The ESG Initiative at the Wharton School
How One Investment Banker Went from Doing Good to Doing Even Better
Aarthi Sowrirajan did everything right.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Chicago in 2005, interned at a leading financial services provider, and got a full-time job in the structured products group at Deutsche Bank in New York City. She was living the dream, but something kept nagging at her deep inside.
“I loved the environment I was in and the support I had, but I wanted my impact to go deeper, not only contributing to helping my company make more money,” Sowrirajan said. “I needed to dedicate my life and career not just to putting Band-aids on problems but moving the needle and investing in sustainable solutions to improve outcomes for underserved communities.”
“I needed to dedicate my life and career not just to putting Band-aids on problems but moving the needle and investing in sustainable solutions to improve outcomes for underserved communities.”
– Aarthi Sowrirajan, WG’11
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Sowrirajan grew up in the well-to-do suburb of Marlboro, New Jersey. The family made yearly trips back home to Chennai, where she was struck by the disparities in wealth and opportunity.
With the encouragement of her manager, Sowrirajan began learning about other investment mechanisms at Deutsche Bank, including microfinance tools designed to serve low-income populations. Something clicked.
“It helped me realize there are a lot of different models out there that I needed to understand better,” she said. “I needed to extract myself from this life and reeducate myself. That’s when I decided to go to Wharton.”
It was a decision that changed her life, setting her on a journey that would take her from Wharton’s campus in Philadelphia to Turner Impact Capital in Southern California to BlackRock, where she is a managing director for the company’s impact investment fund. Sowrirajan said her time at Wharton not only helped open doors, it opened her eyes to the possibility of “doing well by doing good,” the guiding principle of companies operating in the social impact space.
“This industry didn’t exist when I was younger. It was almost idealistic,” said Sowrirajan, 40. “The thoughts I was having around using traditional business tools to create societal good were percolating in my mind, yet I didn’t have a community to share them with until I got to Wharton. I felt like I finally found my people.”
Forging a New Path
Sowrirajan entered the Wharton MBA program in 2009 and was determined to make the most of her two years. She joined the Wharton Social Impact Club and attended the Lauren & Bobby Turner Executive Speaker Series, which gives a stage to celebrities and business leaders engaged in philanthropy. It was the first event for the series, and the guest was basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson. He spoke about his Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund, launched with Canyon Capital Realty Advisors when Bobby Turner was CEO and co-founding partner at the firm. The fund has invested billions in revitalizing failing real estate in communities of color.
After the presentation, Sowrirajan posed for a picture with Johnson, then bee-lined over to Turner, who stood quietly off to the side. She wanted to talk to him about why he thought what he was doing was scalable and could deliver returns. Inspired by their conversation, she resolved to keep tabs on his work.
Turner’s recollection of that first meeting is a little fuzzy, but he recalls their second encounter in sharp detail. It was when tennis great Andre Agassi joined the lecture series to talk about his investment fund with Turner to build high-achieving charter schools.
“This young, fierce woman came running down the aisle and walked up to the stage and said, ‘I need to speak with you,’” Turner said. He assumed she meant Agassi, but she quickly corrected him. “She said, ‘No, I need to speak with you. I need to work with you.’”
That second meeting, during her final year at Wharton, was fateful. Sowrirajan had been dealing with a series of setbacks. She had minor surgery at the same time her mother also had surgery, which coincided with the death of her beloved grandmother. She had interned at Credit Suisse in Manhattan, rotating between sales and trading, and was offered a job with the equity derivatives sales team. It was an amazing opportunity that she agonized over because she still wanted to move into impact investing.
“For the first time in my life, I am trusting my gut, and some combination of gut and brain and heart is telling me to keep on this path.”
– Aarthi Sowrirajan, WG’11
“It wore at me. It really tore me apart. I ended up turning down the offer,” she recalled. “For the first time in my life, I am trusting my gut, and some combination of gut and brain and heart is telling me to keep on this path.”
After Agassi’s speech, Sowrirajan spent a week carefully crafting an email to Turner, hoping he would take an interest in her skills, experience, and passion for social impact. He responded the next day, inviting her to meet him in New York City for an iced coffee and conversation about the work. Just before graduating, she reached out to him again to ask for a job.
“I really just wanted a seat at the table,” Sowrirajan said. “He invited me to come to Los Angeles with the understanding that it may not work out. And at the end of that meeting, I said, “So, can we talk about my offer?”
It was an easy decision for Turner, who said he was impressed by Sowrirajan’s commitment to making change in the world.
“My job is to take risks as an entrepreneur, particularly when it comes to people. Looking at Aarthi, it wasn’t a big leap,” he said. “She had the wisdom to recognize the trajectory she was on was not right for her.”
Sowrirajan joined the firm in 2011 and followed Turner when he spun off Turner Impact Capital in 2013. She stayed with the team for a total of 10 years, becoming managing director. She would identify potential investment partners, find real estate for public charter schools and health care providers to build their facilities, negotiate the purchase, oversee construction, manage the assets, and ensure they were sold so the funds could generate sustainable returns.
The work was hard and sometimes polarizing, especially advocating for charter schools. She spent a lot of sleepless nights worried about whether projects would get completed. But she also attended a lot of ribbon-cutting ceremonies, where she rejoiced alongside citizens welcoming a new school or a health facility into their community.
“Once I knew what was possible, it was almost impossible to turn back,” she said. “All the things I had dreamt about doing, all the things I wrote my business school essay on, we were doing it. And we had validation from the market. Investors were investing, lenders were lending.”
Making the Move to BlackRock
Sowrirajan was happily working at Turner Impact Capital when a BlackRock recruiter reached out to her in 2020. The company – the world’s largest asset manager with more than $9.4 trillion under management – was preparing to launch the BlackRock Impact Opportunities Fund or BIO. It’s a multi-asset fund focused on investing in communities of color that have been historically undercapitalized. Investing in an early childhood education company that serves families through Head Start programs is an example of one of BIO’s investments.
Turner said there were tears when she left.
“It was bittersweet. I cried, she cried,” he said, striking a parental tone. “The sweet is that your goal as a parent is to give your children the ability to fly. The bitter is that they leave you.”
Turner said Sowrirajan is a great role model because she is “fanatical about leveling the playing field for tens if not hundreds of millions of Americans who have been closed out of the American dream.” He also credited Wharton for pioneering the social impact curriculum, which did not exist when he earned his bachelor’s degree in finance at the school in 1984.
“The Wharton School has now exposed students to the fact that profits and purpose needn’t be mutually exclusive. A student no longer has to choose between doing good and doing well.”
– Bobby Turner, W’84
“I graduated with a black belt in how to create wealth,” he said. “The Wharton School has now exposed students to the fact that profits and purpose needn’t be mutually exclusive. A student no longer has to choose between doing good and doing well.”
Dream Big, Do Well
Sowrirajan still lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Vamsi Adusumilli, and their two children, Arjun, 6, and Krishna, 5, and their dog, Leo. She met Adusumilli more than 10 years ago through a mutual friend from Wharton – another lasting connection to her alma mater.
She credits her parents for giving her a global point of view (she’s traveled to more than 30 countries), her husband for his unwavering support, Turner for his mentorship and leadership, and Wharton for giving her the confidence to pursue her dreams.
Sowrirajan said she would love to see more business students pursue social impact and find ways to do good while doing well. There are so many avenues to accomplish both, she said, but the best opportunities come from combining passion with skill.
“When you can find the intersection of both and optimize for those two things, that is where you’ll find success and happiness,” she said.
When asked for her advice, Sowrirajan encouraged the next generation of Wharton students to take advantage of all the resources that the school has to offer — including professors, peers, and extracurriculars — and take time to hone their technical and communication skills.
“Dream big, put in the time, demonstrate your commitment, and always be prepared,” she said.
By Angie Basiouny