Maria Lettini: Transforming Global Food Production

WOMEN

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“I believe that if you allow each team member to contribute, create and drive an ambitious and competitive strategy, which also aligns with their personal strengths and entrepreneurial spirits, you can inspire the best in people”, says Maria Lettini, Director of FAIRR Initiative, who is striving to bring out the best in others to make the world a little better.

“I don’t believe in ‘impossible’ – I truly believe almost anything is possible if you have the will and determination to succeed”.

Looking Through the Lens

Founded in 2015 by Jeremy Coller, the FAIRR Initiative is a global institutional investor network- established by investors for investors- to fill the knowledge gap on the material financial risks in the global food supply chain, with a particular focus on how we produce animal protein within the intensive animal farming system. The impact-focused organization provides expert research and practical tools for investors across a range of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) issues to help manage material risks and identify investment opportunities. The organization also runs collaborative investor engagements with global food companies to improve performance on selected ESG issues with respect to protein production and consumption. FAIRR’s ultimate aim is to create a more sustainable global food system by using the power and influence of the capital markets and long-term focused, global institutional investor portfolios-- the very money in which we depend on to pay all the world’s public pensions.

Maria joined FAIRR in September 2016 as the first full-time member of the staff. In her role, she was tasked with expanding FAIRR’s work, to step up the game by recruiting a world-class team, retaining the best talent, driving an ambitious organizational strategy, as well as being an influential force for change within the capital markets and the global food system. As a growing not-for-profit organization, Maria continues to encourage a diverse candidate pool for every single role as they build out the team. “Up until this point, our best candidate for every role has coincidentally been a woman’’, adds Maria, pointing to the fact that the FAIRR team is almost entirely composed of women. Though that is not by design – the team definitely wants recruiters to approach an equal number of female and male candidates for each new position.

A Growing Appetite for the Food Industry

“Everyone is interested in food – especially if you are speaking about food safety or food security issues – or issues like antimicrobial resistance. For example, many people don’t know that unless we do something about antibiotic overuse in the food supply chain, simple infections may become impossible to treat someday. Its scary stuff’’ says Maria, who herself had a life revolving around food. Maria grew up in a home where healthy food was important and evening dinners with the family were obligatory. As a 6-year-old, Maria was an avid fan of Jacques Cousteau and wanted to be a marine biologist. She went on to study oceanography as an undergrad in San Diego. However, upon discovering that potential research jobs probably wouldn’t allow her to repay her large school debt bill, she decided to pivot her studies to International Business and kept her passion for the ocean as a hobby. She later landed in Investment Banking where her mentor quickly recognized her entrepreneurial spirit and took an interest in developing her career. However, food always remained in the background. Through high school and university, Maria worked part-time in the restaurants and it was through these restaurant jobs that her interest in food was really cemented. First, it started with an interest in cooking and food provenance, but then expanding to more a holistic examination around food’s role in harming and healing our bodies. Then after moving to Madrid in the late nineties, she decided to embark on a long-time dream—to open her own restaurant. With her friends from New York City, she opened TOMA, which brought together Maria’s fascination with food, language, and culture

Maria Lettini, Director, FAIRR Initiative

Striking that difficult balance

Today, Maria’s home is in London. Work-life balance is always is tricky for everyone these days and especially for working, single parents. However, Maria still makes time to cook daily meals for her teenage children, “I think it’s the little things that you do, and do consistently, that make a difference and reinforce your appreciation for what you have,’’ says Maria. Moreover, “cooking is a great way for me to relax”. She chose to stay at home with her then small children for the first five years after her move to London. She then went back to school to earn her Master’s degree in Environment, Politics, and Globalization at King’s College London. “Ironically, we did some research on food provenance and the trends around Organic vs GMO produced food which I found particularly fascinating”, recalls Maria. On completion of her degree, she was recruited for a job at the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment. As the Head of Global Signatory Relations and Outreach, she would speak to global institutional investors about the importance of integrating ESG issues into their investment processes. And, after six years, the opportunity at FAIRR came along– “it was perfect- it combined institutional investors with the risks in the food system”, recalls Maria. “And it allowed me to do something I love to do—structuring a team and a strategy around an inspirational mission that really had the potential to change how we produce and consume food around the world today.’’

Though Maria is embarking on her career with her typical passion, she still has another ambition. “I have a secret desire to write a comedy screenplay”, admits Maria. When asked to choose three influential people with whom she would like to dine if given the opportunity, she immediately responded, “Oh that’s easy…Tina Fey, Julia Louis Dreyfus, and Carol Burnett. They have helped revolutionize women in comedy and I would love to hear about the challenges they faced in a male-dominated industry like comedy and TV”.

Be Bold

Maria acknowledges that having a mentor truly shaped her early career and also helped her develop a solid business sense. She thus advocates for more women mentors and women role models in senior leadership. “We need to support women in their efforts to achieve more prominent organizational roles while also ensuring that there are frameworks in place to retain the top female talent. Corporate cultures have certainly evolved globally with respect to gender equality. It is important that we continue to provide the necessary development opportunities for women to advance their skills while, at the same time, ensuring fair and equal remuneration for men and women of similar experience and skill sets”, says Maria.

As for all career-minded women, she appeals to them to be innovative, confident, and bold to accomplish their goals and dreams. Women should feel empowered to ask for the change they deserve within the corporate world. “If you don’t ask, you won’t receive”, asserts Maria. She advises them to keep following their instincts and to be courageous enough to always be truthful -- even in situations which might be difficult or uncomfortable. “Integrity and trust are fundamental to success,’’ says Maria. With this ideology, she adds, “I don’t believe in ‘impossible’ – I truly believe almost anything is possible if you have the will and determination to succeed”.

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