Thursday 19 August 2021 4:39 pm

Exclusive: 'When I started, diversity didn’t really exist', says Bank of America's international head of ESG

In this series, City A.M. zooms in on a range of successful women in the Square Mile, some being movers and shakers in their respective fields – rule makers, not rule takers – while others are rising stars worth keeping an eye on. Today: Andrea Sullivan, international head of ESG at Bank of America.

An M&A lawyer by training, Sullivan joined Bank of America a decade ago and these days she leads the firm’s sustainable business practices, focusing on the alignment and integration of ESG within the bank’s responsible growth strategic objectives.

Working closely with senior leaders across the bank to steward the bank’s ESG business development with clients, she manages capital deployment to support the bank’s social investments, driving operational and ESG risk initiatives, employee programmes and policy development.

Some in London’s financial services space argue that banks still have a long way to go when it comes to diversity and equality, equal pay probably being the best example. Where do you stand on this?

Society as a whole has a way to go, but we’re absolutely making progress. When I started in the corporate sector, diversity didn’t really exist, and the pull-through to senior level was a challenge at best. But the world is changing and it is crucial for companies to invest in diverse talent if they are to build a sustainable workforce.

How does Bank of America do that?

We must understand the needs of all people at different points in their careers. We are all working to create a culture where our teammates feel included and can be themselves at work. Over the last decade I have seen a shift, with traditional family roles changing, and companies are listening and responding to their needs, offering flexibility, childcare and elderly support, paternity leave, and tailored benefits. This is undoubtedly positive, but we need to continue to take a holistic view of work, to support and nurture talent at all levels throughout their careers.

How important are role models in that respect?

I mentor both men and women inside and outside the bank and have been mentored by a younger colleague too. These connections are key to developing a strong and supportive workplace culture. One where inclusion is just as important as diversity, and where different options are both valued and encouraged.

Diversity of thought is an essential component of a good business – especially one with as diverse a client base as ours.

Speaking of your own career, what is your biggest career achievement so far?

My career path is not a traditional one, but I have had many interesting opportunities. I trained as a corporate lawyer in mergers and acquisitions, and then worked in television, marketing and consulting before entering banking, which brought me to Bank of America 10 years ago. One significant career achievement is my work in helping to build and develop a team whose goal is to help positively shape the core business model. Our Environment Social and Governance platform is something I am proud to have helped create in collaboration with great partners throughout the bank. It required vision and strong leadership from our CEO and senior leadership across the company.

Can you give me an example of how you helped to shape the bank’s ESG policy?

As recently announced, our goal is to be net zero before 2050; we have increased our environmental business initiative target to $1 trillion by 2030 in order to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable economy; and we have made $1.25bn commitment over five years to advance racial equality and economic opportunity.

What has been the biggest setback or challenge in your career?

The ability to leave emotions at the door has always been a challenge, especially when you’re passionate about your work. I have been lucky enough to work alongside some incredibly talented people and have spent my career collaborating to make good decisions.

Working to make the right decision for a business, sometimes takes balance between the heart and the head.

But one characteristic that never waivers for me, is being authentic. I think after 30 years in the corporate space, I have found a good balance, but it’s by no means always easy.

You told me earlier you are a great believer of supporting the arts sector. Why is it important for big businesses to support the arts, especially during these times? 

The arts bring huge value to society, playing a fundamental role in our wellbeing and helping to anchor communities and create greater cultural understanding. They also are a big contribution to the health of the economy. At Bank of America, our support for the arts is part of our commitment to grow responsibly, which means bringing lasting value to local communities around the world, and to the economy at large. Especially during this past year, when so many arts organisations have had to close their doors for 12 months, the knock-on effect will be felt for years to come, not only by the institutions themselves, but by society as a whole.

How does the bank decide which arts projects to support?

We work hard to build long term, collaborative relationships with our arts partners and want to help organisations realise projects that will have a meaningful, positive and lasting impact in the community. Our support for the arts is seen across three key initiatives, the Arts Conservation, providing funding for the conservation of culturally important masterpieces that have been damaged or fallen into disrepair; Art in our Communities, lending artwork from our private collection to not-for-profit galleries and Arts Partnerships, sponsoring shows and developing arts education programmes to thousands of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

And I was told all eyes are on the Tate this week.

In my job I am very fortunate to partner with colleagues and oversee the arts programme in many countries. We have done some amazing projects over the years but I am really looking forward to our sponsorship of the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Tate, which is to open this week.  It will mark our eighth collaboration with Tate and it is set to be such an inspiring show! We have also co-designed an education programme with Tate, which I am excited to see develop.