HONG KONG, China — Elaine Chen-Fernandez doesn’t look like your average old school investor. At 34, there’s not a single grey hair on her head and her wardrobe is remarkably laid back. The only time you will see this young woman wearing a sharp suit is when she rolls up the sleeves to show off her heavily inked arms, which feature a portrait of Frida Kahlo as well as many other tattoos.
Chen-Fernandez looks like a nomadic creative because she is one at heart. After years spent searching for purpose in her life – a job at Condé Nast had her photographing food and she once even worked for a stint as a butcher – Chen-Fernandez finally found her calling.
A few years ago, she emerged as an impact investor, someone whose private investments are made with the intention of generating a financial return alongside a tangible social or environmental impact. Her journey getting there was both personal and intense.
When Chen-Fernandez was just 28, her mother passed away following a long battle with cancer. Suddenly she found herself back in her hometown of Hong Kong, and increasingly interested in her family’s investment fund.
Though she is the first to admit that she was “not a finance person by any means,” Chen-Fernandez began to study ways in which she could invest her money with deeper meaning and purpose.
One of the people who provided Chen-Fernandez with inspiration and guidance was her aunt, Annie Chen, the youngest daughter of Thomas Chen Tseng-tao, one of the founders of property developers Hang Lung Group, who herself is an impact investor as the founder of the RS Group.
Sustainable fashion kept coming up on Chen-Fernandez’s radar as an area that both interested her, and one in which she felt she could make a difference. Finally, in 2018 she made her first investment with her own fund, dubbed Mad Otter Ventures, with an ethos of: “Doing good and doing well.”
Currently, Chen-Fernandez’s fashion-related portfolio includes the Hong Kong-based environmental fashion NGO called Redress, as well as apparel-focused sustainable venture operating firm Resonance Companies.
“Any investment I am involved in is a personal investment; money is just a tool for me to be able to do the things I want to do,” Chen-Fernandez explains, adding that notions like “legacy” that were important to her parents’ generation are far less of a priority for hers.
“Seeing progress and seeing someone able to further their business because I made an investment brings me more satisfaction than any return I make. For me, it’s about investing in people and their ideas,” Chen-Fernandez says.
Though there are nuances of distinction, impact investment is sometimes used interchangeably with both SRI (socially responsible investing) and ESG investing, which takes into consideration environmental, social and governance factors alongside financial factors in the decision-making process.
Right now, if you were asked to name today’s global leaders in the realm of sustainable fashion, it is likely that many, if not all of them, would be women.
Dame Ellen MacArthur; Livia Firth; Stella McCartney; Global Fashion Agenda CEO Eva Kruse; Fashion Revolution Co-founders Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro; Kering’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Marie-Claire Daveu; H&M CEO and former CSO Helena Helmersson; and sustainable fashion consultancy founder Shaway Yeh are just a few high profile names that come to mind.
Women are notoriously under-represented in the fashion industry’s leadership roles, but in the sub-sector of sustainable fashion, they have taken pole position. Crucially, at the same time as women have been rising in this field, they have also emerged as a force in the investment world.