to engage in politics and realise it wasn’t out of reach, so I set up a summer school with the rest of the team. We had around a dozen young people who came into the office each holiday to meet MPs, researchers, journalists, policy advisers, local councillors and charity workers –it felt important to help young people realise they could see themselves in these spaces too. Or, when I was Head of G20 Policy at the Treasury, during the pandemic. I never expected I would be able to do that. 

And finally, I ask all our interviewees the same last question: In your opinion, what does the future hold for the ESG sector in the next five- or ten-years’ time? 

I hope ESG will become much more holistic in the next couple of years. It is artificial to keep the environmental, social and governance factors apart. We need to see all these areas as interconnected. And we need to do better at connecting the micro and macro. I read Amy Goldstein’s Janesville. An American Story a few years ago which is about the incredible resilience and resourcefulness of a community in the aftermath of the financial crisis and does a brilliant job of connecting what happens at a macroeconomic level with the impact in local communities. There’s so much we can learn from people and communities who face the impact every day of environmental challenges and the other ESG issues we work on.