“I’m not a ‘color in the lines’ person, and I have always been independent and entrepreneurial.”
Co-founder and Chief Investment Officer (CIO) of Nuveen Green Capital, Ali Cooley, grew up in Westport, Connecticut and now lives in New York City. The daughter of two small business owners, she cultivated a creative and entrepreneurial spirit early on, collecting “strange” pets (such as turtles, tadpoles and frogs), launching two successful small businesses, and later propelling herself to earn an undergraduate/pre-law degree, an MBA and a Master’s of Environmental Management to support her pursuits.
The multifaceted executive later pivoted from law to business school where she found her path to green energy. She says, “I realized if I wasn’t working on climate, nobody would be, so I went to grad school to make a career shift, found Connecticut Green Bank, met (co-founder and CEO) Jessica (Bailey) and started Greenworks in 2015.”
Ali’s considerable finance acumen and creativity helped her see the future and pave the way to develop the financing product that is at the core of her and Bailey’s mission-minded firm. “C-PACE” (Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy) financing is a public-private funding mechanism that allows owners and developers to access fixed-rate, low-cost and long-term financing to support sustainability measures, such as solar, water savings, and energy efficiency, on their properties.
“It was so clear to me that it would work. We’d done the hardest part at the Green Bank – convincing tax collectors and towns to create new billing infrastructure. The market demand was so clear – there is really no similar product in the CRE space; the investor demand was even clearer if we could scale. Once we proved the public sector piece at the CTGB, I never once doubted that we’d be successful.”
And they have been. Greenworks’ double-digit growth captured the attention of $1T+ asset manager Nuveen, a subsidiary of TIAA, in 2021. Relaunched as Nuveen Green Capital, the company continues to double in size year over year. In 2021, Ali oversaw the C-PACE industry’s largest 144A securitization of C-PACE assets.
Ali shares that the path wasn’t always straight and narrow – there have been surprises along the way as she straddled the lines between launching a startup to developing a growing firm (under a large corporation). “It sometimes surprised me how difficult it was to sell our vision. I would get frustrated with others who didn’t understand because it was so clear to me. It was surprising how much patience is needed to convince lenders, investors, partnerships even borrowers of the value of our product.”
When hiring for her team, Ali shares that it has become an inside joke how she “aggressively disregards relevant experience.” Instead, she looks for humility, resilience, and connection to the work. “Yes, employees need relevant experience, but usually it’s someone doing something in a different field that is applicable to the role. I think that helps because part of building something new is doing something new, and if you hire people that know everything, you’re not going to get anything new.”
When asked about founding and leading a female-run business, Ali shares, “While we did face some roadblocks, in some ways the uniqueness of who we were and what we were doing helped us gain visibility in the market” She continued, “But when I look back on our experience, it’s striking that over 70 percent of the almost $1 billion of debt and equity we raised came from women-managed funds.”
Her advice to others looking to start a business?
1. Don’t burn bridges because you never know who can be helpful along the journey.
2. There’s a balance between determination and stubbornness. Stubbornness is a narrow path and relies upon luck. Determination sees the end goal and has many ways to get there. Know the difference – stay flexible and have alternatives – don’t get stubborn!
3. If you have options, choose the investors and partners that trust you and give you the most optionality, not the ones that are giving you the best deal.
4. It’s going to cost more and take longer than you can possibly imagine. Plan accordingly.
5. Always under promise and over deliver.
When not traveling for business, Ali enjoys time with her husband and daughter, as well as yoga and entertaining close friends and family.