Interview with Karin Berardo - Leaders in Conversation

I'm so excited to introduce you to Karin Berardo. In this fourth interview of our Leaders in Conversation series, Karin Berardo joins me to talk about demystifying finance and building bridges between money and meaning by helping investors make more impact in what they do with their money, and working with world changers who need access to solid execution strategies and finances to make the world a better place for us all. [Transcript]

Karin Berardo, founder of Abren, has over 25 years of experience structuring investment vehicles and managing risk for Stumpf Energy, M+W Group, CleanPath Ventures, Municipal Mortgage & Equity and Accenture. She helped to structure over $1 billion in capital for renewable energy, real estate and sustainable infrastructure on 5 continents, and served as the first female CEO for an energy finance company in the Abu Dhabi Global Markets. Karin also led research on sustainable natural resources management and policy in the Brazilian Amazon in a partnership between IMAZON and the Ford Foundation. Karin completed her Bachelor of Arts in Latin American Studies from the University of Chicago, and received a dual Masters in Public Policy with a focus on taxation and public finance from the Harris School of Public Policy, and an International MBA from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.

You can reach Karin at and on LinkedIn.

What Are Your Thoughts on the money dynamic in business and organizations?

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Leaders in Conversation Featuring Karin Berardo


[Beth Wonson] Hi, it's Beth Wonson. Today I'm talking to someone who has a topic that I think we can all relate to. The focus is around money, capitalism, the energy of money, and how money shows up not only in our personal relationships in terms of business, but also how capitalism generally shows up in our lives. Her name is Karin Berardo and Karin is the CEO of a company called Abren. Abren is an impact investor and a project developer that works with sustainable infrastructure with clients around the world. I'm going to let Karin go into some of the work that we're doing and talk to you a little bit more about this because this is a topic that really is so far above my pay grade. I bet many of you kind of are having the same reaction, but I think if you listen to Karen in the same way that I've been able to, we're gonna find some ways to break this down and make it a way more approachable topic. So Karin thanks for joining me. How are you today?

[Karin Berardo] I am so delighted to be here with you today. Beth, thank you for inviting me into this conversation and to share the conversation with your listeners. I so enjoyed listening to your Little Bits of Beth and conversations with leaders and I'm delighted to be here, so thank you.

[BW] Great. Well, I'm really curious. Tell me how you kind of got on this pathway? I know you've done work internationally and you've done work with all kinds of gigantic for-profit and government agencies. I'm super curious how you came to this place.

[KB] Well, I never would have been able to imagine getting to this place decades ago or as a child. I certainly didn't know it was possible and took a very long and circuitous route. Well who knows when it started, but I was an exchange student in Argentina in high school. And then in college, studied a lot of anthropology and environmental studies, which took me eventually to the Brazilian Amazon. And that was the first part of my journey working in migrant farmers, helping them do sustainable farming. And really looking at what made effective transformation in those communities. Looking at who are the leaders at the community level and how they helped to make impact in their communities over time. That work was found by the Ford Foundation of Brazil and they invited me to come in. This was 1990 it was a brand new democracy. The military dictatorship had just gone away and they were really curious about the ability of government agencies, state, local and federal and non-government agencies to manage sustainable resource management into the future, into the 90s and beyond. And I learned a lot spending time with public sector employees and understanding what they thought could work and what was broken. And we ended up writing a paper that was adopted by the World Bank for their sustainability programs into the future. So it was a wild experience and I was still only about 25 years old at the time. [laughter]

The funny thing is, as an undergraduate I was pretty avidly anticapitalist and in the middle of that experience I realized to support the communities that I wanted to work with, I needed to lean into finance. In the financial world and also into policy making and leadership. And so I went and got an MBA and a master's in public policy from the University of Chicago, a pretty conservative school, and then went on and spent nine years doing affordable housing, finance, structured finance. I did another nine years in renewable energy finance all over the world. So I really got the nuts and bolts of how to raise money, do projects and work with, you know those big investors and people at the top of the food chain, if you will, from the financial perspective. All of that brings me to today. In my last job, I was the first CEO of a finance company in Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates, which was an amazing experience. I had a wonderful time building culture in this multinational environment and we were active not just in the Middle East, but also in Southeast Asia. But eventually I discovered that my values and vision for the organization was quite different from that of my shareholder. And I needed to make a change that was aligned to my spirit where I could be working with leaders and visionaries in companies that really wanted to make a change for our world going forward. And so I created Abren.

[BW] There you go. I mean, that is just an amazing story and I'm sure many of our listeners right now and thinking like, wow, how is this going to tie back to something that's meaningful and relevant for me? Because this is like such a big experience and I love it. So tell me a little bit about Abren and who you're hoping to serve.

[KB] Absolutely. Abren comes from this last 18-20 years of developing projects. So I do renewable energy. I'm doing some solar energy projects and Africa and Asia. I'm doing affordable housing in western Africa, some sustainable agriculture in Southeast Asia. And I'm also working with U.S. companies on kind of the frontier of green climate investing in whether its renewables and solar, electric vehicles, battery storage, and kind of soil health and our future, our combined future. The way I do this is I see myself as a bridge between investors who want to be impactful—investors on the one hand, and entrepreneurs who want to create real change on the other. With investors. I work with them as an ESG advisor, that's environmental, social and governance advisor and help them figure out how to build socially responsible portfolios. I might serve as an originator for investment opportunities or as portfolio manager or as a strategic advisor to those investors.

On the entrepreneur side, frequently developers and entrepreneurs will come to me and say, Hey, I'm ready to grow my business. I need $1 million or $100 million or more. I've got this great idea and when I look at it and get into it a little bit, I realize they need a whole lot more than a million dollars. They really need leadership coaching, project management, and the nuts and bolts of understanding what makes a good investment and how we can make it bankable. So people think they're ready for money, but there's a lot more that goes into making a good investment decision. And that's frequently how I get brought into projects from the developers' side.

[BW] I heard you say, you know, I serve as a bridge between these two places. I can only imagine when I listened to you that on one side somebody's bringing you their idea right, their baby, right? Ego attachment. Yes, protective. Right. I know how I feel about my business, right? I have developed this, I have nurtured it, I have brought it along. And then you're talking about people who are using their dollars as an investment and they want a return on that investment. They want to do good in the world. I'm hearing that is a component, but it's still an exchange between those two things. And I would imagine part of the bridges, there's a lot of energy and potential for negativity around that dialogue. Is that accurate?

[KB] Absolutely. And it doesn't necessarily happen at the point of connection. It happens all the way trying to get these two parties to connect. There are two things that come to mind. You talk about the entrepreneur and the birth process of a fantastic idea and I've been a part of several startups and I've worked with some pretty amazing visionary entrepreneurs and one of the biggest challenges I find is frequently what makes a great entrepreneur does not necessarily make a great business manager and leader and operator. They have vision, kind of potentially crazy level of commitment to their project and it can be challenging to break through and help them understand how to make things better and to join up with their energy and, and move forward rather than have them feel like you're just criticizing what they're doing. And so that's an art form in and of itself and helping them see that they need to expand their way of holding their business in order to usher it forward into a language that will work for others. I use the word language because when I went to business school I kind of saw learning finance like learning a new language and I feel a lot of times that I can speak the language of finance with investors and I can speak the language of business with entrepreneurs. And frequently it's the choice of words that we use and the assumptions that we bring in to our understanding of the words that oftentimes people do share a vision or an ideal of what they're trying to get to, but they're really constrained by the language that they use and the weights that they bring to that language that prevents them from hearing and communicating with each other.

[BW] Yeah. That is definitely something that we found in the Navigating Challenging Dialogue work. Sometimes what appears to be a disagreement, a difficulty, a hurdle, a conflict point is really just what's under the actual words or language. Speaking of that, you know, there's so many negative stereotypes associated with the word capitalism, right? Money, greed, power, and from the few conversations that you and I have had, I get the sense that you have a vision for how some of the story under the word capitalism can get shifted. Can you talk about that a little bit?

[KB] Absolutely. And as I shared already, I carried a lot of that bias in myself for a long time. And I think that it's easy to look around us today and see how the greed and power is hurting people and our environment. But to really unpack it and peel it back and look at capitalism as a structure, as a way for people to engage in commerce so that we don't all have to be walking around with a half a cow on our back to trade with our bread and hope that we can reach a place of harmony, fundamentally to have private control of assets and engage in free commerce is a good thing. I don't want to have the government own every single resource and tell me what I can buy and when I want to be able to support innovators and producers and things.

So I think capitalism is a good thing. There are two things that I think are needed and fundamental that we've lost sight of. We need free, clear, and open information. Consumers ... always in economics class, the consumer is informed and able to make good decisions and has access to the knowledge about what they're buying. And I think we can all agree today we either have way too much information, we can't figure it out, and a lot of the information we have, we don't really trust. Are companies really telling us what they're selling us? And I think generally not or we don't know where to look. The second thing that we also do need is a healthy appropriate level of regulation and that has usually been the government that does this and they are protecting consumers and the environment from too much pollution from predatory pricing and helping to ensure that we have competition amongst businesses—that we don't have monopolies.

We've lost that in many ways because now corporations are treated as individuals and corporations can fund politicians and until we have campaign finance reform, it really feels like the politicians may not be listening to their constituents as much as to their corporations. However, I'm excited. I still see a lot with all this information. I do see a lot more consumer activism. I see consumers like you and I standing up to companies and saying, what are you doing about pollution? What are you doing about waste? What are you doing about exploiting laborers in some third world country? And I think that corporations are a lot more likely to listen to their consumers and their customers than they are to some other regulation if they can. And so I would love to see more financial literacy and more empowerment for consumers. And I would, you know, really encourage all of us to take our role as a consumer seriously. And also, as an investor and you know, to get engaged, to go to a shareholder meeting and say, this is important to me. If you're not in the room, it's hard for your voice to get heard. And so you've got to figure out how to get yourself in the room and get attention with those companies.

[BW] Yeah. Speaking of getting your voice heard and the power dynamic right in the money place. One thing that I want to talk to you about and get your thoughts on is the money relationship and the money dynamic in business and organizations. That's one of the places where in the work that I've done so much tension is built, so much of an adversarial relationship between leaders and workers. People in all aspects, be it government agencies for profits, non-profits, people feel a lack of control or not being heard. Because we show appreciation, right, with money. Yes. That's our tool. So when you think about that in that whole, we talked a little bit earlier, you and I separately about that whole scarcity impact, scarcity mentality of a business owners and how it shifts and informs our thinking. What are your thoughts on that, on how people can work through that?

[KB] Yeah, great question. I mean, I can see it on so many levels as I'm sure you do as well. You see it as a dynamic within a company and companies may say they're about all sorts of things and they may tell their staff they're about all sorts of things. But the real question is where are they putting their budget? And ultimately the budget is what speaks for where the priorities are and that's what we need to look at. But within teams there are a couple of things that happen that can create conflict between teams based on budget allocation. A couple of the key ones that I see might be two teams are dealing with two different products and one is a fast moving product that has a lot of quarterly response or return and they're able to hit quarterly numbers, but the other team is doing maybe more R&D or more longterm stuff.

Then you can get mixed messages in a company about how you're valued.

[BW] Yes. Right.

[KB] And we're still so beholden frequently to quarterly performance that the people who are doing longterm stuff are really building the pathway for the future of the company. But it's the ones who are doing the quarterly returns that are getting the reward. And so that creates imbalance in just the feelings, you know, and the dynamics between the groups. And I think another place is that teams who are generating revenue that goes to the bottom line of the financial statements get a lot more reward and recognition than those who are creating non-financial benefits. And so the folks who are so critical to morale and culture and communication and some of the non-revenue or cost center, God forbid, cost center activities frequently get overlooked in terms of the value that they bring to the company.

And we all know that we need both. Making a ton of money without having value and culture is not a place that is going to be viable over the long term. So those are two things that we can all kind of relate to in our business or organizational ecosystem. But there are two other kind of more nuance things that I've seen that are internal that are how any one of us may respond. And I've witnessed it in watching manager, leader, even a CEO type who might have some insecurities or confidence issues. And it can play out in terms of how they treat money and how they treat information. And so frequently if they're not willing to talk about, to bring the budget out in public to review financials in public -- and in public, I mean within the company -- and they keep money decisions quiet and private within a small group that creates an entire culture of secrecy and silos and fear in competition within a company that can be really corrosive.

Where I see this really comes from is our culturally individual personal, deep, deep seated feelings about money. And I can speak for myself and I think I speak for, especially a lot of women and even people of color, that money is frequently used as a source of oppression and control.

[BW] Yep.

[KB] And we, many of us are carrying those wounds of not feeling like we have sovereignty or control over what we're worth, what we're paid, how much we can pool our money, what we can do with our money, and if until we can heal some of those wounds and become more empowered and in charge and feeling like we are confident with our money. I think those things end up being filtered through our personal relationships and how we show up in the work world. And potentially how it's, how it's showing up in our society today.

[BW] Yeah, so if you are gonna be going in, which I know you do all the time, and consulting with leadership, CEO, on how to be more transparent around money and how to work through their fears, because I know from having been in the leadership seat at a couple of organizations, there's always the fear like if we tell people too much, right, what's going to be their reaction to it? Is it going to motivate them? Is it going to make them question how we're spending things? Like how do people get to the place of transparency? Within an organization? How does that happen in a healthy way?

[KB] It's a fantastic question and I have certainly observed that fear and panic. It can be a transition. It can be a process, right? If you're in an organization that already has a pretty solid culture of transparency, I think it's a lot easier and people know what's going on and they also feel like a collective ownership and responsibility and we're in this together and let's fix it. I've also seen where a leader might take a wild swing in another direction and go from secrecy to full transparency and it freaks people out.

[BW] Yes.

[KB] What's going on?

[BW] Right.

[KB] And that's a more interesting process. And I think there's a lot of trust that needs to be built within the team or they're not quite sure why this information is suddenly being shared. And as a leader you're trying to, you recognize that you want some transition and some transformation. But, you know, I'd be curious on your views on this also perhaps as a thing of being kind of too radical, too fast. It needs a strategy to do it more incrementally.

[BW] Yeah. Well, and I think for me, I mean I've been in both situations, I've been in situations where the budget comes out and it's discussed and it's talked about and the P&L's have been gone over every month. And then I've been in another organization with things who are very secretive and people demanded transparency and it got released and kind of the advice was all right now don't take the personnel line and divided by the number of people and try and determine what that means. Because I think in the absence of information we tend to make our stories and fill in the gaps and that's a really challenging place. So I don't know. I don't know specifically what's the best way to proceed. All I know is trust is built one conversation at a time and one action at a time and it's a process of getting there.

[KB] Yeah and I think one of the things also is how self-aware each one of us is. And the really thriving teams I've been in, people are showing up with full responsibility for themselves and demonstrating, you know, good peacemaking and communication and you know, really being aware of what they're bringing and how they're landing and they're verifying it and validating that. And I think that's where a leader can really maybe help set the tone by being willing to demonstrate that they are self-aware or that they recognize this is something they need to work with. And I know of people in the industry who, you know, everyone kind of knew they were a difficult person and then they'd show up all of a sudden like, "I'm really working on this stuff and it's not easy and you know, you can hold me accountable on this." And inviting that conversation. It's a hard process as we all know, right?

[BW] It is a hard process. And that is the work of Navigating Challenging Dialogue. I mean that was a perfect cue up for me to put a little pitch in, you know, to say this is what we go in and do. This is what we help people prepare for. Being able to be self aware, use peacemaking skills and to be able to have those kinds of checks and balances with each other in a way that's not triggering, not threatening, not defensive, and not shutting down. So I want to just talk to you just for a minute about what's your hope for the future.

[KB] There is a long way to go, but there's a lot of good momentum happening and I think there's a level of dialogue today I feel with everything that's going on in our ecosystem, in America and globally. People are more aware of some of the things that aren't working. And I think also more open to say, so what can we do differently? My dream, my goal, my purpose is to move conversations and move the work that I'm doing into a direction of stewardship for our planet and for our human communities. Practicing what I would call sacred capitalism, practicing how to put in place responsible behaviors by corporations and shareholders. How to be an activist consumer and how to have kind of responsible and independent rules of engagement so that we can all kind of carry forward and create a more vibrant future for ourselves. So it doesn't happen overnight. But I think that I do believe that there is a space for a more healthy, more balanced, sacred capitalism to help bring us into the next generation, if you will, of what we need to do, to build the community that we want to live in.

[BW] Yeah. Well I know as Beth Wonson & Company grows, we've already got a phone call schedule for you to support me in being able to grow my company in that way. I'm really, it's one of my core values to make sure I'm operating and functioning in the best possible way, in the best interest of the good of the whole. So I'm really looking forward to our conversation in terms of other folks who are listening, who are like, wow, I want to learn more about this. I want to hear about what she's doing. How can people get in touch with you?

[KB] Well, I'm working on updating all the time. The resources on (that's A-B-R-E-N Dot B-I-Z) coming out with a couple of different kinds of resources. I have some white papers and tools on impact investing and capitalism and environmental social governance. Also working on a toolkit for how to build sustainable infrastructure projects, which has kind of the boots on the ground, nuts and bolts stuff. And then I also have some writing that I'm doing that's more on the intuitive side around the role of money and cash and healing. And so I invite you to come check out the website, sign up for the newsletter and in the mailing list and give me a call. You know, let's reach out and have some more conversations about how I might be able to support you and your journey.

[BW] Great. Thank you. Thank you. As always, I love talking to you. I love your perspective and view on business in the best interest of the good of the whole. So thank you so much and we'll connect again soon.

[KB] Thank you so much. I'm really just as delighted to have had this conversation and look forward to keeping the dialogue alive.