Five lessons I learnt hosting Australia’s millennial and Gen Z-focussed investment event, MarketLit

Five lessons I learnt hosting Australia’s millennial and Gen Z-focussed investment event, MarketLit

Lelde Smits

How important is diversity to you? What started as a small self-funded idea to celebrate diversity grew faster than I could ever have expected. MarketLit attracted interest from speakers and investors around the world, the Australian government and an international audience. But, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. We faced obstacles from media and investment professionals who felt the voices we wanted to include were not worth their time. This in turn generated national headlines and fired up debates across multiple issues, digital platforms and financial commentators.

The Capital Network, an investor relations company I co-founded with Julia Maguire, held MarketLit, Australia’s first millennial and GenerationZ-focused investment conference livestream on July 2, 2021. The event sought to promote inclusivity, bringing together insights into the world of finance and highlight the priorities of emerging investors through showcasing how ASX-listed companies were applying Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG).

Here are five key takeaways from my experience organising the event:

1. Women and young people are investing at record levels 

When news broke that women and young people invested at record levels last year, I knew this was a turning point in the finance industry. Pandemic purchasing hasn’t just been confined to the isles of the supermarket in the past year. Record amounts of government stimulus have propelled people to enter the stock market. The last ASX AustralianInvestors Study showed women comprised 45% of total new investors over the last 12 months before its report. While property holds a higher barrier to entry, shares are accessible to many and the Australian share market has continued to smash through all-time highs in August.

Having spent my career as a journalist, entrepreneur and investor relations director in this male-dominated industry, I could feel change was here. As a result, I felt compelled to positively welcome Australia’s emerging young and female investors and create an event unlike any I had seen before. While women and young people may be investing at record levels, the rest of the industry is clamouring to keep up with their preferences. I knew diversity and inclusion would have to be at the heart of this venture, I couldn’t have imagined how these values could have been so misconstrued.   

Lelde Smits on Wall Street 2015.

2. New investors are demanding ESG considerations 

We all know the environment is important and most of us believe that companies should do the right thing, but what does this mean when it comes to investment? According to Morgan Stanley, 86% of millennials are interested in sustainable investing and twice as likely as the overall investor population to invest in companies focussed on ESG. At the same time, millennials are set to inherit about $3.5 trillion from their parents in the next 20 years, according to Nabtrade. These are the investors of the future and they are already casting their votes for the companies that will succeed in the long run. 

With this in mind, we asked every company presenting at MarketLit to highlight how they are addressing ESG in their five-minute presentations. Companies come in many shapes and sizes and ESG has traditionally been a consideration of only larger companies. However, in recent years, smaller companies, many of whom are not profitable, are increasingly now starting to factor in ESG, highlighting that sustainable investing is no longer a niche consideration. 

Some companies found this easy and were excited to talk about the ESG initiatives that they work on and don’t get to celebrate. Other companies found it really hard. It forced them to examine what they are doing, and how they can do better. Some even thanked us for the opportunity to assess and update their ESG approach. Everyone felt as though they were contributing to something good and right and proved that focusing on ESG will put us on ‘the right side of history’. 

3. The children of the future will choose purpose over profit

Demographer Mark McCrindle has coined the phrase ‘Generation Alpha’ to describe the children of millennials. According to McCrindle, purpose-charged investment choices from emerging investors are set to get even more pronounced as Gen Alpha increases its brand influence and purchasing power. McCrindle says Gen Alpha is the most materially endowed and technologically savvy generation ever, and that they will enjoy a longer lifespan than any previous generation of Australians.

Fellow demographer Bernard Salt also addressed emerging demographic changes during MarketLit, noting that young investors are driven more by the pursuit of meaning over financial factors, “They are driven not so much by financial measures. They are driven by the pursuit of meaning… Are they investing in something, are they doing something, are they working in an organisation that makes a positive contribution to the planet, to society?… More subdued, more family, more tribal, more communal, more focused on repairing the damage, more focused on climate change issues, making a contribution to society, these are the things that I think are going to motivate the next generation.”

If you don’t know about Gen Alpha, you will soon. They will be the next stage in the evolution of our investment landscape in more ways than we can now conceive as their influence increases in the coming decades.  

4. Diversity and inclusion has a long way to go  

MarketLit set out to prove that diversity and inclusion are the new normal. We invited young and old voices, local and global, women and men, big and small companies and they all said yes. For my entire career, I have attended and presented at conferences and events in the finance industry where I have been in the minority as a woman or seen only larger companies with big budgets present. Given the record number of women and young people investing on the ASX, I wanted to present an event with speakers as diverse as those it was seeking to connect with. Given the importance of ESG for emerging investors, I wanted to show companies of all sizes, even smaller ones who are not profitable, are considering ESG factors.  

While I thought hosting a diverse range of speakers made sense, the response was mixed. Sadly, the criticism was exclusively directed to young women, without financial licences, who were presenting about their personal finance experience. Interestingly, none of the young or older men, who also don’t hold financial licences, were in the firing line. Despite my best efforts to create an inclusive and supportive event, some young women told me they felt scared to present. I was also taken aback by criticism of smaller companies presenting. I had approached their inclusion as a positive, highlighting how companies were considering ESG alongside profit aspirations. But, despite putting a disclaimer in every possible place possible, others said smaller companies represent “too much risk”.

I would say, just as most financial commentators, that all investment presents risk. MarketLit sought to acknowledge risk, while celebrating the new generation of investors entering this industry. Sadly however I saw the world, and Australia’s financial community, is not yet where I would like it to be. Women without licenses who talk about financial empowerment and the importance of education are labelled irresponsible. Smaller companies who speak up are scorned for not achieving the status of larger counterparts. But, the tide is turning. I was particularly encouraged by the number of female presenters who thanked me for ‘giving them a voice’. Company presenters who spoke about ESG were grateful for the opportunity to discuss what is still considered a niche consideration. Heart-warmingly, the audience overwhelmingly said, “this is new, fresh and the future”.

5. Financial influencers are loved, loathed and misunderstood 

Since the dawn of time influence has been a double-edged sword. Those who love an influencer will vouch for their glory while those who loathe one will look for their weakness. While people have had influence throughout history, social media has put a spotlight on those with followers and amplified criticism. Given the emergence of the term ‘finfluencer’ I thought it would be beneficial to invite financial content creators of all ages to speak about their personal investment journeys and specifically asked them to highlight their personal experience. The response to the term, even from presenters, was split. 

One young woman said she would only participate if she was not put in a finfluencer category as she feared she would be unfairly targeted by the media. One older man told me he was delighted to be called a finfluencer and asked if he could be listed as ‘an original finfluencer’. Perhaps the division of thought is a reflection of the separation of expectations between how women and men are received when they talk about finance. Over the past 50 years ‘finfluencers’ have traditionally been older men in suits on television or in the newspaper, praised for inspiring the community to take an interest in finance. When younger women do the same on social media they are a magnet for criticism. 

In reality, all ‘finfluencers’ we invited to present spoke about their passion for responsible investment, inspiring others to climb out of debt and take control of their finances through doing their own research. ‘Not Financial Advice” was in the title of the livestream, and almost everywhere else we could include it. Making young female finfluencers the enemy is great clickbait, but also highlights how many are misunderstood. All ‘finfluencers’ I spoke to wanted nothing more than to adhere to the rules and where delighted Australia’s corporate regulator was presenting alongside them.

Irrespective of your level of idealism or scepticism on emerging trends such as the power of social media, anyone in doubt should take comfort from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) who reminded all viewers, the world of investment is full of risk, and as it evolves we can be certain the regulator is watching. 

Was it all worth it?

Since holding MarketLit, we have been inundated with people asking if we will be organising a similar event in the future. After digesting the impact from hosting an Australia-first event there were many lessons I learnt, many more than outlined above, but overwhelmingly I learnt that diversity matters, and promoting diversity matters.

More than one third of the +15,000 audience members who tuned in were women. Overwhelmingly the feedback praised diverse voices. Change is never comfortable, but it is inevitable. MarketLit has fuelled my desire to help further reduce the fear women in finance can feel and show the rising preference for purpose over profit in our community. However MarketLit evolves and expands, I hope the fundamental vision and values remain and that people and investors can start to see and use finance as a force for good.

So what do you think? Do you feel there is enough diversity in the finance world, or what more needs to be done to address inequality? Are you a believer in considering ESG before investing or do you just look to make money? Where is the future of finance heading and what changes do you want to see?

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