Kate Murtagh: Investing in Futures and Driving Change 

Kate Murtagh ’89 was only thirty-two when she was named a partner at Boston-based Goodwin Procter, where she began her corporate law career after clerking for a federal judge. She was one of a handful of women who had risen through the ranks to partnership. She loved the collaborative and progressive culture of the firm. “You could bring your authentic self to work,” says Murtagh. “We didn’t require a lawyer to work on a client if it didn’t align with their personal values.” 

Murtagh wasn’t looking to make a career move, but then an email came to her with the name “Harvard” in it, and a unique opportunity she just couldn’t resist. 

Harvard Management Company (HMC) was creating a new compliance officer position on the team responsible for managing Harvard University’s endowment, the largest private university endowment in the United States. “The mission resonated with me,” says Murtagh. The endowment supports research, professorships, and most importantly to Murtagh, financial support for undergraduate and graduate students. 

As the granddaughter of Irish immigrants and a first-generation student herself, Murtagh prized education, believing it “was the one thing that no one could ever take away from you.” Scholarships allowed her to obtain her B.S. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and J.D. from Cornell. 

Murtagh was also intrigued by the opportunity at HMC to build an in-house compliance and legal team from scratch and essentially create a “toolbox for investment managers.” Her colleague at Goodwin at the time, Elizabeth Shea Fries, wasn’t surprised that Murtagh leaped at the chance to do something novel. “Kate had that fire in her belly,” says Fries, now managing partner at Sidley Austin in Boston. “She was organized, determined, focused, and purpose-driven, a real leader.” 

In addition to building a staff of senior attorneys to provide governance for an endowment that consists of more than 14,000 individual funds invested as a single entity, Murtagh brought HMC to the forefront of sustainable investing. It is the first U.S. endowment signatory to the United Nations–supported Principles for Responsible Investment and is working to fulfill Harvard’s pledge to make its endowment portfolio net zero of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

“We are blazing the path in terms of how folks get to net zero, and it’s very complicated,” says Murtagh. “There’s no playbook for this. You jump into the deep water and figure it out.” 

Murtagh credits her undergraduate experience at an engineering college for the approach she takes to such daunting challenges. “Basically, you take an enormous problem and break it into little ones that are manageable as you work every day to accomplish big goals.” 

“Big problems don’t paralyze Kate. She’s unflappable,” says fellow Cornell Law graduate Jack Fernandez ’89, partner at Zuckerman Spaeder. He recalls Murtagh taking the same approach when she was managing editor of the Cornell Law Review the same year Fernandez was editor in chief. “We were supposed to produce six editions of law review each year, but we inherited a situation where they were four editions behind, so we actually had to create ten editions. “Kate was the driving force. She was methodical, carved out the priorities, and tackled the problem little by little.” 

It’s the same approach she takes to trying to meet the timeline for the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. First, HMC is building a framework to establish a reliable way to measure emissions more accurately and measure progress. 

“One of the biggest challenges in this space is to think about the needs of the developing world and the need to decarbonize at the same time,” says Murtagh. HMC seeks investment opportunities that spur economic growth and job creation on the way to a carbon-free economy. According to its 2023 climate report, HMC “expects its exposure to climate transition solutions to exceed exposure to fossil fuels in the coming years, as investment activity in climate transition ramps up and fossil fuel exposure winds down.” 

Murtagh is nationally recognized as a thought leader in Environmental, Social, and Governance investing and sustainable investing, says Peter L. Welsh, partner at Ropes & Gray, and legal counsel to HMC. “Kate has extraordinary judgment. She understands risks, knows what’s at stake, how to cut through the complexity and address challenges in the right way with the highest integrity. She is oriented to doing the right thing and getting others to do the same through a consensus-driven process. Essentially, she dispenses practical wisdom with diplomacy. She is the consummate professional and a pleasure to collaborate with.” 

With the idea that change begins at home, Murtagh and her team explored ways to reduce their own carbon footprint in the office and personally. They hired a firm to measure their carbon footprint, identify areas for reduction, and assess the most durable carbon removal strategies for offsets. They installed showers for those employees who bike to work. Catering includes plant-based products. You won’t find plastic water bottles anywhere. Each employee has a personal Yeti. Their collective efforts paid off: In 2022, HMC facilities and operations achieved carbon neutral status. 

“Climate change is not going to be solved unless every single person is thinking about how they can be a good global citizen,” says Murtagh. “It’s important for people to be informed and engaged, and feel empowered to make change.” 

Murtagh’s passion for empowering others extends beyond her work with HMC to her community volunteerism and support of nonprofits, like the Center for Women & Enterprise, the Victim Rights Law Center, and the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Finance. 

“Kate leverages her privilege with a fierce sense of responsibility, believing that ‘we have not made it until we all make it.’ That is equity in a nutshell. It’s in her DNA,” says Gabrielle “Gaby” King Morse, president and CEO of the Center for Women & Enterprise, dedicated to helping women launch and grow their businesses. Murtagh served on the board and is now a trusted advisor. “She’s a strategic thinker who makes time, listens, and rolls up her sleeves,” says King Morse. “She’s helped me think about innovative strategies to increase our fundraising and introduced me to new partners and donors. She’s an inspiration to me and the women entrepreneurs we serve.” 

She is also an inspiration to the team at the Victim Rights Law Center, which provides legal representation to survivors of rape and sexual assault. “Kate is a very compassionate person,” says Stacy Malone, executive director. “She’s someone who wants to help the underdog. For a woman like Kate, who is so successful, to align their volunteer work with an organization that serves sexual violence survivors says something about how special she is. She’s taking a stand on a really important social issue and bringing hope to impacted girls and women.”

“As I’ve advanced in my career, my gender has become less important to me, but the gender and the color of those around me has become more important to me,” Murtagh says. 

Recently, she established a new scholarship fund in her father’s name at Cornell Law School to provide financial assistance to law students. Murtagh structured the John Patrick Murtagh Scholarship Fund to take advantage of Cornell’s Scholarship Matching Challenge, in which the provost provides funds to match half the total offered by the donor. An expert in endowments, Murtagh recognized the opportunity to enhance the value of the gift, and sees the fund as a way of honoring the man who instilled in her values of honesty, integrity, hard work, and humility.

During a lecture last fall at Cornell Law School, part of the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series, when Dean Jens David Ohlin asked her: “How do you achieve success while maintaining your own personal ethics and humanity?” She told students to be humble, grateful, and open doors for others. “My career has given me the talent, time, and treasure to support issues that are important to me,” says Murtagh. “We rise by lifting up others.”