Interviews

David OLeary on finding and sticking to values

What does volunteering in Africa and going bankrupt have to do with social impact? They are both key parts of David O’leary’s journey to starting Kind Wealth, a new kind of financial advisory company, and becoming the Director of Impact Investing at World Vision Canada. David’s on a mission to help you connect your money with your values and shares with us his story of how and why he started Kind Wealth, what he’s learned along the way and advice to others looking to get a job.

When did you know you wanted to work in social impact? 

Pin pointing the exact time is hard but sometime after I met my wife. She came from a long line of international development workers and missionaries so while I grew up in a sheltered suburban Toronto neighborhood, she grew up in Ethiopia during the 1980’s famine. She opened my eyes to the problems in the world beyond my own bubble.

I took a sabbatical from my job at the time, Morningstar, and spent six weeks volunteering in Sierra Leone with World Vision Canada. I learned about the work World Vision was doing to help improve the lives of smallholder farmers. Seeing poverty first hand fundamentally shook my world.

It sounds like a bad cliché, I know, another rich white guy goes to Africa and then comes back talking about how changed he was. But that’s exactly what happened. And that was the start of a long journey of self discovery.

It sounds like a bad cliché, I know, another rich white guy goes to Africa and then comes back talking about how changed he was. But that’s exactly what happened. And that was the start of a long journey of self discovery.

How did you feel when you came back?

I became infuriated by the uneven distribution of opportunity in the world. I realized what an unfair an economic advantage I had through the sheer random luck of being born in Toronto. The trip was an emotional roller coaster that left me, at once, angry, sad, inspired, and motivated to do something about the poverty I had witnessed. I didn’t realize it then, but two years later I would move to South Africa and four years after that I would quit my job at Morningstar, and two years after that come back full circle when I accepted the role of Director of Impact Investing at World Vision Canada which I do while building Kind Wealth.

How did your previous work / life experience prepare you for a career in social impact?

My experiences in Africa and with Morningstar prepared me for a career in social impact. But I had one other life experience that has had a massive impact on me personally and professionally: at 21 years old, with nearly $300,000 in debt, I went bankrupt.

….at 21 years old, with nearly $300,000 in debt, I went bankrupt.

In the late 1990’s, I was young and naïve, with very little formal financial education and began investing in the markets. It was the tail end of the biggest bull market and I began investing the little savings I had in the markets and did extraordinarily well. Credit was fast and loose at the time, and I managed to borrow $50,000 in lines of credit from the bank. I further leveraged that borrowed money by purchasing stocks, and stock options, on margin. This scheme allowed me to control $300,000 worth of stock. Unfortunately for me, this all happened prior to my MBA and attaining the CFA.

I knew very little about investing and the risk I was taking, and the party ended in 2000 when the technology bubble burst and the markets began a crash that would last the new couple of years. It was a period of deep shame and embarrassment for me. But it was also an incredible learning experience. Reading about investing, and experiencing such an extraordinary period first hand, are two very different things. The lessons I learned have been invaluable to me in my career at both World Vision Canada and at Kind Wealth as I help both organizations and our clients think about financial risk and how to manage it.

What inspired you to start Kind Wealth and what do you hope to achieve?

My experience at Morningstar profoundly shaped who I am today. My job was to evaluate mutual funds and the companies that offered them. Far too often, the largest companies were pursuing practices that were in their best interest; rather than in the best interests of their clients. In my mind, too many Canadians were paying far too much for financial advice and the quality of that advice was poor. I spoke very publicly and very critically about the industry for many years.

Starting Kind Wealth was my way of moving from a backseat driver to actually doing something about the problems I saw; instead of just commenting on them.

Starting Kind Wealth was my way of moving from a backseat driver to actually doing something about the problems I saw; instead of just commenting on them. I set up Kind Wealth to address all the problems I had been complaining about in our industry for the past two decades. I also saw how I – and many of my friends – wanted to be more conscious about using our money in a way that matched our values. So Kind Wealth focuses on that aspect as well.

What’s one positive thing that a former employer/mentor taught you that you continue to appreciate? 

I cut my teeth in the world of finance at a company called Morningstar which provides products and services to help investors make better decisions. The organization highly values transparency and fiercely guards its independence. I was lucky enough to report directly to Scott Mackenzie, the CEO of Morningstar Canada who embodied these characteristics. Often times, we were very critical and public with our criticisms of some of the largest firms in the industry; many of which purchased products and services Morningstar offered. Due to the organization’s strong values, I never once felt pressured to change a negative rating or opinion because it might upset a client. So it shouldn’t be any surprise then that I’ve explicitly stated Kind Wealth’s core values directly on our website as a constant reminder to us and our clients.

What advice do you have for people looking for social impact jobs?

Go out and network. Of course, keep on top of job postings and use a great resource like this one at Bmeaningful. But don’t make formal job applications your only strategy. Get out and meet people face to face to learn more and grow your network.

But there’s a right and wrong way to network. And the idea of networking can be daunting for many people. I have two hacks that absolutely revolutionized my ability to network.

  1. Use LinkedIn. This is the most underrated social platform around. Search through the People You May Know section of the site every day and look through the suggestions they give you. Make a connection request (make sure to personalize the request and include a note that explains why you’re reaching out to the person) to anyone who interests you and you’d like to get to know better. And if you don’t have any specific reason why that person may want to speak with you, don’t sweat it. Just be honest, try something like, “Hey I stumbled across your profile and your background/experiences are fascinating! If you’re open to grabbing coffee, I’d love to learn more about your work and how you ended up where you are now.” Not everyone will be open these types of requests. Don’t worry about them because plenty of others will be open to it.
  2. Shift your mindset. I used to feel a lot of anxiety about asking someone to connect because I worried they would think I wanted something from them. And that is how I thought networking worked. I associated networking with being fake and trying to sell someone something. But a switch flipped for me when I realized that successful networking is not about what you can get from another person, it’s about what you can do for them. Try to figure out what they are most in need and what they’re most excited about at this point in their career and think about how you might help them. Do you have expertise that’s helpful to them or do you know anyone else they could benefit from knowing? Any time you meet with someone new, ask yourself, and ask them explicitly, what you can do to help them. In the long run, that good karma will come back to you. People will reciprocate if you lead with kindness and generosity. Once I started approaching networking from that mindset I haven’t once felt any anxiety about asking a complete stranger for lunch or coffee.

 

Like what David  has to say? There’s a job available on his Impact Investing team at World Vision Canada right now. Check  out the posting for Manager of Business Development here.

 

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