Former NMBU student makes finance more sustainable

By Marte Skjerping

NMBU alumna Melanie Brooks makes finance more sustainable
NMBU alumna Melanie Brooks makes finance more sustainable. Photo: Fondfinans

NMBU alumna, Melanie Brooks, helps people make more sustainable investments. Recently Kapital named her as one of the 40 most exciting talented individuals in Norwegian business life under 40 years.

Brooks has a master’s degree in Development Studies from NMBU. Her number one reason for wanting to get in to finance and work with sustainability was because she wanted to make a difference.

– We know that we must move in a more sustainable direction and finance must be a part of that. We have come to depend on corporations and financial institutions whether we like it or not, for most of the things we do, buy, need and enjoy, she says.

– Furthermore, the transition to a more sustainable economy and a greener energy system is going to take a tremendous amount of funding. We can’t depend on public financing alone to make investments. The private sector must do its part, Brooks continues.

Did not question that she was going to change finance

Brooks has lived and worked in Norway on and off since she graduated from NMBU in 2009, and is now a Norwegian citizen. She was born in Arizona and has a bachelor in anthropology from the University of New Mexico.

Already before she started her studies, she knew that she wanted to focus on changing business and finance to become more sustainable. Sustainability was a natural part of life and the conversations around the kitchen table when she grew up.

Melanie Brooks fishing in Alaska.
Melanie Brooks fishing in Alaska. Photo: Melanie Brooks

– We talked about endangered species, climate change and water scarcity. We turned off the lights, didn’t leave the water running and grew organic food in the garden, she explains.

Her parents both studied natural sciences and dedicated their careers to resource conservation and protection of endangered species, trying for example to reduce the negative environmental impact of agriculture and protect species through habitat restoration. She describes her parents as brave.

Melanie Brooks with her father.
Melanie Brooks with her father. Photo: Melanie Brooks

– I think working for something that not a lot of other people cared about at that time, take those fights and battles with large organizations and established systems, pushing all the time... I think because of them and the way I grew up, I didn’t really question that I was going to work with sustainability.

With an urge to make a difference, she saw many low hanging fruits in changing mindsets, behavior, and in education.

– Once I realized that most people weren’t raised the way that I was, and that I had an above average knowledge on those topics, you kind of must do something about it. It’s not a choice to just sit back and watch things continue going in the wrong direction, Brooks explains.

Corporations, and non-state actors in development

In her thesis from NMBU, Brooks focused on the role of corporations and non-state actors in development.

She found the interdisciplinary approach of the development studies program and the alternative to go on an exchange compelling.

During her master’s she did an exchange and fieldwork at Makerere University in Uganda, an on-the-ground experience she really appreciates.

– There is kind of an otherness to the way we tend to talk about development when we read books and listens to western professors and development and financial institutions. I think it was very humbling to go to a place and realize that you don’t have all the answers. I think the fieldwork experience itself changes you as a person, she says.

Melanie Brooks did an exchange and fieldwork at Makerere University in Uganda.
Melanie Brooks did an exchange and fieldwork at Makerere University in Uganda. Photo: Melanie Brooks

Succeeding as a foreigner

Since her graduation in 2009, she has had an exciting career. Recently Kapital named her as one of the 40 most exciting talented individuals in Norwegian business life under 40 years, something Brooks is very humble about.

– I think having your name on such lists is due to hard work, but at the same time it’s a combination of luck, timing and having good supporters.

She is proud of coming as a foreign woman to Norway and succeeding in her career and is grateful for the opportunities she has been given.

– I had some fantastic mentors that took chances on me. My first boss in Norway was the director of equities in the Government Pension Fund Norway (Folketrygdfondet). I came flying in from Paris and didn’t know Norwegian and very little about investing at that stage, but he gave me the opportunity to build up an ESG strategy for the fund. I would not have had the career that I’ve had without that, she says.

Exciting career in ESG

At the end of her studies, Brooks went to Paris for a year working in the French investment bank Société Generale. She returned to Norway when she got the job in Folketrygdfondet.

After Folketrygdfondet she was the head of ESG Risk Monitoring in the Government Pension Fund Global (Oljefondet) looking at over 9000 companies and 30 markets.

In 2021 she started her current position in Fondsfinans.

In Fondsfinans she works as a portfolio manager, managing a global equity fund investing in renewable energy companies. She is also head of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), helping coordinate Fondsfinans’s sustainability work across its investment strategies.

Melanie Brooks.
NMBU alumna Melanie Brooks. Photo: Fondfinans

– ESG at the company level is about managing the business in a way that minimizes the negative impacts on the environment, employees and society while maximizing the exposure to sustainable products and practices.  It’s about treating your employees well, not having unfair competition or corruption within companies, and reducing environmental footprints within a company, Brooks explains.

– For financial investors, considering ESG is a part of assessing the attractiveness of a company that you may want to invest in. Companies who don’t manage material ESG risks and opportunities in a good way will face both regulatory and financial risks and this is something you want to avoid in your portfolio.

Bridging the gap with her combination of skills

Brooks has worked with sustainability in finance trying to bridge the gap between the two different fields. Since she started working in finance, she has completed an executive program in finance at Oxford University, studied valuation at BI and is currently finishing up an executive program in asset management with NHH and FFN (Finance Society of Norway) to become a certified portfolio manager.

With a background in anthropology and development studies, her additional finance education provided her with a unique combination of skills in the world of finance.

– I think my background provides for me a much more nuanced perspective in the work that I do. You are trying to balance different perspectives and not making too many clear judgement calls but trying to see the interplay of different factors and co-dependencies that we have within big systems, she says.

– I try to combine all the things I’ve learned in my other jobs and different education, trying to find the companies that have technology, good management, good financial structures and can create value for shareholders in a sustainable way.

Positive development over the past decade

Brooks looks positively on the development in finance over the past decade.

– It’s a completely different time now than when I first start working with ESG and sustainability in 2009. Companies have become much more knowledgeable and sophisticated in the work they do, she explains.

At the same time, there is still a lot of work to do, and she understands why many companies and investors find ESG confusing.

– They know this is important, but they don’t always understand what they want and why. And there are many different answers. You can’t really standardize this because it means different things to different people. The acronym “ESG” is a case in point, as it is an umbrella term covering a wide range of risks and opportunities that will impact companies in different ways. Furthermore, every country and local operating area have their own context. I guess it’s a little bit back to the thing with development theory. You can’t take this either European or US mindset, apply it, and thinking that everybody is going to do it the same way.

She is motivated and humbled by the fact that people entrust her and her organization with their savings, a responsibility she takes very seriously.

– I want to do a really good job so they can invest in a way that is aligned with their personal values and engagement for sustainability and renewable energy, she says.

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