Impact Connections: A Conversation With the Sustainability Investment Group (SIG)

Written by Madison Phelan and edited by Sandi Ruddick

The Sustainability Investment Group (SIG) at The University of Texas at Austin is a student organization where Longhorns can come together to learn, discuss, and create impactful change through finance and business. SIG is the first sustainability investing group at UT and creates a space for Longhorns to become leaders in the sustainable finance world. With three different internal groups students can join, SIG offers a robust curriculum to train its members to be subject-matter experts in their fields. Members range from the College of Natural Sciences to Liberal Arts and Business, allowing for different points of views and solutions to problems to come together and bounce ideas off one another. Now, with their growing membership and investment fund, students will soon be able to invest in real businesses that will help provide solutions to sustainable problems. I had the pleasure to speak with executive members Cole Hunt, Abigail Partridge, and Kisara Dang recently and ask a few questions about what SIG has to offer.

Madison: Hi everyone–thank you for joining to talk about SIG! Speaking of, let’s start off with “what is SIG”?

SIG: Cole — SIG is the Sustainability Investment Group. We are in our third year of being on campus, so we’re a relatively new organization. Basically, we are looking at the intersection of business and sustainability, especially where it meets social impact. We have a few different internal groups, including our public fund group, impact group, and research group. Each one completes different functions and gives our members a different lens on the intersection of sustainability and business. We also provide a curriculum to freshmen, who we call fellows, and sophomores, who we call analysts; that is directed by Kisara and Claudia, our sustainability and finance directors, respectively. In meetings, we are trying to promote a general understanding and appreciation for different forms of business and different forms of capitalism that would contribute to a more equitable society.

Abby — — Like Cole was saying, we have market updates and stock pitches to tie in our ESG curriculum. In fact, we had our first case competition last night that Kisara organized; it was really great to see the students marrying all of these topics they have learned in the org together!

Madison: That’s amazing! Congratulations on the case competition. SIG is now three years old; how was SIG founded, and how did you meet?

SIG: Kisara — The founders (Dhruv Dhuper, Andrew Jones, Atharva Sinha, and Linda Duraj) were all in their sophomore year when they recognized the need for an organization like this. A lot of the recruitment our first year was through word-of-mouth. Someone had mentioned this org in another organization’s meeting, and I knew it was something I wanted to join, even in the first semester. We started out with 7 freshmen, 7 sophomores, and a sprinkle of upperclassmen; we’ve grown a lot since then.

Abby — I think that’s also the exciting part, since it’s such a new org and this is the first semester where none of the founding members have been here at UT to implement their vision. It was really important for us to carry the torch from them and make SIG something that is recognizable on campus, because it slowly but surely is gaining recognition.

Madison: What made you want to join SIG?

SIG: Cole — I joined SIG in the beginning of my sophomore year remotely during COVID, so this is my first semester in SIG in person. I wanted to join it originally because I felt I was missing out on some professional development in business because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was kind of shopping around all the different organizations, and the only one that stuck with me was SIG. I knew one of the founders really well, and I trusted his vision and how he ran the organization as a whole. What SIG actually does is contribute positively towards the discourse surrounding business, and that was really why I joined.

Kisara — Coming into school as a freshman, I always knew I wanted to do something environmentally related, but I was in the business school and there was virtually nothing there. I went to these work information sessions to figure out what that intersection looked like for me, and then SIG kind of just fell into my lap, and it was a perfect fit. I talked to all of the leaders before I applied, and it was one of the only things I was excited to join and be a part of.

Abby — For me, I come from the engineering school and, like Kisara, I always knew I wanted to do something with sustainability or career-wise work on something that addresses problems associated with climate change. I spent the first few years of my college career trying to figure out what exactly I wanted to do in that realm. It started off heavily with a lot of scientific research, and I quickly realized that’s maybe not my place in the conversation. I didn’t like lab work. Then I found SIG in my sophomore spring. I thought it was really cool, because I was able to apply some of the knowledge I know in the sustainability side, but I didn’t really know anything in the finance side. Not only did I get to learn that curriculum in the org, but I also got to meet and interact with people who are also interested in this very specific sector. I wouldn’t really be interested in going into business or going into finance if it didn’t have that sustainability edge, so I’ve really been able to learn a lot from this organization.

Madison: All great reasons! What activities and events does SIG offer students?

SIG: Cole — I can talk about our three different internal groups. Starting off with our research group, it’s our newest group and started last year. Right now, it is run by our two research directors, Evan Pan and Aniket Matharasi. They have a group of about 10 SIG members in the research group, and they work on various projects related to exploring the intersection of business and sustainability in a way that can be applied toward other projects. Right now, they are working on two projects. One is an impact measurement project, where they are trying to identify different frameworks and ways that other organizations and impact investing groups across the country and world really quantify and measure impact, and they are trying to consolidate that into our own framework that then eventually our impact group can be able to use. They’re also working on a research project related to educational technology as related to HB 4545, which passed earlier this year in Texas, and seeing how that bill is affecting the ed tech space. They are looking at ESG topics in business and trying to research them and find different reasoning about them that we can use for different functions. Our Impact group is headed by Jai Gandhi, and they work with several outside partners in the impact ecosystem, like DivInc, Corecentra, and SWAN. They help complete different consulting projects for those organizations. Finally, we have our Public Fund group, which is currently fundraising for our public ESG fund right now. (Contact the GSLI at GSLI@mccombs.utexas.edu to learn how to donate!) It will start off as a $50,000 fund that will invest in public ESG securities. We will use the returns generated from that to empower our Impact Fund, which the impact group will use to write grants to local Austin nonprofits and social enterprise ventures.

Outside of our small groups, we meet weekly as a larger group, in which we have market updates and stock pitches. We also have different speakers, and we have various activities that we do to help our members understand current events. One that Kisara ran a few weeks ago was about COP 26. Students had to examine the goals of the conference and if those goals are realistic. Finally, we have our curriculum workshops for freshmen and sophomores, where they learn a wide variety of topics in both finance and sustainability.

Madison: Is there anything in store that you are excited for next year?

SIG: Cole — I’d say mainly getting our fund up and running. It’s really exciting that we are moving closer to actually having it come to fruition. Our members will actually be making investments that make a difference in our local community. On top of that, we will be having new speakers that are coming from different organizations that are really important in the ESG space. Kisara — I am excited to be able to see the incoming juniors step into leadership roles. I have seen a lot of them as freshmen or even as sophomores; they’ve really grown so much, and I’m excited to be able to see them lead change at UT, social impact, and sustainability. Abby — I am excited to see how SIG is starting to market itself more both on social media and on our website. We are really trying to spread the word, making sure that communication is occurring internally in the organization, but also externally to UT and the broader community. We’re trying to broadcast what all of our internal groups are doing, like maybe featuring on our website some blog posts that our research team has been working on, bigger research projects that have been completed, or maybe finding a way to publicly display some of our market updates

Madison: What is your favorite thing about being part of SIG?

SIG: Cole — Being able to be in a community or group that actively wants to participate in discourse surrounding contemporary business and capitalism and ways to improve that and change it for the better and for a more equitable society. Everyone in SIG is super passionate about achieving sustainability and social impact in their own special way. People come from different backgrounds; like Abby, for example, comes from the engineering school. We also have sustainability studies majors, environmental science majors, and, of course, business majors. Each one views how to achieve a more equitable and better society in their own way, and I really love being in that discourse and being surrounded in a community that cares about that. Abby — I would just reiterate what Cole said, because it’s really amazing seeing freshmen step up and give stock pitches, as they’re very well-spoken. Like Cole said, that’s just a great environment to be in and engage with. Kisara — To second what everyone else is saying, for me it’s about the community that SIG brings. Seeing a bunch of younger members step up and ask really thoughtful questions about what sustainability in business should look like, it’s really important to me. It’s part of what I hope to foster as part of the culture within SIG: being able to be optimistically skeptical about these things.

Madison: Is there anything else you would like to share?

SIG: Cole — If anyone reading this is interested in learning more about SIG, our website is https://texassig.org/ and you can follow us on Instagram @texas.sig. If you’d like to join us, we will be opening up our recruitment again next fall!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Global Sustainability Leadership Institute

Welcome to Impact Connections, the GSLI’s blog space! We were formerly known as the Social Innovation Initiative.