Elevating Women on Wall Street: A Conversation with Sallie Krawcheck

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As one of the most powerful women on Wall Street, Sallie Krawcheck's successes and failures often play out in the financial press. Fitting somehow, seeing as she studied journalism in college.

Though she never pursued that career, her roller coaster ride through the highest ranks of investment banking and her current role as an entrepreneur shows both how far women have come in finance and how much remains to be done.

Krawcheck shared her personal and professional journey with the Ross community as part of the annual Joseph Handleman Lecture Series.

Gone, for the most part, are the days when she was a junior investment banker in the 1980s and would find lewd pictures on her desk. But subtle gender issues persist and play a part in preventing women from rising to top leadership positions, despite increasing numbers at lower levels.

Click image to watch the full conversation on YouTube

“It ain’t a pipeline issue,” she said in the candid conversation with Ross Dean Alison Davis-Blake. “It’s a very complex issue. There are subtle gender issues that come into play. Many companies today are still geared — even if they have no gender discrimination issues on the surface — for the sole breadwinner in a traditional home.”

Krawcheck speaks with the perspective of someone who broke barriers, rising to top positions at Sanford Bernstein, Citigroup, and Bank of America, before embarking on a new path as owner and chair of Ellevate Network and Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women. Along the way, she also raised a family and recalibrated her thoughts about the balance of private life and work.

“I never sat back and said, ‘Boy, I did it,’” she shared during the discussion in Robertson Auditorium. “In addition to having some success, I had some very public failures. These are not endpoints. They are points along the journey. Failure today will be success tomorrow as long as you keep learning from it.”

After a couple of investment banking jobs and earning an MBA from Columbia, Krawcheck was rejected by a number of banks as a research analyst before landing at Sanford Bernstein. In a few years she was the top-ranked analyst and eventually rose to become chair and CEO.

“I found the right firm, the right job,” she said, adding a bit of advice for the audience, “Do your best to find that dream job, but it’s going to take several attempts.”

Her solid reputation brought her to Citigroup, where she was chair and CEO of Smith Barney, later becoming CFO of Citi and heading wealth management.

Krawcheck’s exit from Citi became public and contentious in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. She argued the bank should partially reimburse clients who invested in risky products that turned out to be massive losers. While she didn’t find “evildoers” in the firm, she did find they made mistakes. And Krawcheck believed sharing losses would help keep those clients from leaving and keep lawsuits at bay.

Eventually, the board sided with Krawcheck, but her relationship with the CEO at the time was tense and her split from Citi became national news.

For a long time, she saw her departure at Citi to be purely a business decision. But today she doesn’t think so.

“If I sort of replace emotion with facts,” she said of how she has since reevaluated her departure. “All I could think about was the relationship with clients, and all I talked about was long-term impact. The research tells me those are very female [actions]. So I sort of shifted my focus. Was I fired because I was a woman? Not exactly; but yes, in fact, that was the case. So there are different shades of gray on this issue.”

The other thing we have is a gender investment gap... Wall Street is not serving women well.

Today, Krawcheck is on a new journey in finance, addressing the retirement savings crisis as a gender crisis. She bought the 85 Broads network and transformed it into the Ellevate Network and created Ellevate Asset Management, a mutual fund for advancing women.

Krawcheck recently raised $10 million to create a digital investment platform for women.

“It struck me that the retirement savings crisis is a gender crisis,” she said. “Women retire with two-thirds of the money of men, and we live longer than men... What happens when you recast this is that the solutions all shift — the solutions become about keeping women in the workforce and eliminating the gender pay gap.

“The other thing we have is a gender investment gap. The majority of our money [as women] sits in the bank. Wall Street is not serving women well.”

Krawcheck urged the business leaders of tomorrow to realize people have to make tough decisions between work and family, something that took her some time to realize.

“As you move into leadership positions, recognize that we all have lives, and the fact that our lives come into the work life doesn’t mean we’re weak or not committed, but we’re people,” she said, addressing the audience. “We have flexibility, but we don’t have flexibility without shame... The U.S. isn’t there yet. You can lead and make that happen.”

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