Spreading Emerging Wealth to Women With a Cappella and Bankers

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A South Asian fusion a cappella group had just begun performing at Trickle Up’s annual benefit when a sober note sounded in a private corner of Cipriani Wall Street. William Abrams, the organization’s president, was talking about the friction between the nonprofit’s mission (helping the poorest women in developing countries) and some of the policies and rhetoric of President Donald Trump.

Columbia University students perform as part of Sur, a South Asian fusion a cappella group

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

"America First is not consistent with our approach," Abrams said Monday night. "It’s a global world. Ebola doesn’t stop at borders. Zika doesn’t stop at borders. Climate change doesn’t stop at borders. If you’re really concerned about migration, look at the root causes. Why are people leaving their homes? It’s because of poverty. The enlightened view would be to address things at the source."

William Abrams and Jeni Abramson

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Trickle Up operates at the source, enabling women to create livelihoods in India, Mexico, Burkina Faso and so many other places where people live on less than $2 a day. They are mothers and sisters, raising goats, making incense, tracking weather information on their mobile phones and discussing how to invest their money in weekly meetings of their savings groups. Some are refugees. 

U.S. government funding is 10 percent of Trickle Up’s 2017 budget, so Trump’s promised cuts would not be devastating. On the other hand, this is an operation where every dollar makes a difference. "No one in the sector is optimistic about government funding," Abrams said. "Like every NGO, we’re waiting and seeing, we’re sweating it out. You have to."

AQR Capital Management’s Brad Jones, Mirella Lang and Elizabeth Yan

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

When the a cappella singers were done, Abrams, freshly accessorized in a scarf made by Trickle Up grantees, took the stage, calling on guests to obtain their own scarf by making a pledge. In a matter of minutes, a room full of (boring) suits turned into a room of colorfully swaddled necks, shoulders and lapels (with props to Brad Jones of AQR Capital for his bright tie).

Dria James, Pilar Harris, Toussaint Davis and Carlos Fernandez-Aller

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Another remarkable thing about the crowd was the strong presence of emerging-markets investment professionals, like Carlos Fernandez-Aller of Goldman Sachs and Ben Segal of Neuberger Berman.

One easy explanation: The Emerging Markets Charity Benefit Committee, an offshoot of the Emerging Markets Trade Association, was the honoree, in recognition of raising $6 million for charities since 2003, including $500,000 over the years for Trickle Up.

Penny Foley, center, with Jonathan Murno, left, and Jeff Anderson

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

But guests offered more nuanced explanations. "We’re not the crowd that went to Wharton to work on U.S. high yield," said Jonathan Murno of the Emerging Markets Trade Association. "Most of us came into this industry because we’re interested in economic development. We were in the Peace Corps. My dream job was working at Amnesty International. We have families that come from emerging countries."

Penny Foley, a portfolio manager for emerging markets strategies at the TCW Group, who also serves as Trickle Up’s board chair, said her career gave her the insights to grasp the necessity of the nonprofit’s work.

"We’ve worked our tails off to really change the outcomes for emerging markets professionally, and we know that it doesn’t get down to this population," said Foley. "They’re isolated, they tend to be rural, they’re not anywhere near formal financial services."

Joyce Chang

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

For Joyce Chang, global head of research at JPMorgan Chase, seeing so many former and current colleagues in emerging markets brought on a bout of nostalgia at the lectern. "We were working together before we even knew that emerging markets would be an asset class," Chang said.

“Back when it was called third world, or LDC -- less developed country -- none of us thought we’d be here,” she said. “As emerging markets develop, we know the promise of economic growth must leave no one behind. Trickle Up helps to build up the marketplace at the bottom of the economic spectrum.”

The benefit raised more than $800,000.

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