On Monday, four leading women in finance joined us for a panel discussion about their rise to the top and how they reached executive leadership roles. We sat down with Bloomberg TV anchor Emily Chang; CCO of Women’s World Banking Karen Miller; Morgan Stanley’s Head of Corporate Affairs Michele Davis; and Founder of Girls Who Invest Seema Hingorani. But their titles aren’t the only things that are impressive about them. They founded or sold businesses, shaped industry legacies, molded national policy. Many raised happy, healthy, empowered children. One wrote a book. The fact that they wear many hats and have mastered the elusive “balancing act” is impressive, sure, but not why we asked them to join us. Instead, we talked about their motivators and mentors, their commitment to the industry, and the important lessons they learned along the way.
Empowering women at work is a cause near and dear to our company’s core. Founded by president Binna Kim (one of the most amazing women I know), CEO Daniel P. Simon, and me, Vested prides itself on being a place women are not only embraced but are also given room to grow and excel. I know personally from having worked with Dan and Binna for so long that there is nothing more motivating than knowing you’re part of a team that believes in you. We aim to create opportunities for our young men and women to grow. We aim to hire other leaders, such as our new CEO in the UK office, who inspire and champion employees. And we recognize through promotions and internal endorsements those who seize these opportunities to develop personally and professionally.
We’re thrilled to be a company that wants nothing more than to see our employees, male and female, thrive. For women especially, establishing self-worth and identifying a success trajectory within an organization is crucial—but not always easy.
“If you’re in a place where you can’t grow, you’ve gotta go to something else,” Michele said during the event.
“I do believe listening to your instinct is so critical,” added Karen. “Not pairing it down because you’re in a safe situation. We should strive for more than OK.“
As we said: easier said than done. Being an advocate for oneself is a lesson hard learned.
The panelists unanimously agreed that opportunity does not seek one out. Instead, young professionals must find opportunity and refuse to let go until it converts from opportunity into reality.
As an aspiring journalist, Emily recalled constantly pitching her editors at Bloomberg, always looking for ways to grow and improve. First, they approved a short Q&A series with tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Later, they green-lighted a longer, more fleshed out series of interviews on the same subject. And they also agreed when she pushed to write her new book, Brotopia.
“You have to learn to be the squeaky wheel,” Emily said of speaking up at work. “I could’ve easily said, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ and this is it. But I’ve managed to create opportunities for myself and find my own way.”
This can’t be done alone. According to a Financial Times research series titled “Management’s missing women,” the majority of junior staff working in financial services are women but only one in four of those who reach a senior role is female. So how do we get more women to rise to the top? The panelists discussed the importance of fostering professional relationships and seeking out sponsors to help push their careers to the next level.
“When you find that person, hold onto them and never let them go. They’ll become some of your closest friends,” Seema Hingorani said of a mentor. And much like creating opportunity, these relationships can be tough to culminate, added Michele.
“Drawing confidence from someone who has confidence in you, that you respect, is empowering and important,” she said.
Although one might assume a female mentor or sponsor would be the end goal, bringing men in as part of the conversation is key. In order for us to grow in business and in society, we must include men as part of the conversation.
“I never really thought much about whether I had male advocates or female advocates,” Karen said. “You just find the right people.”
Bringing men into the conversation is vital to moving women forward. We must look at the people as individuals, not individuals defined by their gender.
“I want this [female empowerment] for my boys just as much as I want it for girls,” Emily said, explaining that she’ll intentionally switch up the gender of characters in books while reading to her three sons to ensure stereotypical male-female behavior isn’t constantly reinforced.
Of course, none of this means that work-life balance isn’t important. Spending time with family, the panelists noted, hasn’t always been easy.
Seema recalled the time when her father fell ill and she faced a tough decision: stay at work so her blossoming career could take off, or leave to help her mother try to sell her father’s business. Her mentor at the time was her biggest advocate: Go be with your family, he told her. Your job will be here. Ever-appreciative, she took his advice and managed to sell her father’s business on the day of his death, while spending time with her family during his decline.
Michele also shared an anecdote. Remembering a time shortly after the 2008 financial crisis, on a rare weekend when she wasn’t in the office, she took her daughters to a local park.
“I took a call and pushed them on the swings,” she said. “The looks I got from other parents…,” she added, saying she could feel the judgment in their eyes of what a “bad” mother she must be for working while spending time with her kids.
The point is, female or male, everyone is human. We work, and we persevere. There is no secret ingredient, no special how-to guide that clearly dictates how to “have it all,” how to tackle it all in stride. You just do. And women like Michele, Emily, Seema, and Karen remind the rest of us that it isn’t easy, but it’s certainly possible.
We’re incredibly proud to have kicked off the first of many conversations around leading women in finance, and will continue to bring smart, strong and dynamic leaders together