Ramaswamy’s Strive: Not Just Another Anti-Woke Firm

As co-founder seeks the GOP presidential nomination, questions arise about Strive's motivations.

Wealth Management Editor
Reviewed by: Ron Day
Edited by: Mark Nacinovich

While understanding how Strive Asset Management got labeled anti-ESG is easy, a full picture of the firm's motivationsand those of its co-founder who is seeking to be the next U.S. Presidentis nuanced. 

Strive, founded in March 2022 by Vivek Ramaswamy and Anson Frericks, a former executive at Anheuser-Busch, has grown to 11 exchange-traded funds and $1 billion under management without doing anything particularly special on the investment management side. 

For the most part, the nine passive equity index ETFs and two active fixed-income ETFs aren’t offering anything investors can’t find elsewhere. 

The $370 million Strive U.S. Energy ETF (DRLL), for example, is a virtual mirror image of the $1.4 billion iShares U.S. Energy ETF (IYE). 

The much larger iShares version has higher trading volume and a slightly tighter spread and is 1 basis point cheaper. But the performance of the two funds has been virtually identical. 

Strive Anti-ESG Investing?

The unique ingredient with Strive is how it promises to vote on shareholder proxies, which happens to be the point that loosely lumps Strive into the anti-ESG camp. 

“The Strive differentiator is to mandate investment return maximization to every public company, which is defined as shareholder capitalism,” said Matt Cole, Strive’s CEO and chief investment officer. 

Cole added the CEO title in May, filling a vacancy created when Ramaswamy resigned in February to run as a Republican candidate for president

Cole, who joined Strive at the launch from the California Public Employees Retirement System where he managed a $70 billion bond portfolio, said the focus on shareholder capitalism is the reason he moved his family from Sacramento, California, to Ohio to be a part of what Strive is building. 

The tipping point, Cole said, can be traced to the 2019 Business Roundtable and the Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, which was signed by 181 CEOs who committed to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders. 

Distinct from shareholders who own stock in a company, a stakeholder includes the broader collection of customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders. 

“The theory is that all stakeholders matter and matter equally, and you can serve multiple masters at once, and that you can do good while also making money,” Cole said. “But we believe to do that is a violation of our fiduciary duty to maximize value. That was my inspiration for why I became part of this idea at Strive.” 

Cole said Strive’s focus on shareholder capitalism was never designed to be anti-ESG. But he understands how pushing back on stakeholder capitalism could be interpreted as being anti-ESG. 

Part of that might be through the association to Ramaswamy and his 2021 book “Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam.” 

The Rise of Strive's Vivek Ramaswamy 

Ramaswamy, who has been rising in the polls as a strong conservative voice, didn’t respond to a request for an interview for this story, but in an August 2022 podcast interview, he detailed the proxy voting issue Strive is addressing. 

Unlike mutual fund shareholders, ETF investors don’t have access to the proxy votes of the underlying companies in the funds. Those votes are held by the ETF issuers, which can present lopsided power for issuers like BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street. 

“Less than 3% of the total capital BlackRock manages is invested in ESG-linked products, but they’re using 100% of the capital base to vote in favor of ESG mandates related to climate change and DEI agendas,” Ramaswamy said in the podcast interview, using the acronyms for environmental, social and governance and for diversity, equity and inclusion. 

According to Ramaswamy, the voting trend favoring this kind of stakeholder capitalism started to gain momentum only in 2018. 

“People have started to wake up to that trend,” he said.  

Saying that Strive has rubbed some folks the wrong way might be an understatement. But part of that might go back to the blanket assumption that placing shareholders first is equivalent to being anti-ESG. 

“Strive doesn’t just ignore ESG factors in their products, they also actively work to undermine financially relevant corporate ESG policies in their shareholder engagement and proxy voting activities,” said David Tenerelli, a financial advisor at Strategic Financial Planning in Plano, Texas. 

Strive and ‘Anti-Diversity’ 

“Strive’s marketing materials imply a bias towards meritocracy mythology, which is effectively anti-diversity,” he added. “Such a position is incongruent with improved company performance, as the preponderance of evidence suggests that a more diverse workforce is positively correlated with improvement in a range of financial indicators.” 

Eric Balchunas, an ETF analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, said it’s a common mistake to place Strive in the same category with asset managers that are deliberately taking the other side of ESG investments, such as the Point Bridge America First ETF (MAGA) or the God Bless America ETF (YALL). 

“Most anti-ESG funds just hold stuff that ESG investors hate, or they hold companies where the CEOs don’t virtue signal,” he added. “Strive is different, because they just own beta and are voting shares of companies in favor of profits.” 

All the big ETF providers have recently rolled out a version of a program that gives investors some say on proxy voting, but those programs are mostly designed to gauge the mood of investors. But, so far, the programs don’t require anything from the ETF issuers in terms of conforming to investor interests or customized proxy voting. 

Some market watchers have claimed the likes of BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street are throwing investors a bone on proxy voting as a way to quiet critics of the growing ESG influence across asset management.  

Another way of looking at it is the big ETF providers are trying to find something that feels like safe territory in the increasingly politicized investing environment. 

“This shows you that once you politicize something, it can go both ways,” said James Seyffart, another ETF analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. 

“Time will tell if what Strive is doing is going to work, but it makes sense for people who don’t want their money voted along ESG lines,” he added. 

Meanwhile, Strive CEO Cole continues to shrug off the anti-ESG label in an effort to direct the focus back on what he believes is his fiduciary role. 

“For an asset manager to decide good and bad is fraught with issues,” he said. “Just own your mission, make money, and do it unapologetically.” 

Strive Looking Beyond the 2024 Elections 

While Ramaswamy’s growing notoriety might be helping to promote Strive and its proxy voting commitment, Cole said the company has plans that go well beyond the election cycle. 

“Looking out over the next 10 years, we see investment opportunities in fossil fuels, agriculture, defense, nuclear energy, precious metals and miners,” he said.  

Although the pace of ETF launches will likely slow over the next few years, Cole said Strive will be expanding into separately managed accounts and target-date funds that use Strive ETFs to feed into an upcoming 401(k) offering. 

“It’s for companies that want to give employees a 401(k) plan that is strictly committed to maximizing shareholder value,” he said.  

There’s even a robo-advice platform on track for 2024 that will be designed for individual investors with less than $1 million. 

In terms of Ramaswamy’s sudden exit to run for president, Cole said he didn’t see that coming, “but I’m 100% supportive.” 

“The guy is a great leader,” Cole added. “He saw an opportunity to make a bigger impact in this country. He is running for president; there’s no contingency plan.” 

Jeff Benjamin is the wealth management editor at etf.com, responsible for coverage related to the financial planning industry. This includes writing, hosting podcasts, webinars, video interviews and presenting at in-person events.

Jeff is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years’ experience covering the financial markets. He has won more than two dozen national and regional awards for his reporting. He most recently worked as a senior columnist at InvestmentNews where he wrote about investment products and strategies, as well as the broader financial planning industry. Prior to that, Jeff worked as an analyst at Cerulli Associates where he researched and wrote reports on the alternative investments industry. Jeff also worked as a money management reporter at Dow Jones Newswires, where he covered the mutual fund industry.

Based in North Carolina, Jeff is a former Marine and has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Central Michigan University.