The ESG Initiative at the Wharton School


ESG Pioneer Suzanne Biegel Wants Impact Investors to ‘Get Off the Sidelines’

*We are deeply saddened to share that Suzanne Biegel passed away in London on September 20, 2023, after bravely navigating metastatic lung cancer for more than two years. She was an absolute force: a dear friend, an incredible leader, and a true changemaker. Her remarkable impact on all those who knew her and the field of gender-smart investing can not be understated. She will be dearly missed.*

Wharton graduate Suzanne Biegel is a global leader in gender-smart investing who has influenced billions of dollars in capital. She is the founder of the consultancy Catalyst at Large and was co-founder of GenderSmart, which is now 2X Global. For 22 years, she has leveraged her deep networks in finance, philanthropy, development, research, and entrepreneurship to connect public and private investors to the people and information they need to move their capital in a gender-smart way.

Suzanne Biegel posed smiling in a professional headshot wearing all black and bright blue glasses

“If you’re not waking up every day and thinking about your part of the solution, then I don’t know what you’re doing.”

– Suzanne Biegel, W’84, C’84

Biegel, who graduated in 1984 with a dual major in marketing and management, is also a longtime senior adviser to the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, which became a part of the ESG Initiative under the name Impact Investing Research Lab in July 2022. She has collaborated with the school to create Project Sage, a series of reports tracking venture capital, private equity, and private debt with a gender lens. Her co-author Sandra Maro Hunt, Managing Director of the ESG Initiative, says “I was trying to find the words to capture Suzanne’s passion and commitment then read the interview below and realized she selected the best word herself: obsessed. That is the only word that captures the passion, commitment, and tenacity of her work.”

Biegel, 60, was recently diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and has been candid about her health. She said her illness has brought even sharper focus to her lifelong mission of gender equality and solutions to the climate crisis. This year, she and her husband, Daniel Maskit, invested $1 million to launch an endowment toward those goals.

Biegel, a New Yorker who currently lives in London and has dual citizenship, spoke by phone to a reporter for the Wharton School about her career, her association with the school, and what she hopes will be a lasting legacy of change.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Wharton: You’ve been advocating for women founders and gender-smart investing for decades. What inspired your dedication to this mission? Was there an a-ha moment for you, or did it evolve over time?

Suzanne Biegel: I was definitely a feminist from way back. My mom was a member of the League of Women Voters. I joined an amazing woman founder in 1991 and helped build a phenomenal business with her that was very gender balanced (IEC, an edtech firm). We were two women owners, two women leaders, we had a gender-balanced team and saw the value of diversity. I knew a lot of women founders in the tech space who were absolutely brilliant, and they were capital starved. Why is it that they are capital starved and not being seen for being as brilliant as men?

I got more sophisticated as I learned about the issues that women are disproportionately facing. I joined the Women Donors Network in 2006. I taught them about impact investing, and they taught me about women’s philanthropy. They taught me about where else one could look to have a positive impact on women beyond the founder- to the workers, to those in supply chains, to customers, and more.

It went far beyond women as the entrepreneur and into women as agents of change in even more areas. We are talking about women fund managers. Women investment intermediaries who are creating new structures. Women as architects, innovators, and scientists coming up with climate-smart solutions and new business and service models. Right now, we know that women who are on par or better than men at the same jobs are being discriminated against. Venture capital evaluates women on a different level for their confidence and competence than men, and there’s so much data on this. I felt that if I wanted to address social and environmental issues with my capital, the smartest thing I could do was to back women and get more women as investors. And we have to address the power dynamics within the investment system. Whose expertise is valued? Whose experience is valued? Who has a voice in negotiations?

Why do I care? Because it’s 2023 and I can’t believe the level of discrimination. Less than 2% of VC is going to women, and that has gone down in the past year. All the evidence of women not being on the same playing field makes me angry, makes me frustrated and surprised and just incredulous. Because I came out of Wharton with consumer marketing and management degrees, I also understand what it takes to make change, and that what is obvious to me isn’t necessarily obvious to the market.

If I think back to 1981 when I was in school, I never could have imagined that we’d be here right now. I could not have imagined, in the moment of Wharton Women and being captain of the ultimate Frisbee team and having all kinds of opportunities at Wharton and Penn and Annenberg, that we would be so far behind in 2023. That’s one of the things that gets me out of bed in the morning. I feel that if we have resources, we must use those resources to change the game and change the system and not tinker around on the edges. We have to think from a systems perspective, and we need to get serious about this. It’s not going to happen by accident.

Wharton: What do you want investors and the rest of the world to know about women in business?

Biegel: My overarching message is that women are agents of change, women are leaders, women are innovators. I hate generalizations, but we are great at decision-making. We have to be making decisions all the time. We are open to new ideas. We have poly-crises in the world, and we need dynamic, innovative leadership from 100% of the population, not 50%. We need to value indigenous approaches, not just new approaches. We have wisdom that spans ages, and plenty of women aren’t bound by egos that say it has to be done this way. I think women, by and large, have the ability to see that things don’t need to work in a predictable way, and right now we need everything we’ve got. We cannot afford to leave things on the table, and we don’t have time.

This is something that is really salient for me: We don’t have time to be wasting time around this. I feel the urgency of time around my health, but I also feel the urgency of time around the climate crisis, the equity crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement, the refugee crisis. I feel so deeply that we don’t have time to waste. If you’re not waking up every day and thinking about your part of the solution, then I don’t know what you’re doing.

In the competition for talent, we’re not going to be able to afford to not pay attention to what women need, for good jobs. There is this question of not stereotyping and getting out of the way of saying we have to have care benefits, pay equity, and safe work environments, free from gender based violence.

I’ve done some work in emerging markets, and when I’ve talked to men in Africa, in South Asia, in Latin America, I will ask them, “You need a new controller, are you going to hire a man or a woman?” They say, “I want to hire a woman, but I can’t find them.” If you don’t have women at the top, women are not going to see themselves, are not going to be tapped into that talent base.

They are going to miss out on that talent pool. Even on the board side, they are going to say, “I can’t find women.” Well, you’re just not looking hard enough and not looking to the [existing] networks. If you had more women in the picture, you would be able to find those women.

Image from 2017 Social Impact Initiative event with Suzanne Biegel, Sandra M. Hunt, and others on stage speaking before a room of professionals.

“I wanted to open up this dialogue about how you could use business as a force for positive social and environmental change. I found a really good set of like-minded people at Wharton…”

– Suzanne Biegel, W’84, C’84

Wharton: You’re a Wharton grad who has remained a longtime collaborator. Can you tell me about your time at the school, the doors it opened, and why you continue your engagement?

Biegel: As a student, I got the chance to work in West Philly on a project in the community, where you got paired with a business and figured out how you can help them. I was given access to a lot of tech innovation. I was part of Wharton Women and got a chance to see smart, inspiring women professors and women leaders in the business world and financial world.

Later, when I was so focused that all of my investment needed to be in social impact, I wanted to open up this dialogue about how you could use business as a force for positive social and environmental change. I found a really good set of like-minded people at Wharton – professor Katherine Klein, Sandi Hunt, and Sherryl Kuhlman [of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative] — who didn’t say I was crazy, and they bought into what my world view was, although they did provide a lot of challenge to my ideas. I learned a lot about confirmation bias, rigor around statistics, and the value of Wharton as a brand that holds up integrity and excellence in its work.

I was given a platform to do guest teaching and design and execute a conference on gender-lens investing. I brought my research agenda. I wanted to show the shape of the market and do that research at a substantive institution with partners like Katherine and Sandi and Sherryl, who were going to challenge me and support the research.

In 2017, I started Project Sage: Tracking Venture Capital with a Gender Lens. It has been my baby and is now going to a new home at 2X Global. I personally kept the database of all the funds that I could find that had a gender lens. We were able to tell a story about the size and scale and scope of the market, which continues to play an important role to say there is a market here. If all the funds we were counting in 2021 raised all their capital, it would be $13.5 billion, and $6 billion had been raised. When people say there’s nothing to invest in, I was able to very easily say, “There’s actually $7 billion more to invest in right now.”

We were able to spin the data in a lot of ways, and it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve gotten to do at Wharton. I feel like I’ve been very well supported with my aspiration of wanting people to understand the fact that you can use business and investment as a tool for social and environmental change.

Wharton: Tell me about the name Catalyst at Large. Is there a story behind its meaning?

Biegel: When we sold IEC, I realized that I was helping all kinds of people connect to money, ideas, other people, and resources, I needed to call myself something, and I just felt like Catalyst at Large said, “I am a catalyst who brings people, projects, and money together, and not often in the same way.” I’m at large because I’m not attached to a particular company, having been the CEO of a very successful company that we exited.

The thing about a catalyst is you can put a set of materials together to create a positive explosion and not lose any of the original material. It’s my way of doing things for the past 22 years, and it’s suited me the whole time. I have just loved the ability to play that kind of catalytic role.

Wharton: You and your husband, Daniel Maskit, have launched an endowment for gender equality and climate change called Heading for Change. You did so with a LinkedIn post in which you also shared your cancer diagnosis. What’s your vision for this endowment as your legacy project?

Biegel: I want this to play a variety of roles, and one of them is that I want it to motivate people to use the resources they have to make the change that they can make, specifically around climate and gender equality. This endowment is meant to unlock more capital for climate and gender solutions, to back women and men who are their allies to be those agents of change that they can be, to help people get off the sidelines and use their money for good, and to help people see they don’t have to be millionaires to make a difference. We have enough resources; we just need to unlock them in the right way. You don’t have to figure it out all by yourself.

I want this endowment to be a resource for people to be inspired, activated, educated, and connected, and to carry forward my husband’s and my values. I want it to be so that my nieces, who are in their 20s and 30s, can call up their portfolio managers to say, “I want my climate and gender options,” and the analysts can say, “Yes, I can do that.” I won’t be here, but that governing body of the global stewardship will be here to carry on my values.

On the grant side, we also have an agenda around neurodiversity. My husband is autistic. He was diagnosed as an adult in 2019, and he has a lot of ideas around how we frame the conversation about autism. Currently, it’s that people are broken and need to be fixed. They are not. They are human beings with all kinds of talent that needs to be unleashed. We will do grant-making in that area and in the areas around climate and gender investing. And right now, it’s enormously frustrating that we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, and we don’t talk about neurodiversity as part of that. The more Daniel and I speak about this, the more I’m also learning about how important this is. He’s such a systems thinker, he’s not afraid to ask fundamental questions, and he will tell what he sees as the truth. I love learning with him.

It’s a joy and a pleasure to get to work with my husband on this. He calls himself the “chief ursine officer” of the endowment. He’s obsessed with bears and recognizes that anything that is good for climate is going to be good for bears. I call that climate and nature and diversity smart, and he calls it bear-smart. But also – he likes that no one knows what a chief ursine officer would be, so he can make it up.

Wharton: How did the two of you meet?

Biegel: We’ve been married for 23 years, together for 25. We met through a mutual woman friend when they were doing their Ph.D.s at Caltech. He did a year at Penn, but we did not meet then.

We did not know that he was neurodiverse or that he had prosopagnosia, which is also known as face blindness. We have learned a lot about being a neurodiverse and a neurotypical couple and what that means, especially with this cancer diagnosis. It’s really profound. We’re deeply in love, and this is a really hard time for both of us. I feel really lucky and blessed. I don’t know how on earth I got so lucky to find him, and again it was a woman in the mix, our mutual friend. I was an ultimate Frisbee player and captain of the team at Wharton/Penn. By the way, so many successful business people were on or running sports teams – Title IX was so essential to this for women and girls. Every girl should be encouraged to play sports or lead a team. Then we’d have even that much more confidence amongst girls and women. Look at what’s happening with global women’s football – I hope that energy expands to gender equality in these areas I care about.  One of the things I loved about Daniel was that he was a great Frisbee player. We’re also sailors and love to be on the water, and he knows how important that is to me.

Close up photo of Suzanne Biegel at a 2017 Social Impact Initiative event, seated speaking to a room of professionals.

“I am obsessed with the power of capital to make change happen.”

– Suzanne Biegel, W’84, C’84

Wharton: You are a business woman, a philanthropist, a speaker, a writer, a global citizen – the list goes on. How do you do it? What motivates you every day?

Biegel: I am obsessed with the power of capital to make change happen. And about how we need to shift power dynamics in investment. There are a lot of people who are skeptical, who are depressed and don’t believe we can make change happen. But I believe we can use business and investment as a force for positive change, and that’s what motivates me. I’m so upset and frustrated about the climate crisis, and I want everyone to understand what this opportunity and this threat feels like and not to be freaked out. The power of capital in the right hands with the right tools and the right motivation, combined with the right leadership, motivates me. I’m also motivated by fund managers and entrepreneurs and people in management and leadership roles. I’m super motivated by the power that we have to make change happen.

I want people to get off of the sidelines and do something with the resources we have. I set up the endowment to be about climate and gender because these are two things I feel obsessed about. Now is the moment. I don’t know what you are waiting for. What other evidence do you need to see?

I get asked by people all the time for ideas to make business stronger, to raise capital. When I meet one of those people and I really think they get it, I’m so inspired. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. With this terminal diagnosis, one of the things that motivates me is Heading for Change because I’m getting to create something with these kinds of people every day. My friends and my family recognize that it’s giving me life energy, and there is nothing better than that.

“In some ways, people are so unlucky to be living in this time and so lucky to be living in this time.”

– Suzanne Biegel, W’84, C’84

Wharton: What’s your message for the next generation of Wharton students, especially those who want to use business as a force for good and change in the world?

Biegel: Be bold. Go for what you believe. Get clear on your values and live your values. My values are integrity and action and creativity, with integrity being at the absolute center. If you believe, as a young person today, that you can make change, then you can. You have to believe it and you have to act on it. And not give up.

In some ways, people are so unlucky to be living in this time and so lucky to be living in this time. We have so many more tools and examples and stories. I would urge people to get clear on their values, get clear on working with people who share their values, and not take no for an answer and not self-select out. Women often do because of a lack of confidence. That’s a story we’ve been told, and it is not a productive story. Especially for young women, realize now is the moment that business and finance can be a tool for social and environmental change. Learn systems thinking and understand things like limits to growth and what regeneration really means, and don’t take no for an answer.

I think we are put in these positions where people say you aren’t good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, and it’s just unconscionable. I hear these stories every day. We have to be strong enough and build relationships that sustain us. The thing that has really worked for me has been the relationships that I have built that have sustained me. My girlfriends and some of my guy friends who are allies have been my source of resilience. I’ve never needed it so much as I need it now. And in the poly-crises that we’re in, we need sources of resilience. That’s what I wish for young women today. And I wish for more guys to get what it means to be a real ally. There is so much opportunity to be a leader right now, by being an ally. Now is a great moment.

By Angie Basiouny