It’s not all about money.
Sounds like a George Bailey quote from the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But it’s also the logic behind the concept of “Sustainable and Responsible Investing,” a money management strategy that looks into the social, political and environmental track records of companies when making investment decisions. As director of Oneida Trust and Enrollments, it’s a philosophy Susan White, a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, champions not only at work but also in life. Overseeing a deep pool of tribal investment portfolios that has grown sizably over the past two decades, Susan carries a strong voice across Indian Country and beyond.
“When I interviewed for my position the tribe had already accepted a socially responsible investment (SRI) aim,” explains the seasoned trust director who lists the 1946 Frank Capra film mentioned above as a favorite. “In 1994, we revised the investment policy statement and now work in solidarity with other tribes to support that aim.”
There’s a big stage for tribes that want to influence corporate America and exercise sovereignty through shareholder activism. While addressing issues ranging from excavation of Native burial sites by superstores to stereotyping of Native American imagery in college and professional sports, Susan has engaged major corporate players. As a result, companies like Honeywell, Peabody Energy, Bank of America and FedEx have reexamined not only their own business practices but also those of industry peers. She admits that securing support for causes such as the Washington team name-change can be a daunting challenge, but she doesn’t lose sight of her goals.
In 2010, the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin received the Honoring Nations award from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development for their and Susan's work. At the time she was co-chair of the Social Investment Forum's Indigenous Peoples Working Group and said, "This award tells us we are on the right path. We hope that more tribes will use the power of their investment dollars to open doors for greater advocacy for Indian Country."
Later in 2011, Susan received the SRI Service Award and was recognized by her colleagues for her professionalism, ethics and success raising awareness of responsible investing. Her work to engage and change corporate interests detrimental to Indian Country is truly making a difference.
To say Susan has a full plate is an understatement. A typical day might find the Old Dominion University alum presenting to tribal elders about their trust investments, collaborating on a quarterly newsletter to youth beneficiaries, negotiating lower fees from investment managers, and tirelessly forging partnerships among an extensive network of local banks, tribal departments and universities.
“Sometimes tribal citizens come to us for investment advice,” Susan commented. “We don’t have that authority, but I do give presentations on budgeting and minor's trust processes. We also include personal finance tips in the newsletter that tie into the ceremonial season.”
She mentions a struggle when linking financial topics to the Oneida culture. When she makes presentations, she enjoys discussing traditional tasks such as planning ahead and farming to make concepts relatable.
“There are a lot of things I like about my job,” shared the former “Navy brat” who began her career in the securities division at a large bank on the East Coast. “I truly appreciate the supportive team I work with. My supervisor, the committee and my staff all listen to my concerns and address them. I also take pride when we are able to recover trust funds. We’ve had issues with our funds at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and I stayed on it until we received the funds due to Oneida. This has occurred twice and the closure was fun both times.”
Happily married for 30 years, Susan enjoys cooking and family gatherings like lunch with grandma, a regular convening of relatives who enjoy a good meal with her mother, the 86-year-old family matriarch. The youngest daughter in a military family with five siblings, she didn’t have a chance to learn how to cook while growing up, but has since honed a formidable set of culinary skills from cooking shows like "The Chew" and feeding her husband and two sons. Never far from her roots, she’s a senior warden at the same church where her parents were married and enjoys cheering for local teams like the University of Wisconsin Badgers, the Milwaukee Brewers and, of course, the Green Bay Packers.
And she has something in common with that other community hero, George Bailey, when he exclaimed: “I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that.”
I think it’s a safe bet Susan knows what she’ll be doing in the near and distant future, too: continuing her bold, unwavering mission of service and advocacy for her community.
YawʌɁkó, Susan, for all that you do!