How Meagan Hooper Went from Acting Gigs to Finance
May 17, 2019 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
In her early 20s, Meagan Hooper moved to New York City to be an actor. Between auditions, she worked as an executive assistant at a financial firm — a job she was good at and grew to love. Soon, she began turning down roles because she didn’t want to spend too much time away from the office. A little over two years later, she became the firm’s chief operating officer. Now, as founder and CEO of bSmartGuide, a women’s mentoring network and app, she offers coaching programs to help other women take their next career steps. Hooper talked to Charlotte Cowles about playing the role of the person she wanted to be — and how her wardrobe is an essential performance tool.
WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, my family had a number of personal and financial challenges. My brother is four years older than me and had a lot of trouble with the law. My parents declared bankruptcy and got divorced. I was loosely home-schooled from third grade until I left home at 14. At that point, my youth pastor and his wife graciously took me in. I lived with them and went to high school for a year and a half, for part of junior year and then senior year. I felt really behind everyone else, and I didn’t think I would be able to catch up academically. I especially didn’t think I would go to college. But having my youth pastor and his wife say, “Of course you will” made a big difference. I worked incredibly hard during that time, and wound up graduating high school with highest honors in AP classes.
I STUDIED THEATER AT WAKE FOREST, a liberal arts college in North Carolina, that included participating in a program at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. After I graduated, I moved to New York City, got an agent, and went to a lot of auditions. I also babysat on the side and, through a family I worked for, I got a job at a financial firm, where I edited research reports for stocks in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. In the year that I did that job, I gained an incredible education in valuing stocks and understanding the public markets. Then I moved on to a job as an administrative assistant for a hedge fund in 2004, when finance was really the place to be. I was exposed to a lot of money, power, and influence.
MY THEATER TRAINING HAS HELPED ME IN EVERY ASPECT of my career. I knew how to perform, so I started playing the part of the person I wanted to be. Overcoming the lack of self-confidence I’d had since childhood gave me a unique view of my professional opportunities. I felt like I won the lottery just by being able to apply for financial aid for college. From there, I wondered how far I could take it. At the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, I believe it was all about my [mental attitude]. I’d always felt a few paces behind everyone else and that I didn’t deserve to be there, so I learned how to deal with imposter syndrome from an early age.
IT WAS DIFFICULT TO CONVINCE PEOPLE that my potential was greater than they might have assumed. Still, no one stopped me. No one said, “We’re not going to give you more responsibility.” I thought, You don’t know this yet, but I am going to be in charge. When my boss, who was the chief operating officer, retired, they started interviewing people for the position. I told them I wanted to be considered. I knew the job and believed that I could do it. After a long process, I got it. I worked my butt off and proved myself —I was first in and last to leave, and I organized everything. I did whatever it took.
I STILL BABYSAT ALMOST EVERY WEEK well after I started working in finance. It wasn’t until I was 26 or 27 and making six figures that I thought, I guess I can stop the babysitting now. I’d been married for five years and I kept babysitting on Friday and Saturday nights because the hourly wage was so good. It was also part of the mindset of being resourceful and wanting to grab every opportunity. I believe that one reason I was successful in finance was that I thought, Okay, here’s an office with free food, a pantry, and toilet paper. I’m not leaving. I will gladly work here until midnight.
I STARTED SEEING MY AMBITIOUS, SMART, TALENTED, and successful college friends cast in administrative roles. Meanwhile, the guys in my life—even if they’d been C students—were being groomed as managers and leaders. They were given generous pay. It plays out at the top, too—women make up only 25% of senior managers, 10% of top earners, and 5-6% of CEOs. It dawned on me that I could leverage my theater degree to change the role I was cast in. I could change my status in the room. I began to think, If I were running this company, how would I respond? My approach ruffled some feathers, especially at first. I had to learn to say, “Don’t speak to me that way” or “I won’t accept this.” When you’re committed to playing a part, though, you embrace it.
AT THE HEDGE FUND WHERE I WORKED, I was allowed to leave for auditions at any time of day on any day of the week. Even as I received promotions and raises, the company never once told me I couldn’t go. I’d be putting trades into the market with curlers in my hair and full makeup on. Then I’d run to an audition for MTV or Nickelodeon or Law and Order. I’d try out for a role as a teenager or a murder victim and would still be on my phone checking the market. Then I’d race back to the office, run some risk analytics on our portfolio, and go home. It was incredibly satisfying. Because my company allowed me to do this, I loved them. I was so grateful that I would stay even later and work even harder. Sometimes, when I was offered certain parts, I would turn them down because I didn’t want to be away from my office for too long.
THE MORE SUCCESSFUL I BECAME IN FINANCE, the more women started reaching out to me for advice about their own careers. I began to understand that there weren’t a lot of other women leaders to talk to. I began mentoring women one-on-one in 2008. Then I launched mentorship groups online, which grew to a few hundred women in different cities across the country. In 2014, I decided to leave my job and run bSmart full-time, providing an online and offline network to women in different stages of their careers. They may be looking for a mentor or to be a mentor, to network, or to build their skills. They can leverage our network and its resources to give or get a leg up and accomplish their personal and professional goals.
I HAD AN AHA MOMENT RECENTLY. I realized that, while the mentorship groups are great, not everyone has the time, money, or energy to take full advantage of them. So I created a mentorship and networking app. No matter where you live, how much education you have, or if you have a real mentor who believes in you, the app can guide you. If you have only five minutes while you’re walking to work, you can listen to a mentorship podcast. If you’re doing a midnight feeding, you can watch a mentorship video. With that model, it’s possible to reach over a million women. That’s our business goal.
WAS IT SCARY TO LEAVE MY PREVIOUS JOB? I think when your heart is sort of pulling through your chest, and you get so uncomfortable in your current environment, that it’s much harder to stay than to actually make a move. I worked for 10 years in finance and was in a position to self-fund my own business. I read The Lean Startup and decided that the only way I would be good at running a business was by actually doing it. Sure, I could go to business school — or I could fail fast and learn what I needed to learn on the job. I currently run the business from home with a team of interns.
I THINK CLOTHES ARE AN INCREDIBLE OPPORTUNITY to manifest who we want to be, and embody power before we really feel it on the inside. I never quite got into character until I had my hair and makeup and costume on, so I’m interested in clothing that makes me feel like that top 10% earner, 6 percent of CEOs. I love a structured blazer and dress, or dress shirts with a great heel. Well-tailored clothes made from good fabric makes me feel like a million bucks and like I can earn a million bucks.
AS A MOM WHO RUNS HER OWN BUSINESS from home and wears a variety of hats, I believe in clothes that look fabulous but can easily switch between casual and formal. I don’t like to spend a lot of brainpower on putting an outfit together—I’m a big fan of the uniform. I rotate between neutrals like black or white jeans, stretch pants, great white T-shirts, high-quality slip-on flats and a blazer. I’ve boiled down my wardrobe to a bunch of pieces that always make me feel great, and that I can pull together without much thought.
MY DAUGHTER IS 16 MONTHS OLD. I waited a long time to have a child, partially because I was a little burnt out from babysitting for so many years. I helped raise so many other people’s kids that I needed some “me” time. Still, that babysitting experience helped me a lot when she was born. There’s no learning curve with actual childcare, but it’s been surprisingly easy to keep running my business without skipping a beat. I will say that pregnancy, delivery and, most of all, breastfeeding were all total eye-openers. Maybe it’s partly my age — I’m 37 — but it took a real physical toll. I wanted to breastfeed my child for a full 12 months while running the business. That was a bigger challenge than I anticipated. Breastfeeding is very psychological—if you’re stressed, it’s hard to do it. You have to feel safe and secure to produce milk. But it’s not like I could shut my brain off. I’m grateful that I had the flexibility to keep working throughout that process. I want that for all women.
I STILL USE MY THEATER SKILLS ALL THE TIME. I give a lot of talks and keynote speeches, and I’m recording my own bSmart master classes. I also do standup comedy and am not planning to ever give it up. Making people laugh is the way I communicate.
Photos by Jeff Allen. Styling by Liz Young.