PITTSFIELD — Alexandra Dest owns and runs a small Pittsfield investment firm where the philosophy reflects her personality, which she describes as equal parts enterprise and empathy.
Early last year, Dest's firm, Willow, became a B Corporation, a certification given to for-profit entities that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.
Willow is one of only 21 investment firms in the United States owned by women to have achieved this designation, and Dest's decision to have her company go in this direction recently resulted in a significant achievement.
In August, B Lab selected Willow for its annual list of top B Corps businesses, naming the firm a best-of-the-world honoree in the group's customers category. The selection followed a rigorous inspection process, Dest said, and reinforced her belief in her personal values.
The Lanesborough resident, a 34-year veteran of the investment industry who previously worked on Wall Street and spent 14 years as first vice president and chief investment officer for Berkshire Bank, said it took a long time for her to mesh the two aspects of her personality into her professional life. We discussed all these topics with Dest during a recent interview.
Q: Tell me about the award from B Lab. How did you get recognized? What does it mean?
A: Very frankly, I don't exactly know how. The B Corps process is rigorous. It took us a good year. We had many questions asked of us, and they had to test us. They actually tested our answers and, based on our answers and our direction and our function, we were nominated and chosen.
Q: [Dest originally founded her investment firm in 2009]. Why did you decide to become a B Corps last year?
A: It's who I am at the core.
I've always had that aspect of myself. I decided that a higher consciousness is needed in capitalism, and I felt like B Corps is the minimum of what any company should operate. I felt it was very appropriate for us to strive and work towards that end.
I really feel that, as corporate citizens, we can do better, and I want to be that better. I want to be the one that inspires other CEOs to create loving change. That is at the core of why I do this, why I do what I do.
Q: What do you mean by loving change?
A: Let's put it this way. Who in the world doesn't want to experience love honestly? And loving change, to me, is the beginning, the human aspect of yourself, the feeling aspect, the truth of your inner world into your everyday life.
How often do people hide? How often are employees afraid to speak up about things that aren't congruent with who they are? In a boardroom, which I've been in, many people hide and say yes and agree to things that they don't necessarily agree to internally. So, loving change is bringing the human element to business.
Companies will often say it's a business decision. But, it was a human who made the decision. So, what I'd like to see is that human element be more centralized rather than a business decision based on profits. It's a human decision. It's not the the company that makes the decision, it's the human. So, bring the human into the company.
Q: This must have seemed radical when you first proposed it.
A: When I first started to say I wanted loving change in corporate America, people thought I was not right in the head. I got comments like, "You know, that's bad, that's taking a big risk." I love taking a big risk when all we really want at the end of life is now. How is that taking a big risk?
Q: So, how do you do this?
A: First of all, we are an ESG (environmental, social and governance) company and socially responsible. That's the core of our strategy. We've been doing that at least since the inception of the company, but in a really large way over the last seven years, before it became in vogue.
The other way that we bring loving change — and this is very important — is our corporate culture.
Change starts right here with me. Our corporate culture is really based on three principles. Our expertise, obviously, making sure that we're experts in our core competencies like the ESG strategy. We're one of the first investment companies in the country to bring cryptocurrency to our clients.
Loving change, for me, [also] is putting a focus on personal development. So, inside the company we created not an employee assistance program, but our own employee coaching programs. There's a difference between the two, because employee assistance is usually when someone is already in crisis.
Coaching is bringing out the best, the strongest, the most joyful aspects of our employees. We don't want them just surviving just by getting involved in an employee assistance program; we want them thriving, hitting their own excellence.
Nothing makes me happier as a CEO [than] when I see someone who has either worked with me or who has even left our employment hitting the ground running and thriving. That, to me, is a huge accomplishment as a CEO, and that is loving change. That is me injecting my love, my care, my energy into the people who work for me.
Q: How did you get involved in a business like this with the philosophy that you have?
A: I'm a very driven person. [Dest, a native of Wethersfield, Conn., majored in economics at the University of Connecticut]. I'm a lateral thinker. I have an analytical mind that actually appreciates stats and charts and reading economic data and assembling a theme and a theory.
That, when I started out, was the dominant aspect of me. I was young, and I wasn't really confident to be my true self. ... I stayed in the industry because I liked it.
Finances are my thing, and it came to a point when I had to really say, "How do I marry the deeper aspects of my higher understanding, my higher consciousness, my deeper spiritual aspect, with what I'm doing?" That was when I hired a coach a few years ago, who is still with us, to help marry that analytical drive to work with clients and make money with the social aspects, the deeper truths of who I am.
Q: Where does this deep social consciousness come from?
A: You know, it's always been there, but I was afraid of it, right, because I had a fear of being rejected, like I think most humans do. I think that's a reason most people behave [the way they do], because of that fear. Once I got over that fear of rejection and not being like everybody else, I realized I was not ordinary, and I like it.
Q: Do you see your philosophy as a trend that may come into the investment world?
A: Absolutely, 100 percent. I think that perhaps with COVID and people having more time alone, you see them reaching out for help to discover themselves. I think that as humanity's consciousness rises, I think there's going to be a demand for a higher consciousness. So, yes, I think I'm on the cutting edge. I think we're ahead of the curve. It's fun — fun and bold.