Standing Up For the Planet

Tom Dinneweth |
Standing Up For the Planet

If you’re thinking business and finance, chances are you are picturing older, predominantly white men sporting even whiter shirt collars, pin-striped suits, and shiny leather shoes. There’s a reason for that - the world of finance isn’t exactly known for its abundance of women, especially in senior positions.

Impact investing and sustainable finance are outliers in this financing landscape, not just in terms of priorities, but also in terms of gender parity. A woman in charge of an impact fund, foundation or social enterprise is no rare sighting. Indeed, the field Impact Europe operates in wouldn’t be in the place it is today without the leadership and dedication of many extraordinary women. 

We could do better, though, in giving these women visibility. After all, their stories are nothing if not inspiring. This idea is the main driver behind the recently released ‘Standing Up for The Planet’. In the book, editors Luca Zerbini, CEO of Una Terra impact fund, and Francesco Pagano, contributor of Il Sole 24 Ore, set out to offer real-life examples of the impact of remarkable women on the fight for a better future on our planet. The result is an inspirational book with no less than 45 different testimonies.

The English version of the book was published by Bocconi University Press and had its pre-launch during our Impact Week in Torino, in November 2023. As it happens, the Italian version, published by Il Sole 24 Orehas just hit the shelves at the beginning of March 2024, right before International Women’s Day.  High time to give it some time in the spotlights!

Origin Stories

Movie fanatics will know that every hero needs an origin story. Fittingly, a large part of ‘Standing Up for The Planet’ is dedicated to showing the different routes that led each woman featured in the book towards a career in the world of sustainability. 

Diversity reigns in these origin stories. For some, the seeds are found in the idylls of childhood, in the pastoral landscape of Italy or France, where they were already discussing vegetarianism with their parents at age four. Others have watched in awe as the melting snow of the glaciers multiplied in volume over the years or have vowed to save dolphins after a magical wildlife encounter. 

In one particularly cinematic passage Leslie Johnston, Chair of Impact Europe and CEO of Laudes Foundation, recounts some of the different turning points in her life. In 1988, just a few years after the apartheid was dismantled, she goes to South Africa as a management consultant. The scars of social injustice and the scenes of persisting poverty awaken a flame in her, that would eventually lead her to work on the front lines of the social economy, helping build small and growing businesses in Mozambique. 

Then, she almost dies. Her airplane headed for Matemo Island nosedives and catches fire. Thankfully, Leslie makes it out safe and sound with her unborn baby. She goes straight back to work, but eventually, the incident makes her reconsider her personal future. Shifting gears, she eventually moves back to Brussels in 2011 and breathes existence into three philanthropic foundations that aim to catalyze larger, systemic change.


Leslie Johnston recounted the story of her crash in a TEDxZug talk in 2012.


Moments of enlightenment, like Leslie’s confrontation with post-apartheid South Africa, are a recurrent theme throughout the different testimonies. Roberta Bosurgi, CEO of Impact Europe, shares the moment she realized that ‘the world is not going to fix itself’. 

It was a visit to Mongolia, a country riddled by different health concerns that are at least in part caused by the customs of the locals. In winter, they keep warm by huddling together in yurts and burning a mix of hazardous fuels, releasing all kinds of pollution into the air. Upon returning home, Roberta was left with a horrible cough, as well as a series of complex questions to ponder. How to reduce this pollution? Who would pay for it? And how do you amount for the cultural cost for people who have lived in these yurts for centuries?

These questions simmered while she continued her career, spending time in Africa with an enterprise that served orphans of the HIV epidemic. Across the world, she met people living in environmental ruin, driving beat-down cars, and living in fear of floods and other natural disasters. The planet needs fixing, and Roberta wanted to be a part of the solution. It’s what drove her to Impact Europe, where we try to remedy these issues by breaking down the silos between philanthropy and business and by uniting capital providers with social innovators of all sorts. We won’t go into detail - our website is filled with examples of how we do this exactly, and how we enable our members to maximize their impact.


Ordinary Heroes

While there are a great number of poetic and emotional testimonies in the book, not all women featured were driven by specific life events or ‘aha’ moments. For many, the road traveled was long and winding. They explore different countries, try their hand at different financing jobs, volunteer with charities and NGO’s.  They spend long hours looking at balance sheets, research papers and budget projections before eventually dedicating themselves to sustainability careers. As Julia Hoglund, a sustainability strategy advisor, states in her contribution, change often comes slowly and incrementally. It can even be quite boring, in this sense.

The journey towards becoming a changemaker can be surprising, also. ‘I had never planned to become a children’s book author, let alone an advocate for the United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals’, writes Mara Catherine Harvey, CEO of VP Bank Switzerland. She describes the long thought process that led her to eventually writing a book of children’s poetry, that teaches children how to make sensible and sustainable money choices. The SDGs, to her, should be learned just like the ABCs, informing all future decisions these children will make.

No child ever should be poor,
nor be hungry ever more.
Nor be ill without good care,
so, life is better everywhere.
Excerpt from "Start Doing Good (SDG)" by Mara Catherine Harvey


Crucial in almost all testimonies is the need for collaboration. ‘Leadership is often defined based on power and wealth’, writes Yasmina Zaidman, Chief Development and Partnerships Officer at Acumen, one of our members. ‘But the people who’ve inspired me have chosen other metrics of success. Specifically, they have chosen to listen, to empower others, to act with compassion, and to creative positive social change’. These are qualities all women in the book share in their own way.

‘Standing Up For the Planet’ does well in bringing a range of interesting perspectives to the table and making positive change feel realistic and achievable. In the words of Christina Senn-Jakobsen, Managing Director of Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley, ‘everyone in this book is a normal person, one whose journey just happened to expose them to a situation or challenge that helped them find their purpose’.  While that is true, it does not make their efforts any less valuable. If anything, it shows that anyone can decide to contribute to positive change, from any angle, and at any moment in their career. 

Perhaps the most fitting salute can be read at the very end of the book, in the contribution of Una Terra’s Luca Zerbini:

‘While men such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson still spend billions looking at infeasible solutions to relocate on a different planet, these incredible women continue to show us that the solution is here, in the most beautiful home we could have ever hoped for, if only we can protect and nurture it like they do every day, rather than treating it as an infinite resource to take advantage of and to abuse at will.’

Keen to read more? Get yourself a copy in English or in Italian – you won’t regret it.