How a mission to save the planet turned into a career in sustainable finance

Five "innovators" across different sectors were invited to share their ideas on topics ranging from science to sustainable finance at the Open Geneva innovation festival on Thursday. Cecilia Serin, working at UNEP's Financial Centres for Sustainability (FC4S), was one of them.

Growing up, Cecilia Serin wanted to become “a professional at saving the planet”.  At first, she thought this would mean becoming a doctor or working in international development and humanitarian aid. Little did she know back then that it would ultimately lead her to a career in sustainable finance. But the 2008 financial crisis changed everything, as it did for many people, and made her realise that finance can not only bring the world to its knees, but it can also be leveraged for good.

Now living in Geneva, French-born Serin is an active player in the sustainable finance scene - and in international Geneva. She works at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as head of members relations for the Financial Centres for Sustainability (FC4S),  a collective of financial centres that are working together to contribute to the sustainable development goals (SDGs).  She is also one of the organisers of the Building Bridges Summit, an annual gathering of international development and finance experts in the region, which held its first edition last year.

On Thursday, she was one of five speakers invited to share their stories at the Open Geneva innovation festival, which took place this year in a shorter virtual format under the theme “no confinement for open innovation: the stories of those who make innovation happen in Geneva". Speaking ahead of the event, Serin told Geneva Solutions about her career in sustainable finance, and working for a UN agency in Geneva.

What was your ambition growing up?

My dream was always somehow to save the world. I really wanted to be a doctor. I was also interested in humanitarian and development work. And instead, I ended up in business school.  While there, my thought was, what can the private sector do to improve the world?

In 2004 during my second year at university, the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, and I wanted to do something to help. I launched a fundraising to help 300 students on the tiny island of Nias, off the western coast of Sumatra, and very close to the epicentre of the tsunami.  I was lucky because I went to business school in Monaco, and there's a lot of money there. So this made the fundraising for my project very easy. So that was really the beginning of my career and my strong interest in doing these kinds of projects.

You were already in business school. But when did you start having the idea of a career in finance - or sustainable finance?

I spent a lot of time in Indonesia, doing internships and working for an NGO. I then decided I wanted to become ‘a professional at saving the world’! So I did a Masters in development management at the London School of Economics and my dream was to work for the United Nations. When you want to save the world, you think of working for the UN, so I applied for lots of jobs.

It was 2008 and that's when the big financial crisis happened. It really had an impact on me because, for most people, the perception was that the price was paid for by financial sector. But what I saw, because I was studying development, was the impact on people. With unemployment rising, it was the social impact, for example, of people losing their homes. And it was really the first time that I became interested in the financial sector.  Before, I never thought that I would end up working in that sector.

How did you end up in Geneva?

I got an internship in Geneva at the UN Economic Commissions for Europe, and after many years of struggles and very short-term consultancies I finally ended up with an 18-month contract, which was huge at that time, to work with UNEP Finance Initiative (UNEP FI). My job was to organise their global roundtable events, which take place every two years and are kind of the “WEF” (World Economic Forum) of sustainable finance. From there, I went to the WEF, and then back into sustainable finance, working for FC4S. I've been in Geneva now for 11 years and I love my city. I think there's a lot happening here and I love the ecosystem - it's really nice to see people trying to work together.

Can you briefly describe what FC4S does?

FC4S is a collective of financial centres that are working together to move capital towards the sustainable development goals (SDGs). And we see how we can help members being more aligned with the goals set out in the Paris Agreements.  In Switzerland, for instance, we work with Sustainable Finance Geneva, and with Swiss Sustainable Finance based in Zurich.

And you also work on Building Bridges…

Yes, I’m part of the organising committee for Building Bridges. And that's really good fun. There’s always a bit of tension on such projects, because we don't always have the same goals and mandates, but we still have one common objective. The UN needs the private sector to achieve the SDGs and the financial private sector is incentivised by its clients work on sustainability. So I think it's really exciting to work on that… In Geneva, you have a strong financial sector, the presence of international organisations and visionaries on both sides and that’s what I think really creates a winning combination.

What do you see as some of the challenges for the sustainable finance sector?

I think biodiversity is lagging behind other topics when it comes to sustainable finance. It is an area that needs investment from the private sector if they are to meet their objectives defined by the Convention on Biodiversity. There's also a problem with the lack of transparency in sustainable finance. It is not easy to aggregate data. At FC4S our members take part in an annual assessment survey so that we can see how far they are from their commitments to the Paris agreements. And one of the reflections is that it is really hard for them to get the data that we asked them, because there's no big repository.

The other well-known challenge is the lack of standardisation [around ESG principles]. I think that it makes it hard to build investors’ confidence when the understanding [around what is considered environmentally sustainable] is so vague. There are quite a few initiatives aiming at solving that challenged, for instance the EU has developed a taxonomy to define sustainable activities, but it is still going to be voluntary.

You recently took part in the Open Geneva Sustainable Finance Hackathon. What was that like?

It was really interesting. I think the most striking thing that I heard during the hackathon was a young student who said “I want to study finance, but I also want to contribute to sustainability. And I had no idea I could do both.”  It was really striking that actually, even the younger generation that is so inspired to do good don't know that they can do finance for that.

It made me realise that we need to do a lot more to raise awareness among students. So for me, that was the key point of the hackathon: let’s tell students that they can choose a career in finance, and also do good things with that.

To finish with then, what’s your top recommendation for newcomers to international Geneva?

Make sure to meet people and network even if this means doing it virtually with Covid-19. You'll always be welcome.  Geneva has a tendency to be known as being quite closed. But I experienced things very differently and actually, I find people here incredibly open-minded. So go out and meet people would be my main advice.