Shaping the Future of Sustainability: An Insightful Conversation with Maria Nazarova-Doyle

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. 

Maria Nazarova-Doyle is IFM Investors’ Global Head of Sustainable Investment. Before this, she worked at Scottish Widows as the Head of Responsible Investment and Stewardship, and the Head of Pension Investments and Responsible Investments. After spending more than a decade in the investment sector, she joined the sustainability movement. Maria’s educational journey is quite diverse: she simultaneously acquired two degrees in interpretation and translation, and global economics, before pursuing a master’s degree in strategic planning and investment.

You studied Maths and Physics at the secondary level. Was there an intention to ‘shatter the glass ceiling’?

Yes, my parents wanted the best education for their children and their decision to invest in my interests and education in the way they did was ambitious for the time. I attended a leading specialized school where Maths was taught at a high level. I’ve always been fond of the subject, and anything related to numbers. There were quite a few girls enrolled in that school, but I wouldn’t have pursued it if it wasn’t for my parents. In the early 90s, it was quite unheard of to take your child out of the local school and aspire for a flagship educational institution.

My parents also hired an English tutor for me. In the small town next to Voronezh, Russia, where I grew up, English was not thought of as necessary, nor was it taught in schools. German was the go-to language back then. So, against the mainstream, my parents hired a retired interpreter to teach me English. By the time I reached secondary school, they had started to teach English, and it went so well that at the age of fifteen, I was fortunate to be sent to the US as an exchange student. When I returned, I then became the unpaid interpreter for our mayor, as during that time, a lot of international guests arrived in our small, agricultural town, interested in different collaborations. They would regularly ask me out of the classroom to translate for the mayor and his English-speaking guests.

How did you then end up in the investment world?

Languages and Maths are strongly correlated, so for me, it was logical that I liked and pursued them both up to a certain level. I also knew that even though I loved these subjects, especially Maths, I didn’t want to become a Mathematician focussing on theory – I am a much more practical person. That’s how I found Economics: a good mix between numbers and complex processes. So, I applied for a BSc in Global Economics at Voronezh State University. As I wanted to learn German, I also took a BA in translation studies. This grounding in economics is what led me into the investment world.

At this point, one might ask if you have any additional multiple talents?

I just love learning. I also think it’s an important life skill. In my line of work, there is always something new to learn because there is always new research and insights in the field of sustainable investment. As my career has gone on, I’ve also been fortunate to undertake leadership courses, which I have found incredibly useful for the work that I do.

Could you detect a significant difference between your BA and BSc studies in Voronezh and your MSc at Newcastle University?

When I moved to the UK, I really wanted to pursue the investment side of my studies, so I enrolled in Newcastle University Business School and studied investment. This masters course also helped me land my first job in the UK. It was, of course, quite different to my undergraduate course – I had to be much more self-reliant.

Let’s move to the next chapter: your career. How did you encounter the notion of sustainability and why did you switch to this career?

Initially, I started in private equity before moving on to giving investment advice to pension funds. And when you are in that position of long-term financial planning, you realize that you need to bring in the perspective of sustainable investment. So that is what I did, was able to do this at scale when I ended up at Scottish Widows, a 200+ year old pension fund, with more than £200bn: a huge opportunity to make a difference.

I joined Scottish Widows in 2020, just before the first COVID lockdown started. One of the tasks was to build a Responsible Investment team from scratch. So while I was working from my home office, I put my head down and built up my team and the RI and stewardship approach for Scottish Widows. It was almost like a small startup – we had ambitious goals, but we also had the support of a large organization. It was a significant opportunity. And what I found was that it became self-reinforcing: as we did more, we were getting more and more positive results, which then empowered us to continue our work.

There is often debate and some hesitation around how we measure impact in the ESG sector. How did you approach this at Scottish Widows?

Ultimately, what Scottish Widows was aiming to achieve for savers was strong returns whilst mitigating the risks. In terms of changes to strategies to integrate more sustainability, showing to the board comparisons in terms of risks and returns for the asset allocation pre and post the changes worked for a while, but not for a long time. Later, we decided to focus on tangible behaviour change, for example, by stating that our asset managers had to prove the quality of their stewardship by becoming signatories to the FRC’s UK Stewardship Code.

Your new role is different, you are now the Global Head of Sustainable Investment at IFM Investors. What attracted you to this position?

I always carried a torch for private markets. I strongly believe that big positive change is possible through three factors combining and influencing each other: direct real economy investments via private markets, long-term pension capital, and sustainability. So, I was very excited about this opportunity, as I wanted to work in private markets and use all the available levers to move the needle. There is an urgent need to decarbonise the real economy, and I thought this role at IFM Investors would help me be part of it.

Speaking of private markets and your new role, what are the priorities at IFM currently?

IFM is probably the only organisation where my three passions – private markets, pensions and sustainability – combine. We are a purpose-driven company, fully owned by Australian pension funds. Through our funds, we invest in critical infrastructure, which is a huge task to decarbonize. The other feature of what we do is that we invest in an open-ended way. This means that with the investments we make, we buy with a mindset of keeping for decades. This means that we must take a long-term responsibility for our investments and do things right in order to ensure that we deliver for the millions of hard-working people who we manage retirement savings for. This long-term investment approach naturally leads to integrating sustainable investing into decision-making. But we do not only focus on transitioning traditional infrastructure – we also invest in the infrastructure of the future; in technology and new clean energy. The philosophy behind this is that we need to do both: put the efforts into decarbonising existing infrastructure while also channelling investments into climate solutions. This is a concept that is easy to be passionate about.

What would you say now to those who are thinking of pursuing a career in sustainable investment, where should they start?

This field needs everybody, and no background is off the list. Also, this sector is very welcoming: it has consistently embraced a lot of ideas and backgrounds. I would say to anyone who wants to join, the key is to be passionate about sustainability, regardless of your subject matter. For example, if you are in communications, we need large-scale campaigns on how to consume in a more sustainable way. If you are in technology, we need technology-enabled solutions, and so on. 

And finally, we 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?

First, I think we will refer to it as sustainability and it will become a much more holistic sector. The term ‘ESG’ created three silos: Environmental, Social, and Governance, but I believe we need to understand that they are all overlapping and interconnected. We are dealing with systemic issues, and we need to look at them in a joined-up way, therefore I expect system-level thinking to become more prominent in the next 5-10 years.