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Gen Y Money Fintech firms try to appeal to millennials’ sense of social responsibility

Wealthsimple CEO Michael Katchen poses for a portrait in Toronto, Wednesday December 9, 2015.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Several startups in the financial technology sector have unveiled products or services in recent months that attempt to court millennials by appealing to their sense of social responsibility.

Online investment adviser WealthSimple launched a socially responsible portfolio about three months ago, and since then roughly 10 per cent of the robo-adviser's clients have signed up for that option, says founder and CEO Michael Katchen.

"It's been hugely popular," says Katchen. "Our clients love it."

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Socially responsible investing, or ethical investing, is the marriage of personal ethics with finance, and it's been growing in popularity in recent years, a trend believed to be fuelled partly by the values of millennial investors.

According to a report released last year by the Responsible Investment Association, more than $1 trillion of assets in Canada were being managed using at least one responsible investing strategy as of Dec. 31, 2013. That's up from $600 billion two years earlier.

A global study released by research firm Nielsen last year found that 73 per cent of the millennials it surveyed are willing to pay more for brands that are sustainable.

"Socially responsible portfolios really try and avoid investing in companies that don't have a good environmental, social or corporate governance record," says Isaac Schweigert, a portfolio manager and chief compliance officer at ModernAdvisor.

The online investment manager, or robo-adviser, launched early this year and offers socially responsible portfolios.

"We are based in Vancouver, which tends to be ahead of the curve on a lot of the socially responsible and ethical investing, and just social causes in general, so we wanted to be at the forefront of that on the investing side," Schweigert says.

One of the challenges with offering ethical investing options is that everyone's definition of an ethical investment is different, says Katchen.

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"It's a massively subjective term," he says.

"Some people don't want to invest in tobacco or alcohol companies or gaming companies. Some people don't care about that but they just want to make sure that there's a board that represents diversity, or invest in the environment. So, first of all you have to come up with some definition of what this means, and also understand that it's not going to satisfy everyone out there, because it's impossible."

It isn't just investment managers that are trying to woo millennial customers with products focused on social responsibility.

Merchant Advance Capital, a technology-based online small business lender, launched a so-called impact loan earlier this month, offering lower borrowing rates to entrepreneurs who are looking to make a positive impact on their community or the environment.

The loan offers reduced interest rates to business owners who want to invest in social responsibility initiatives — such as upgrades that boost energy efficiency or renovations to make a business more accessible to people with disabilities — but can't afford to do so.

"We're going to definitely sacrifice a bit of profitability because we're going to pass on lower rates than our standard products," says David Gens, the company's founder and CEO.

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"But I think we'll still get our money back in most cases, and I want to be doing good work."

While products such as this may help lure millennial customers, Gens says the primary reason why he started the program was because he — himself a millennial at 29 — wanted to do good in the world.

"The primary aim of the product is to encourage businesses to make investments that will have a positive benefit in their community," says Gens. "That's priority number one."

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