Gender Smart | March 8, 2024

Beth Bafford, Calvert Impact Capital: Everyone deserves a chance to fly

Beth Bafford

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Guest Author

Beth Bafford

Editor’s Note: On this International Women’s Day, we’re pleased to share important moments in the lives and careers of five women in impact investing, in their own words. The stories are excerpted from “The Social Justice Investor: Advance Your Values while Building Wealth,” by Andrea Longton. Pre-order the book and RSVP for the April 23 launch party at LISC’s headquarters in New York.

In 2008, I quit a lucrative job at a top tier investment bank in New York City to be an unpaid volunteer in an uncertain political campaign.

What can I say? From my first gig clipboarding in Union Station, I fell in love.

I loved the people, the passion, and the candidate’s positions on issues that mattered to me. After a few weeks volunteering on weekend mornings and workday evenings, I was hooked.

I had never experienced such a powerful, bone-deep conviction to let go of my previous plans and follow a new path. Yet here I was, sitting on the subway on my way to work, preparing to hand in my resignation letter.

I had just finished a grueling two-year graduate rotational program at the bank. My boss, expecting a conversation about my preferences for a permanent position, was not prepared for my announcement.

Truth to tell, I was not prepared for my pronouncement.

The subway lurched into the next station. Nine more stops to go.

I desperately needed a surge of courage.

Fishing around in my bag, I pulled out my iPod and pressed play on the latest music I had downloaded. To my surprise, it started playing exactly the song I needed to hear. Headphones in my ears, Idina Menzel’s “Defying Gravity” burst through the speakers.

I had to pinch my fingers together to stop the tears threatening to leak through my eyelashes. The music had broken through my perpetual cloud of doubts, encouraging my instinct to close my eyes and leap toward something bigger.

I relaxed into my seat, closed my eyes, and felt my resolve strengthen. The music filled my soul and carried me off the subway and into my office building.

Before I could lose my nerve, I knocked on my boss’s door to ask if she had a moment.

“Of course!” She smiled warmly and welcomed me in her office. “I’ve got your paperwork ready. Let’s discuss your next move.”

Life seemed to freeze in that moment.

I could see two distinct paths ahead of me. One invited me to pull up a chair and dream about what I could do with the money and prestige that came with a high-power career at a Wall Street firm.

The other path trailed behind me, back out the door and toward an unknown, unpaid future.

But something had already changed within me. I was ready to leap.

I stepped forward and cleared my throat. “I know we planned to meet today to discuss my permanent placement at the bank, but I’ve decided to go in a different direction.”

My breath and grown shallow and I had to pause to collect myself.

“I’m here to give you my two weeks’ notice. I am incredibly grateful to have learned so much from you and my colleagues, but I am resigning my position.”

My boss’ face fell. Several moments sank in silence.

“I see,” she finally said. “Do you mind sharing where you’ll be going?”

It was not uncommon for younger associates to be poached by rival firms. Investment banks competed for talent and salaries were negotiable.

“I’m leaving to serve as a volunteer on a political campaign.”

Never before nor after have I seen a face transform into a mask of pure shock.

We stared at each other for a few beats. Then she blinked and laughed.

“Well, I’ve never heard that one before!”

We both relaxed and I sat in the chair she offered.

“Who are you volunteering for? Will you receive any kind of payment or stipend?”

Leaning forward, I shook my head. “No, it won’t be paid. I will be sleeping on friends’ floors for a while and using my savings.”

Now my boss looked concerned. “Aren’t you worried about your financial future? Your career? What if it doesn’t work out?”

Her concerns were valid. I was venturing into the unknown and leaving behind the world of corporate success.

“I’m terrified. But I know, with absolute certainty, that I’m meant to do this.”

My boss’ head moved abruptly backward, almost as though a wave of shock had blown across her face.

“What will you be doing? You never told me which campaign is worth leaving a job at the top of your field.”

Now was my chance to smile. “I’m driving to Philadelphia this weekend to volunteer full-time for Senator’s Obama’s run for President.”

Shock transformed into disbelief before my eyes. “That’s a long shot at best. Are you sure you want to give up a promising career to volunteer for a first term Senator who’s up against Hillary Clinton? You don’t even know if he’ll win the primary election, let alone the general election!”

Somehow, her disbelief solidified my resolve.  I planted my feet on the carpet, looked my boss in the eye, and felt conviction surge.

“This might be my best chance to fight for the change I want to see in the world. Ignoring this opportunity would be a much bigger risk for me.”

I spent my last weekend as a Wall Street investment banker at Senator Obama’s campaign headquarters in Philadelphia.  When I walked into their makeshift offices to inquire about a volunteer position, the supervisor welcomed me to the team and directed me to a pile of clipboards and a list of phone numbers to start calling.

By the time I returned the following Monday, it felt like coming home.

My time on the campaign was defined by unpredictability. I climbed into 15-passenger vans with a backpack and phone charger without a clear idea of where I’d be sleeping that night. I ended up campaigning in New York, Virginia, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia before I was asked to take on a more permanent position as an organizer in Michigan, a critical battleground state.

I’m proud of the work we accomplished during the campaign and, later, at the White House.

I’m even prouder of the positive ripple effects that have been created by my former colleagues following the end of the Obama Administration.

President Obama’s deep care for all Americans permeated throughout our collective culture. We were all trained in effective and meaningful community engagement, living by the motto “Respect. Empower. Include.” Our work was straightforward: we talked to people about what they needed and their hopes for the future. My job was to listen and learn from the communities we hoped to serve. I listened to rural communities and urban communities, rich families and poor families.

So much of what people want is not about politics. Almost without exception, people want safety for their kids and food on the table. At the end of the day, we all want a community of people who know us and care for us. 

The real work started on Inauguration Day and continued until President Obama left the White House in 2016. My colleagues and I fought every day for policies and systems for everyday people.

After 8 years of fighting for hope and change, the people who worked for President Obama weren’t willing to let go of our convictions. 

We call it ‘The Obama Effect.’ It’s fascinating to watch just how far the ripples extend in far flung directions.

Personally, I carry ‘The Obama Effect’ into my fight for an increased flow of affordable financing for everyday people. I want to see a financial system in which no one is left out. I’m incredibly grateful to have found a new home in Calvert Impact Capital, where I’m surrounded by like-minded colleagues dedicated to being the change we want to see in the world.

Leaving a dream job freed me up to walk along an unforgettable path.

Throughout the journey, I’ve learned time and time again that everyone deserves a chance to fly. The trick is conquering the fear of leaving the ground. My advice? Just do it. You only discover your wings by taking the leap.

Beth leads Calvert Impact Capital’s strategy and new business development efforts to build financial products and services that accelerate private capital for the benefit of communities in the US and around the world.