Sarah Roberts

Antonia is excited about what is helping the impact investing market to grow. Daughter of Bulgarian engineers, raised in Russia, and educated in the UK, Belgium, Singapore, and France, she has been part of the impact conversation since the early days of her career. As a Sustainable and Impact Investing Strategist for UBS Global Wealth Management’s Chief Investment Office (CIO) in Zurich, Antonia observes how investor attitudes are changing.

Portrait of Antonia sariyska

Please tell us about yourself, your career and how you got into sustainability.

My interest in sustainability started in London. I studied finance at Westminster University and co- ran a small on-campus non-profit consulting company, referred to as a junior enterprise. We advised clients on topics like the circular economy and employee engagement. Back then, sustainability wasn’t a buzz word yet. We were just young people building companies to do good.

After studying, I moved to Brussels. There I led the European network of junior enterprises with a focus on entrepreneurship policy and the enablement of innovation. I joined the entrepreneurship education foundation of a visionary Dutch serial entrepreneur and helped to develop entrepreneurship programs at universities. Later, I worked for the development cooperation program of the European Commission. We ran a flagship annual forum about sustainable development, and, with over 3,000 organizations and governments, it aimed to build the relationship between the EU and emerging and frontier markets. We thought about the Millennium Development Goals, the precursor to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the flow of capital.

At the time, people practiced more of a “fire and forget” mentality—investors sent capital across but could have achieved more effective outcomes if they’d have taken a more scalable approach. So, I became interested in how to deploy capital in a more effective manner.

After several years, I went back to school and did an MBA. Then I moved to UBS in Zurich to involve private capital in my work and the advantage of scale. 

And that’s when you got involved in impact investing?

Yes, UBS is where my finance education and passion for social entrepreneurship came together. In the CIO, my focus is on impact investing and building impact at scale.

Over the years, our attitude at UBS has changed from seeing this as a niche area of private equity to more of a mainstream option for private investors—with investment opportunities across more accessible asset classes, such as public equity and bonds, now emerging.

Measurement remains a major challenge. Our clients regularly ask us: “How can we measure what we’re doing?”. The answer is tough. For example, investing in a company that develops therapies for cancer comes with the understanding that you’re investing for the long term—it often takes decades to get through piloting, testing, and approvals before therapies reach the health care system and save lives. Does not knowing the outcome today mean we shouldn’t deploy capital? Definitely not.

On the flip side, by articulating critical milestones, we can keep on track. Sometimes things get called impact investment without measurement. So, it’s imperative to be able to measure progress over time. Solutions are more likely to survive the market if we can understand their effectiveness. Ultimately, it’s market forces that decide how capital is allocated.

You mentioned the SDGs. What’s their role in allocating capital?

The SDGs are an extremely powerful communication framework. They were originally intended for the public sector, today they help us talk about the most important issues from an investment perspective too.

Another key SDG aspect for me is the broad focus on issues that equally concern developed and developing markets—a shift from the Millennium Development Goals, which were very much focused on developing and frontier economies only. This seemingly small change in the narrative means that investors from developed markets now find sustainability more relatable and are more willing to deploy capital. This has given impact investing a boost.

So a shift is happening. Can you tell us more about that?  

We are seeing a shifting dialogue that now sees impact investments as a viable, scalable, and market-based solution. Just because something makes a return, doesn’t mean it’s unethical. It’s about positive investing for return and impact.

And people on all sides are becoming more comfortable with that. 

The great thing about this changing narrative is that it no longer positions impact investing as something niche. If there’s a great new education or climate change mitigation technology, which the market can scale and we can identify as impactful, why shouldn’t investors go for it?

A question always emerges on how to differentiate impact investing from philanthropy. 

Philanthropy and impact investing are, in essence, the same mechanism, just at different stages.

Philanthropists can take risk and support a company at the early stages of investing. When philanthropic money runs out, private investors can deploy their capital for impact and returns. So the support creates the same impact just at different stages of investment risk appetite. 

What do you think is an under-discussed aspect of sustainability that needs more focus?

We are having a lot of discussions with clients around biodiversity and natural capital. Ecosystem services are, in themselves, their own economy and in that sense, we should be able to associate a value with what nature gives—for example, health benefits due to a forests’ ability to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or food security stemming from preservation of bees. Currently, the only externality that has a value is the price per ton of carbon. This is used to tax carbon emissions and to price investments. This poses the question of the risk of “pricing” nature. Who decides the value of all living things? We are far from these answers, but it’s good to see that, as investors, we’re now able to have these discussions.

What are some of the biggest opportunities that could emerge from pivoting to more sustainability?

Firstly, there is a major opportunity to deploy more capital to things that are important.

We need to enable investors in a more democratic way and open the space up. With opportunities emerging in asset classes beyond private equity, impact investing is not just for the rich. 

Secondly, impact investing now affects a broader range of companies. Previously, it meant early-stage venture in sub-Saharan Africa. Now it's more global.

And thirdly, the more we include private capital, the more we bring in market forces and market-based solutions. Using the market to know which solutions will be successful will help us. Market dynamics in this space ultimately means identifying more effective solutions to make an impact.

How have you changed your personal life to be more sustainable?

I come from family of entrepreneurial mechanical engineers. I recently did a project with my dad on an energy efficiency technology for old buildings. We’ve been using his experience and old-school engineering knowledge to create something innovative and impactful. 

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