7 Questions for Ester Marie Barbuto, Darden MBA Student & SWE Trustee

Our COO and CIO, Betsy and Garvin, recently co-taught an Impact Investing class at the Darden School of Business. While in Charlottesville, Betsy enjoyed additional time getting to know some students in the class. In particular, Ester Marie Barbuto and she really hit it off!

Ester is a 2nd year MBA Candidate, taking full advantage of the global learning opportunities that Darden presents, much like Betsy did while in the MBA for Executives program 2009-2011. Ester did Global Immersion Courses by traveling in Russia, China and South Africa, and completed a consulting project in the Philippines, while Betsy did the same in China, Brazil, South Africa and Turkey.

Please read their engaging conversation about women, millennials, impact investing, leadership in business, travel and technology.

Betsy:  Ester, I find your path fascinating!  Tell us why you came to Darden, and how you chose a career at Microsoft as your next step after graduation.

Overall I’m a very curious person. I like to experience and understand how the world works so that I can connect and relate to more people, and ultimately improve it!

My career path up leading to Darden was very exploratory; learning about different industries, getting experience in different roles and functions, and living in different areas. Each experience had a foundation of problem solving that I formed in my years as an engineer. I find that it’s easy to sample things, but eventually to excel, you must commit. That’s the reason I came to Darden – to find a path and a role that will allow me to use my past experiences to building myself as a leader.

I also knew that I wanted to do something related to technology. Initially I was interested in wearables and the quantified-self movement. That transformed into an interest in augmented reality. I wanted to learn how to create/manage these products or to invest in them, which led me to pursue internships in product management and marketing while at Darden. Over the summer I interned at Microsoft in product marketing for the Cloud and Enterprise Group. It was a great experience and I really enjoyed working there! I had the opportunity to explore and learn about different teams, and will be going back to join the Windows and Devices Experiences Team as a Business Strategy Manager.

Betsy:  Of all the classes you could have chosen as an elective, why did you choose the Impact Investing course offered by the Finance Department?

As a millennial, I’ve always had some interests in finding meaning through my work, and improving the world. As a consultant at Booz Allen, I focused on innovation strategy and crowdsourcing. This gave me exposure to start-up ecosystems across the country and various incubators and accelerators as well as corporate venturing. I’ve always been curious about how everything connects. I thought the Impact Investing course could help me understand the flow of capital into various organizations via various vehicles. I was also influenced by a first year elective, Creative Capitalism, which introduces the concept of making a profit through “doing good.” I saw this as a natural extension of those concepts, and I wasn’t wrong! Lastly, the professor of Impact Investing, Elena Loutskina is one of my favorite professors and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to learn with her.

Betsy:  What has been your favorite or most surprising aspect of the course so far?

My favorite aspect of the course is that it is very comprehensive. We studied different types of impact investing ranging from private equity, philanthropy, private debt and peer-to-peer lending, green energy investments, social impact bonds and public equities. I always say that as a chemical engineer, I see the world in molecules and the energy that is created from various interactions. This course helped me to define stakeholders involved (molecules) the types of investments (interactions) and identify the value created (energy).

It all came together a month after the course ended when I was in South Africa on the Darden Worldwide Course, visiting Philani Maternal, Child Health, and Nutrition Project in Khayelitsha, outside of Cape Town. While speaking with the directors, we asked about the operations and the funding of the organization and came to learn that a Swedish social impact bond funds the organizations. It all made sense to me then and it was fascinating to see the direct impact of an organization funded by the financing structure I learned about inside the classroom.                            

Betsy:  You’re obviously not one to sit idle, because you’re also on the Board of Trustees for the Society of Women Engineers.  Tell us about that and how you’re gracefully managing it all.

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) is an organization that has played a crucial role in my development as a woman in engineering and broadly in business overall. I’ve been a member of the Society since 2005 when I joined as a collegiate. I’ve had the opportunity to hold leadership roles as Collegiate Section President, Region Section Representative, Hampton Roads Professional Section President, and Secretary and Trustee on the Board of Trustees. Last year I entered my second three-year term on the Board of Trustees.

We serve as fiduciaries for the Society’s Endowment and Reserve Funds ($15M AUM), which provide funds for scholarships, awards and support some operations. It has been a fantastic experience where I can apply the skills and market knowledge from my experience working on Wall Street and technical expertise refined at Darden with my commitment to helping women advance in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

Managing commitments is always a challenge; my experiences are no different than anyone else’s! As you enter a new experience, it is helpful to define priorities. For me, coming to Darden, my priorities were to learn, expand my network and gain global experiences without sacrificing the things that were most important to me, such as: friends, family and SWE. Luckily I’ve been able to do this thanks to the support of those around me. At the end of the day, I know it’s worth it, because SWE is a big part of what continues to define me as I grow as a person and a leader.

Betsy:  Diversity in leadership is something we talk about at Green Alpha a lot.  While we firmly believe that diversity of experience is critical when evaluate a company’s Management Team or Board of Directors, that’s a hard information set to obtain.  Diversity of other types is easier to analyze and is very important.  What do you think the key is to make it possible for more women and minorities to achieve representative populations in leadership positions and on boards?

The key to making it possible for more women and minorities to achieve leadership positions is to highlight that there is no “one path.” As women we often feel the need to be perfect and check all boxes before moving forward. In reality, to get into leadership positions, it’s not about being perfect, but embracing individuality of experiences to add value. Communicating “diversity of path” will help show women that these levels are attainable and that they’re the right person for the job.

Betsy:  In our conversations getting to know each other, you mentioned your interest in augmented reality. Why do you think that’s important?

I am very interested in augmented and mixed reality. I think there is great potential to enhance the human experience and the way we interact with information. We saw the adoption of augmented reality last summer with the interest in Pokémon Go. As new devices are developed and made commercially viable, we’ll see a shift from the use of phones to head mounted devices where we can access information more readily while still interacting with our world – remaining increasingly present. I’m excited to be a part of that future and to help create an enhanced existence for individuals!

Betsy:  Charlottesville is such a lovely small city.  What are you going to miss when you graduate?

I will miss everything about Charlottesville. It has been an absolute delight living here for the past two years. It has great food, wine and culture. I really enjoy riding my road bike and I’ll definitely miss the rolling hills and beautiful scenery! At first it will be strange not living in a place with such strong history as UVA, but I know I’ll come to love my new life in Seattle.


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