Diana Propper de Callejon
General Partner, Expansion Capital Partners
Posted on: February 3, 2012 | Go to profile
Diana’s early experience in nature instilled in her a deep passion for the environment and she began her career in Africa and South America working for a non-profit organization, Save the Children. It was there that she realized that neither governments nor non-profits owned, managed or controlled the planet’s natural resources. Determined to make an impact on the biosphere, Diana mobilized her roots in sustainable development work to channel investment capital into environmental and social solutions as a general partner at Expansion Capital. Diana is also a board member of the Echoing Green, which provides fellowships to social entrepreneurs, a founding board member of Capita Institute, focused on innovative evolution of the financial system, and a founding member of the Clean Economy Network.
Q: Please share the story of how your professional journey began and brought you to where you are today.
A: I grew up in New York City and my early experiences in nature instilled in me a deep passion for the environment. I began my career in Africa and South America, working for a non-profit organization, Save the Children, managing sustainable development projects. It was there that I realized that neither governments nor non-profits owned, managed or controlled the planet’s natural resources. This was the domain of business. If I wanted to have an impact on the protection of the biosphere, I would need to shift to the private sector. I managed the transition by going to business school. For almost 20 years I have worked at the intersection of business, finance and the environment, most recently running a $100+ million investment firm specialized in backing privately held companies that commercialize technologies, products and services that solve environmental problems. We’ve invested in companies in energy efficiency, green building, and waste management. I’ve learned many lessons about what makes a financially successful business that targets environmental markets, and I’ve also gained deep insights about how to maximize the environmental and social benefits that a company can achieve. From these learnings, our investment strategy has evolved such that we back companies that not only produce a product that has environmental attributes, but we work with these companies to integrate sustainable business practices across all business operations, from product design through to end of life product management. In this way, sustainable impact is enhanced and sustainable business practices further drive innovation and business performance.
Q: What are 3 characteristics of leadership that you believe define great leadership.
A: Leadership is challenging because by virtue of leading, you are out ahead of your team, pointing the way, so it can be energizing for the leader and the team, as well as sometimes being isolating and lonely for the leader. It can feel like a lot of responsibility. I think that some of most important aspects of leadership are about “big picture” things. I would say the first ingredients of leadership are vision and passion. Vision is critical because it is creating the image and the story of what you are journeying towards. An inspiring vision is what motivates and excites people. The vision helps unite your team and get them pulling in the same direction, and the vision creates the culture of your company/organization. A clear vision that is exciting is the most important thing to craft. Passion is important because you can’t expect your team to follow you unless you can lead with passion and conviction. There is great uncertainty about what will happen on the journey and there are many potholes along the way, and the anxiety and doubt that can come with this is countered by the energy and determination that comes from passionate leadership. Another critical aspect of leadership is building the team, putting your team members in the jobs best suited for them, and then doing all you can to make them successful. This means delegating responsibility, but knowing when to come in with a helping hand, or redirection. It also means giving your team members lots of opportunities to grow and to shine and being very public about praising people and giving others credit for the success of the company/organization.
Q: I love the quote “the bigger the vision, the smaller the first step”. Right now, what is the big vision you have for your career?
A: I have spent the better part of my career trying to figure out how capitalism can support the healthy and long-term sustainable management of the earth’s ecosystems. I believe that capitalism has done a tremendous job in raising millions of people out of poverty and creating a global infrastructure to deliver goods and services such that there is less uncertainty today about how basic human needs will be provided. On the other hand, these advances have come with huge social and environmental costs. According to the U.N., two-thirds of the planet’s ecosystem services (e.g. clean water, biodiversity, stable climate) are in a decline, and the ability of the planet to sustain future generations is at risk. The huge disparities in income distribution between rich and poor (between nations and within nations) that has developed over the last 50 years threatens to increasingly become a destabilizing force for societies. Our economic and financial systems are dependent on continued growth and the growth is based on ever increasing consumption. It stands to reason that, on a planet with finite natural resources, this business model is ultimately unsustainable. Our challenge, I believe, is to take what is good in our capitalist system, and move capitalism into the 21st century, with a new business model and altered “operating system”. This of course is a huge undertaking as it involves not only changing our policies and “tool kits”, but a fundamental transformation of our values and definition of happiness. I am currently working on a few projects, both in the for-profit and non-profit sectors, which are focused on “sustainable capitalism”. Everything I do in business and investing going forward is about trying to get closer to practicing sustainable capitalism.
Q: A great negotiation can be game changing for one’s business or life. Studies have shown that men are much more comfortable negotiating and asking for what they want compared to women. What’s your advice to women who are uncomfortable negotiating?
A: As a girl raised with an older brother and mainly male friends (and now with two sons of my own!), I had a lot of experience negotiating and engaging with males at a very young age. I played a lot of sports with boys growing up and I understood early on that men are naturally driven to compete and focus on winning. Girls tend to build webs of social networks early on and live their lives in relationship to these groups. So in negotiation, women are often solving for a collaborative solution of trying to get to “win-win” for the group, while men are often approaching a negotiation defining success as getting a 100% win for their interests and outcomes. Women also deeply value relationships and sometimes feel they need to negotiate less hard because they worry that taking a hard line will negatively impact the relationships with those around the table. Men are better at separating relationships and business matters. Of course these are gross generalizations and both styles have advantages and women shouldn’t change their style totally. But I do think that a woman’s style can lead her to compromise more quickly in a negotiation, which sometimes doesn’t lead to the best outcome. My advice to women is to enter a negotiation with a very strong and clear sense (down to the details!) of what are your interests and objectives, and what are the outcomes you want. Be clear about what the priorities are and what you are less likely to compromise on. Be protective of those interests and objectives. If you compromise, what has the other side given you to make up for your compromise? Take your time in the process, and don’t rush to a conclusion. Don’t be afraid to negotiate hard and always come across as self-confident! Carefully consider all angles of a negotiation (a strength women have), and be very methodical and reasoned in each move in the negotiation.
Q: What do you think is the key to happiness?
A: My grandmother was my best role model on this question. First, she stressed that health is the most important thing one has. Without one’s health, one cannot enjoy the world. So looking after one’s health is job one. Second, be able to enjoy the small things in life – the cup of tea or coffee in the morning, the sunset, taking one’s child to school in the morning. Whatever it is, cultivate the small things in life, as the small things, not the big ones, make up life’s essence, and these are the things one can bring into one’s life daily. The big things come around only so often and you can’t count on them. The one other thing I’ve learned about leading a fulfilling life, is always live life with a spirit of learning and curiosity. There are always new places to discover, new things to learn about, new people to meet. Being constantly curious and in a learning mode means you will never be bored or unfulfilled.
Q: Life is full of setbacks. Can you share an experience of one, and how you were able to bounce back?
A: I used to run my own strategy consulting and private equity advisory business. Our team wanted to get out of the advisory business and rather invest in companies, so we tried to raise a private equity fund. We tried to raise the fund just after the dot com bubble burst and it ended up being a terrible time to raise a fund so we were unsuccessful and ended up shuttering the business (as none of us wanted to do advisory work anymore). I was able to parlay my experience and knowledge in Cleantech to join another investment firm as a lead partner. The lessons were many but a couple stand-out: there are many different paths to achieving one’s vision or goals. One has to recognize when one path is not working out, to shift gears and find other ways to getting there. And the saying “when one window closes, many new ones open” is very true!
ON Taking Risk
Q: Usually reaching something great or grand in life requires taking a risk. What has been your greatest risk so far and how was it rewarding?
A: When I finished business school, I had a six-figure job offer from the most prominent global management- consulting firm. The job was to do traditional consulting work for world’s largest corporations. My passion, however, was to help solve environmental problems through business and the management consulting company didn’t have a practice focused on this. I tried to convince the firm that we could build an environmental practice, working with energy companies, mining companies etc, to help them identify new business and investment opportunities related to solving the environmental problems in their respective industries. When the management consulting firm told me they were not interested, I was left with a choice: take the financial security and do a job I wasn’t passionate about, or try to start my own business around my passions. So I declined the management-consulting job, and with no salary or financial backing, I joined forces with 2 partners and launched our own business. We had a successful consulting and financial advisory business for 10 years, working with some of the biggest corporate and private equity clients. I had the privilege to be working each day on what I loved, was able to work daily with creative people who also were risk takers, pioneers, and shared my values and interests, and learned so much about things I cared about. Most important we had a lot of fun! This life decision set me on a path of being an entrepreneur and risk taker, and a path of following my dreams and passions. In each subsequent chapter of my professional life, I am able to follow in this spirit and continue the journey.
Q: How do you respond to the question, “how has having a child changed your life?”
A: I am blessed to have two young boys, ages 8 and 5. Having children changed my life in some very fundamental and profound ways. First, I am no longer living for myself. My priorities are about raising two treasured human beings, and trying to instill in my sons a strong sense of self (help them grow into confident men who can pursue their dreams) and also instill the values I believe are so important (integrity, compassion, thoughtfulness, giving back). And having children has also helped me live much more in the present and be less hyper analytical about my own past and future (less navel gazing!). When I am home with the kids, they want me focused on the here and now because they are living in the present moment. There is nothing that annoys them more than one of their parents looking at their blackberry or doing emails. Learning to live in the present is a very grounding (and challenging!) experience.
ON Personal Finance
Q: What are your top three finance tips for women?
A: Financial independence, financial independence, financial independence. And create it for yourself so that you are not dependent on someone else for it. It means you have to work harder, but you’ll never have to make decisions based on anyone else’s claims on you – and being financially dependent on someone comes with a lot of emotional baggage that impacts your life choices.