caught up with Joy Anderson, the powerhouse of a woman behind Criterion Institute, a think tank focused on reinventing the economy. A serial entrepreneur and consummate networker, Joy’s leadership and expertise have been at the forefront of the development of the social capital markets over the last 10 years.
It was a pleasure to hear her reflections on power, grace, gender, and other forces shifting our markets and society.
Joy Anderson: On Grace, Movement-Building, and Power
I’d love to hear about your story and how you transitioned from a public high school teacher to getting a PhD to starting a think tank.
[laughs] That’s a long transition. There is a piece that has been a consistent thread, which was grounded in my time teaching high school. It’s the sense of understanding who sees possibilities. It is about who feels like they have permission, a vantage point, a broad enough scope, and a sense of self, to be able to say, “I don’t have to merely survive in this system, but I can change it.” It was distinction between the students I knew who felt like they could actually change the world they lived in versus the ones that felt like they had to survive. That has been the driving impulse of my work; that has been the thread that ties my work together.
In some ways the same was true of me. I grew up the daughter of two ministers, without a significant amount of wealth. I went to a privileged school, but I didn’t grow up thinking anything was possible.
I was recruited to a consulting firm where I worked as a glorified grant writer. Eventually I became a project manager for a very large contract with a $14 billion pension fund. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as I’ve been coaching some younger women. I took a project management position and turned it into a strategy, in-the-middle-of-things kind of role. And I did that consistently. It was like, “Yeah, I’m just a project manager, but I’m controlling everything.” [both laugh] So that was my leap out, and then 3 years later I started Criterion. And the last 14 years have been about asking: how do we change what people see is possible to do in the world by looking at broader systems?
There is another consistent theme in my life. I am always disinclined to say, “Oh my, this is so horrible” because there are human beings who created that horribleness. I rarely create an ‘us versus them’ framework because if it becomes that, I don’t know what I can do. So as a teacher, I could decide to show up every day and do what I could do, or I could decide that the entire system was disempowering and that there was nothing I could do. In our values at Criterion, we describe this as Grace. It is a somewhat religious term for it, but it is the sense of continuing to have hope while recognizing the good in the brokenness. It’s not just that it is broken and we have to fix it, but there is always good in the brokenness. Working in finance has been a fun place to find that! [laughs]
You can decide that it’s horrible and broken, or you can say, “I wonder how we could do a better job.”
I have three values that drive my work, and have for a long time. They are grace, hospitality, and invitation. Grace is what I just described. Hospitality is welcoming a stranger, knowing that the stranger will change you, which changes how you think about hospitality, right? You must welcome people, not to convince them to do what you think is right, but to learn about how they think and who they are in such a way that you can be altered by them.
And I’ve always been obsessed with invitation and particularly inviting others. One of the most empowering moments for many people is when they realize that they didn’t need to wait to be invited. That is essentially how I created a venture fund and did all of the stuff that I’ve done. You know, nobody hired me. I didn’t wait to be invited to a position; I created the table.
We have done that really consistently at Criterion. You have to realize it is like the emperor with no clothes: everybody else is waiting to be invited. You can shift from being in the crowd with everyone who is waiting insecurely to be invited into what they think is the center, or you can set a new center, start inviting, and hope that you do a more hospitable job of bringing the next set of people to the table.
Wow. Wow. For people who aren’t familiar with Criterion, could you give a wee bit of background about what kind of work you are engaged in?
Yes. We have had a long and varied history, but I am newly excited because we have a very focused future. Our mission is to change who has power and authority in the work of reinventing the economy. Our approach is two-fold. One: to think about how we can equip the people who will come to the table to have a conversation about finance.
And, two: to demonstrate what’s possible and to show that there really can be new systems. For example, we have done our work on gender lens investing by asking how can we have gender matter in considerations of finance? It’s not just about ‘helping women’ but rather, how do we value women within financial systems and do the gender analysis that informs this work. The role of gender in the world is incredibly profound, but the number of people who have any understanding of that is quite slim.
I equate it to emerging markets. There is a whole sector of financial analysts who can talk about how emerging markets will affect their performance in investments. And I think the role of gender in our world is equal to emerging markets and the opportunities that are emerging as the economy shifts and women’s role in the economy is equal. So part of it is how we can demonstrate that this is possible, and then more broadly give people places where they can practice and see themselves in this work.
My follow-up question to this is what kind of insights do you have on building a movement? You talked about creating a table and inviting people, but more on a practical level, what sorts of ideas could you share with young women who are thinking about creating a new table?
One thing I reflect on a lot is that when we built the gender lens investing movement, we were very careful to not build an empire. Control is both seductive and expensive. And I don’t mean that metaphorically. It is actually practically expensive to maintain control. But you get told all the time that if you don’t control it, that it will get taken away from you and you won’t get credit. So one of the disciplines I’ve had as a leader is just being OK with that.
If you are actually trying to build a field or movement, controlling the field and the definitions, making sure that you are visible in the center, and making sure that you are getting credit for the work that you do… it is expensive. And you would spend more time doing that than actually doing the real work at hand.
I’ll give you an example. We worked to build something called Leaders Shaping Markets. For about a year, I was struggling with trying to get foundation funding to do a roundtable to get airtime and credibility to make it look super important. I finally said: Seriously, I just want about 20 of my friends sitting around a table having a conversation, so let’s do it as a potluck. I had everyone contribute something, whether it was leading a session or support. I learned that the people who didn’t want to contribute anything were actually not really helpful in general. They were the ones who were waiting for me to serve them. They were not going to step to the table and help us build something. Instead they were hoping that I was going to build something for them. That was a really useful lesson.
So, there are several lessons: one is that control is expensive and the cost-benefit analysis on control needs to be done all the time. Make sure it’s not your ego that needs to be in control. And the second thing is that there are a lot of people who are waiting for you to do something for them. In movements, there is kind of this feeling of “Oh my goodness, you are building this… Do you know what I need?” I have always been working hard to attract and be in authentic relationships with people who I refer to as ‘free ions.’ They are the people who at the end of the day have contributed more to the world than they took.
It is very seductive to look at the world and see what people need. That is what we are taught in business school: find out what the world needs and provide it for them. In movement building, field building, and work in systems change, it is often more about finding out what they are willing to do and give because that’s how the work is done. It’s not about you fulfilling their need.
The third point is about power. The whole game is about power in the end. Starting first with your own power and deciding whether or not you feel like you need to be in control. And conducting constant power analyses: what kind of power do you need to borrow, connive, and affiliate with so that you can continue to move things forward?
I think there is a way in which the language of business masks the realities of power. Because it is all ‘just supply and demand’ but that is bullshit. There is a whole level of structural inequities at play.
My head is buzzing with so many ideas from what you are saying. You sort of touched on this when you were talking about Grace, but how would you say faith has shaped your work and your approach?
Oh! I get to talk about that! Lots of people who interview us about gender stuff don’t really want to talk about the fact that we spend half of our time working on the Church. We really do spend 50% of our time working on gender and 50% of our time working on church. For me that is a strategic priority. I haven’t had faith my entire adult life, but I have worked in churches my entire adult life. There is something about the infrastructure of the church that makes it still one of the best systems to get stuff done. There are horrible flaws, but it is a system that we built and it gets a lot done everyday. It is kind of the same attitude I had about teaching in high school: there are a lot of people who show up, and overall more good stuff happens than bad.
So you think about tapping into churches as a way to meet people at an existing table.
Yeah, exactly. It’s an accessible table. I think that churches are one of the most powerful leadership development systems in the world. Their essential purpose is to help people find the path to living the life they want to live. So for us, our goal is to help the various expressions of the Christian Church do that better around reinventing the economy. What if the church was really aligned with people who were working to reinvent the economy and actively involved in that work?
In terms of my own personal faith, most of it is around this idea of grace. It is enormously relaxing for me to know that things can be broken… and that’s OK. [laughs]. I grew up in the middle of the farm crisis in Iowa, where there was 25% unemployment in my town and the highest suicide rate in the country. And then teaching high school in Brooklyn… I’ve always been able to see that the system is not quite working. The role of faith in my life has been that sense of calm in the face of knowing that it’s not the way you want it to be. We can keep working, we can keep trying. There is a bigger thing holding it all together.
That is really nice for me to think about. That is a nice balancer in terms of being really hungry and eager for change, and also a wider feeling of contentment.
Do you have any recommended life reading? Top books?
I actually don’t read much. I always hate this question. I have such an amazing gift in my life of how many relationships I have and how many people I talk to. So I have great places to have dinner with people and have memories of those conversations that changed my life. I think when I finished my PhD I had read too many books.
You were booked out, and now humans have become your books. [laughs]
Yes, humans became my books. I feel like I am supposed to be this intellectual, and I think I am an intellectual, but I read trash novels. I recommend them, they are very relaxing. [both laugh] I live in this sophisticated, heady world, and then I read trash novels and my favorite movie is Pretty Woman. At some level I just want to escape.
So sort of related, but not related… You live on an orchard in Connecticut, right?
Well, since the hurricanes we live on something that used to be an orchard…
I live in a beautiful place, in the middle of nowhere in Connecticut. I’m 2 hours from New York and 2 hours from Boston. And it’s an interesting choice to not living where you work. And I don’t commute. I fly to where I need to be or I take a train. But when I’m home, I’m home. My daughter is 15 and people look at me appalled and say, “When do you see your daughter?” And I respond, “All day long. I’m home and around.” And they say, “But you travel 50% of the time!” And I say, “Yeah, but the other 50% of the time I am just upstairs.” And I compare that to the people that commute 2 hours each way to work.
I was going to ask about how it is to be on the forefront of thinking, but in a rural environment, but it sounds like you are meeting both spaces. Would you say that you have a moment that you are most proud of?
I have lots of them. Every moment that pops to my head all revolve around the idea that as a result of my leadership, someone felt welcome who didn’t feel welcome before.
The moments when I have been most proud are when I have been able to shift someone’s view from waiting to be invited or waiting for something to be created to seeing that moment of power in themselves. It is not relaxing to find out that things haven’t yet been created that you wish existed in the world, but it is freeing when you realize that you could actually just create them yourself.
Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share?
The thing I’m thinking a lot about at the moment is that I took 6 months to write a strategic plan. And I am really excited because after 14 years of experimentation and wandering in the wilderness we got a lot of things done, but it didn’t necessarily look like a straight line. It’s about owning that it wasn’t a straight line and that’s OK.
I think a lot of people are frustrated that they aren’t moving in a straight line. But if you are really working on the hard stuff of intractable issues in our world, it is almost impossible to know what the straight line looks like because nobody has done it before.