Monica Reid: A CEO’s Journey from the Forest Service to Wall Street
How to unlock the power of ESG bonds for climate action.
By Monica Reid
Reid is the CEO of Kestrel, a firm that evaluates the sustainability attributes of bonds, producing comprehensive data that investors can leverage in making their decisions.
My parents were city people who lived in a Philadelphia rowhouse. When I was seven, they bought a five-acre hobby farm on a dirt road six miles from Everglades National Park. The plot was long and narrow, an oasis of biodiversity surrounded by tomato fields. It was full of rare birds, Liguus tree snails, and orchids. The area had been a Dade County pine forest, which is an ecosystem that is almost extinct. Then everything was leveled except our narrow strip.
I went to Catholic school at Sacred Heart School in Homestead, Florida. There were 240 kids from kindergarten through the 8th grade. I went through school with the same 24 kids. I was a Girl Scout, and we had two leaders who took us camping 5 or 6 times a year, which were formative experiences for me. The Girl Scouts owned properties in some of the most stunning places in Florida, including one on Biscayne Bay.
I went to South Dade Senior High School and received a good education. I was a nominee for the prestigious Silver Knight Award given out by the Miami Herald. Jeff Bezos was also a Silver Knight nominee. I shouldered an outsized responsibility of helping take care of my siblings, who were four and 12 years younger than me, because my parents were divorced and my mom was absent.
Florida International University awarded me a full scholarship. When I started college, I had custody of my little brother. I dropped out after a year. I was young, and it was a struggle to navigate a rigorous academic program while trying to be a parent to my brother. Eventually, I went back to school while working.
I got a job as a park naturalist with the Miami-Dade County Parks Department. My boss, Rob Line, became my mentor. He was the first one who said, “I could see you doing public affairs.” I didn’t know that was a job at the time. A year or two later, I took a road trip with friends to Hood River, Oregon. We camped and windsurfed, and I realized I wanted to move there someday. The pace of development in Florida was staggering, and it was hard to see so many beautiful places being plowed under.
After returning to the Florida Keys, I subscribed to the Hood River Newspaper. Once a week, the paper would come in the mail. One carried a story that the US Forest Service ranger station on Mt. Hood was hiring an information assistant. I applied. That’s how I moved into public affairs.
I had come from the Everglades, where I knew every tree. Now, I was learning about mushrooms and rivers and mountains. I got a degree in ecology from Evergreen State College in Olympia and then went to graduate school. I had spent eight happy years working for the Forest Service, but I was done. I wanted to make more money than you can working for the government, and I wanted to solve big environmental problems.
I studied marine science at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, which is part of California State University in Monterey Bay. I stayed a year and a half and ended up not finishing my master’s degree. I got what I needed and started a consulting business.
Kestrel Consulting focused on grant writing in the environmental arena. I helped my first client secure a one-million-dollar grant within six months. My superpower was taking something small and thinking about it at scale. The trick was to know who you are selling to and tell the right story.
There was a surge in demand for grants from local governments trying to understand new environmental regulations related to the Clean Water Act. Cities needed to comply, and they didn’t understand how. I helped them understand what would be most effective and get funding to do that.
Tom and I got married in 2001, and we saved a lot of money by living on a 29-foot sailboat in Monterey Harbor. Everything had to fit in tiny spaces. I was limited to four pairs of shoes. My oven was a little box. It was great. I spent five years living among whales, seals, otters, birds, and cool people. It was a fantastic place to study marine science.
I had two children. In 2005, we returned to Hood River with an infant and a 2-year-old. We bought the property, and Tom built us a beautiful house outside town.
My consulting business evolved when I started meeting investment bankers and attended an event in Portland with Mike Van Patten, an evangelist for impact investing. I learned about green municipal bonds, which were first issued in 2013.
I realized that grant writing was similar to persuading investors to participate in a project. I founded a new company called Kestrel aimed at providing the kind of data and evaluation an investor would need to assess the sustainability of an investment.
In 2020, a top-tier institutional investor told me that they wanted data to evaluate bonds for environmental and social impact. It became clear that in a similar way that bonds have credit ratings, there was a demand for an ESG benchmark for securities.
We built a platform to make it easy to see the data, and recently our ratings have been included on the Bloomberg system.
We evaluate the investment-grade municipal bonds that are issued in the United States every day and publish data every night. Our data allows investors to identify leaders and laggards when it comes to environmental and social impact, and we screen every bond for green or social bond eligibility. Capital markets are the most powerful levers we have when it comes to prioritizing climate action and the global biodiversity crisis.
Originally published on CEO.com.