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ON BEING BULLIED: I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, back before it was a tourist destination. I was the second of four kids, and the oldest girl. You had to have a voice to be heard in our family. I went to an all-girls school and was bullied right out of there—I had to switch schools. When you’re bullied as a kid, the courage to find a way to be alone and persevere by yourself is a formative experience. There were years on Wall Street that felt lonely, too. When you’re one of the few—or the only—women in the room, you don’t have a natural group of peers or a support network built in. But I never thought of myself as a girl’s girl, given that I had been bullied by them; my interest in feminism came pretty late.
ON FINDING HER WAY ON WALL STREET: In my twenties, Wall Street was like the Wild West. The head of my department was having an affair with three different women, including his assistant and one of the vice presidents. It was crazy. I would come in to find Xeroxed copies of genitalia on my desk every day. I turned around one time and there was a colleague pretending to perform a sex act on me. I hated everything about it, but it never occurred to me to say anything. If you’re 24 and your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss is having affairs with multiple women, how in the world would you think to go to an HR department—which I didn’t even know existed—and complain about sexist behavior? Instead, it was just, “Keep your head down, do your work, collect your paycheck, and figure out how to get out of there.” I finished my twenties as a stay-at-home mom, and when I quit investment banking, I thought my career was over.
At the age of 29, at home with my kids, I had this epiphany that I should be an equity research analyst. It was a more cerebral, individual job. It’s also a job that’s less defined by gender issues, because regardless of who you are, if you write a research report recommending a stock and that stock goes up, you help your clients make money. I got hired at Sanford Bernstein, a company that I lovingly call “the land of misfit toys.” It was an underdog, and because it was scrappy and sort of third tier, they hired people you wouldn’t normally see on Wall Street. Within a year, I was ranked the number-one research analyst, because the personality and skill fit was so strong. You can’t be successful as a research analyst if you don’t speak up. If you do all the work and don’t tell anybody, you shouldn’t bother to do the work at all. That’s how I found my voice.
“When you’re bullied as a kid, the courage to find a way to be alone and persevere by yourself is a formative experience. There were years on Wall Street that felt lonely, too. When you’re one of the few—or the only—women in the room, you don’t have a natural group of peers or a support network built in.”
ON GETTING FIRED: When I was the Chief Financial Officer of Smith Barney at Citigroup for several years, I loved every minute of it. But your boss really makes a difference. In the downturn of ‘07 and ‘08, we realized that my business had mis-sold investment products as low-risk, when in fact they were high-risk. It was a mistake, but it happens. I went to my boss and I said, “We’ve made a mistake and hurt our clients. The right thing to do here is to partially reimburse them. It’s also the right thing for our business.” He disagreed with me, and it went to the board, and the board sided with me. But when you go against your boss at the board level, I would say you have a 100% chance of losing your job. I loved my job and wanted to keep it—but this point was important enough to lose it over.
If you had asked me years ago, “Sallie, did you lose your job because you’re a woman?” I would have been offended. I would’ve said, “Why does everything have to be about gender?” Now, I’ve totally changed my mind. I wasn’t fired because I have different body parts and it’s a women-haters club. I was fired because I had a fundamentally different perspective on an issue than everyone else did. I happened to be the only female on that senior leadership team, and one of the few in the industry. I was the only executive that I know of who returned client money in the downturn. Is that a coincidence? Absolutely not. I’m certain my former boss and his former squad thought they were right and ethical in their views, too—I’m not saying they weren’t. But my view was different. And wouldn’t we have been better off if there was more difference of opinion on Wall Street? Diversity of all kinds is the way that you break groupthink.
ON STRIKING OUT ON HER OWN: Before I started Ellevest, people often said to me, “Sallie, you ran Merrill and Smith Barney; you should do an investing thing for women.” And I was like, “How dare you? Women don’t need something that’s dumbed down. You don’t think we’re smart enough to invest like the guys do?” I had a gendered reaction to it, that something “for women” had to be junior varsity. Then, I realized that all the Wall Street and investing groups had tried to tackle the gender gap in investing and failed. I went to a bunch of big firms to talk about it, and even after I pointed out that 90% of women manage their money on their own at some point in their lives, these well-meaning guys would say, “But don’t their husbands manage their money for them?” That actually happened. Finally I said, “If this is going to be done, I have to do it.”
The transition to a startup was something I thought about for a long time, alone, over many glasses of wine. I had opportunities to go back to big companies, and I wasn’t sure if I could pass up the pageantry of it—was I willing to give up all those perks? When I dug deep, I determined that I’m about purpose and mission and impact. And today, I believe you have the opportunity to make an even bigger impact as a small company than as a big company. At a big company, you’ve got to get everybody on board, and deal with bureaucracy and politics before you do anything. Whereas at a small company, boom—you do it.
“I went to a bunch of big firms, and these well-meaning guys would say, ‘But don’t [women’s] husbands manage their money for them?’ That actually happened. Finally I said, ‘If this is going to be done, I have to do it.’”
ON STYLE: My style has certainly evolved a lot over the years. Dress like your boss—you’ve heard it a million times, but it’s a pretty fail-safe strategy, unless you have a cruddy boss who’s going nowhere. Looking at that next level up will give you style cues. If you dress in a way that makes you appear to be more successful than you are, people incorporate that into their view of you. Keep the cleavage at home. If you’re in corporate America, I might even say keep the toes covered up as well—or anything that can detract from people thinking about your brain. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it’s not good—but if a guy walks in with his toes showing, you’re probably going to be thinking about his toes, too.
When I was younger, I dressed more formally than I do now. I once read that the first part of your career is about dressing to be seen as successful, and then once you’re successful, it’s about dressing to be seen as accessible. Hence my leather jackets! I love leather, and I love finding ones in vintage stores that feel like one of a kind. Back when I was a banker, I wore a lot of Armani suits. But a few months after I got thrown out of Wall Street, I purged them from my closet. It felt cathartic.
ON POWER: I’m not about giving power to women—women already have power. We are more than half of the workforce, and we bring great qualities that make companies better, and research backs that up. Plus, even though we don’t have as much money as guys do, we direct 80% of consumer spending. It’s crazy that we hear so much advice to act like men, and that so much of the workforce is still so patriarchal, when women are already so powerful. So how do you harness it? It depends what you’re comfortable with. Are you comfortable not shopping with companies whose values don’t align with yours? Are you comfortable going into the office and saying, “Bill, that was Suzy’s idea, and you just claimed it as your own”? Or, “Steve, you interrupted Sharon 12 times”? Those are tough conversations, and I wouldn’t recommend having them your first day of work. But ultimately, sharing these insights makes us better.
Gloria Steinem has said that women are the only group to become more radical as they age. In my twenties, I associated feminism with my mother, and I didn’t want to be anything like my mother at that point. In my thirties, I was too tired with my kids, trying to get promoted, and trying to be some semblance of an okay wife—I really couldn’t do it all. It was only in my forties that I went, “Hey wait. Look around. How did I go through my whole career and nothing changed?” Now I’m a feminist. Forget 1,000% about your politics; you couldn’t miss it in the 2016 election. You couldn’t miss that we haven’t come as far as we thought we had. A few years ago, we felt like we were on our way. Diversity has gone sideways since then, and in some industries, it’s gone backwards. What’s exciting is that younger women want to be a part of fixing this, and don’t want to wait until they’re 40, because it’s broken now.
“I’m not about giving power to women—women already have power. We are more than half of the workforce, and we bring great qualities that make companies better, and research backs that up.”
“It’s crazy that we hear so much advice to act like men, and that so much of the workforce is still so patriarchal, when women are already so powerful.”