By Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)
On September 15, 2008, 11 women walked through the doors of the Goldman Sachs office in Manhattan. Some had decades of experience in finance; others had substantial careers in law, technology, operations and accounting. All had voluntarily taken a hiatus from the workforce—from two years to two decades—and were there to explore the possibility of returning to the world of finance through the pilot Returnship (SM) program offered by Goldman Sachs.
Helping Women On-Ramp into Finance
The groundbreaking program is an outgrowth of Goldman’s popular New Directions (SM) conference, a one-day event, held twice a year, which gives talented individuals who have voluntarily ‘off-ramped’—left the workforce—an opportunity for coaching and guidance on making a successful transition back into their careers.
But, despite the success of the New Directions program, many of the women were still struggling to find full-time positions in the industry. The diversity team at Goldman Sachs realized that what these women needed was “some sort of a trial period, like an internship,” said Monica Marquez, the Returnship Program Director. “Many of the women I interviewed would tell me that there was apprehension on the part of the firms they were interviewing with about whether the women had the long-term dedication to the firms and to their careers because the women had already off-ramped once before. There were also concerns about technical abilities after an extended break. So we developed the concept of a ‘returnship’ for people looking to return to the industry full-time.”
The Goldman Sachs’ Returnship, developed in late 2007 and launched in 2008, is a full-time, eight-week long program during which the returnees work on projects and experience firm life and culture. “It [gives] managers [the opportunity] to assess whether they can help someone ‘on-ramp’ as well and [it gives] the ‘on-rampers’ themselves [the experience and information to enable them to] make the decisions as to whether they can really make that transition back into the workforce, including potentially into a new area altogether,” explained Marquez.
Bette Rice, a member of the inaugural Returnship program, agrees. After 9/11, she decided she wanted to spend more time with her family, and left behind her 17-year “substantial” career as a technologist for Merrill Lynch. After one year focused on her children and a three-year “tour of duty” in the non-profit world, she yearned to return to the industry she’d loved. “I recognized that being in financial services was really part of my inner fabric, my DNA. I know I love being in the business and I recognized that I performed really well in the environment.”
Rice was apprehensive and excited on the first day of the program. “I walked in the door feeling like it was this incredible opportunity. This was a chance to gauge, assess and acclimate to an environment. Just even understanding what it takes [to succeed at Goldman], to feel the pace and the rhythm, to see where I was and what has changed since I left,” she said, “all of it was at the very top of my mind on that first day.”
Rice was assigned to the technology group and asked to do a broad-based analysis, which, she said, required her to “hit the ground running.” She added, “I was in my job and assignment for that time, re-acclimating to the technologies. It was a focused exercise every day.”
Once a week, the Returnship program included some training programs on topics such as emotional intelligence, the art of self promotion, and résumé writing. Additionally, there were networking opportunities as the participants were paired up with mentors from Goldman’s Women’s Network. “We focused on building the support structure that would help the participants create more opportunities, navigate the firm and add value to their team,” Marquez explained.
Marquez, who was a constant source of guidance and support to the 11 women, conducted weekly phone conferences with the group to check in with them on their experiences. But the participants relied on each other’s support just as much. “Sometimes the Returnship participants would pose questions or issues they were facing and their peers would come up with solutions; they would help one another. I was there to facilitate but they would often feed off each other’s experiences and be their own support system,” said Marquez.
“It was that combination of the challenging work, the supplemental programming, and the camaraderie which…made the program beneficial,” added Rice.
More Than 50% of the Participants Now Work for Goldman Sachs
The participants were told up front there was no guarantee of full-time employment at the end of the program. Still, despite the challenging environment, Goldman Sachs was actually able to hire more than 50% of the participants for positions in various groups throughout the firm, including Technology, Operations and Compliance. Rice was one of those six women, and is now a vice president working in Goldman’s technology group. “We were ecstatic [with the number of participants that could be converted to full-time employment],” said Marquez.
Marquez still maintains contact with those who were not immediately offered positions with the firm, adding that their involvement in the program puts them “on the radar” for in-house recruiters. Said Marquez, “They have already established track records at the firm and can show they added value. So if the right role comes up and the participants are still looking, there is something tangible we can leverage to help them on board and upon which an assessment can be based.”
But even those women who don’t find themselves with full-time positions at Goldman have learned valuable lessons about themselves and their goals through the program. Marquez explained that there was one participant—a new mom—who realized, based on her participation in the program, that she wanted a different work-life balance than the nature of the work in her chosen group at Goldman would afford. Marquez also mentioned another participant who has been interviewing with various firms. Based on the extensive self-assessment conducted during the eight weeks, this woman is now confident enough to turn down offers that don’t match her desired work environment.
The Future of the Returnship Program: The New October Session and Global Expansion
There is a new Returnship session starting October 19th* in New York City. And Goldman Sachs has already launched New Directions in London and plans to launch both the New Directions and Returnship programs in Hong Kong.
“We hope to see the Returnship program expand globally and become bigger. Although we don’t want it to be so big as to hinder our ability to [provide individual assistance to participants], we do want to expand it to touch as many people as we can,” said Marquez.
Marquez could not be happier with the results of the program so far. “It is very rewarding to know that you are helping individuals make that huge leap back into the workforce and that, without your help, it would be very hard for them to get back in. We really are making a difference.”
*Applications are currently being accepted for the second Returnship session, which will run from October 19th through December 18th of this year. The application deadline is September 25th so apply today, right here!