By Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)
A former competitive figure skater, swimmer, and track and field star, Cynthia Steer knows about self-discipline and drive. She relies on those traits daily as the Chief Research Strategist and the head of Beta Research Group at global investment solutions firm Rogerscasey.
“I was an athlete at a time when women were not normally athletes,” she explained. She forced the integration of her high school track team and held her own as the only girl on the team.
Her tenacity was further tested as a student at Smith College, which had no track team. “Basically, I did a ‘sit-in’ in the President’s office,” laughed Steer. “The coach of Amherst had heard about me [because I had a world-class time in the ½ mile] and said he would let me train with the all-male team there but that I needed permission from the then-president of Smith. I went in cahoots with the president’s secretary and, for one month, everyday after classes, I would go into the anteroom in his office and sit there doing my homework. After two or three hours, when he asked me why I was there, I would tell him, ‘I want to run.’ And he would say, ‘You can’t.’ That went on for a series of weeks until finally one day he said, ‘You are all set.’ He basically wanted to see whether I was determined to do it.”
After graduation, rather than heading right to law school or graduate school, Steer spent several years teaching underprivileged kids on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. “My family always believed that you needed to give back,” she explained. By evening, she attended the Bank Street School to get her certification in early childhood education to help her in her teaching efforts.
Four years later, Steer decided it was time to decide what she wanted to do with her life. “At the time I would’ve have applied to law school but a friend of mine who was doing a Ph.D. in Finance at Wharton convinced me to go to business school to do international business.” And it was through her involvement with the international Ph.D. student population at Wharton that she whetted her appetite for international economics and finance.
From Wharton, she joined a credit training program at American Express Bank (wholly owned by American Express). Of her time there, she said, “I was just on fire. I just wanted to learn everything. I was fascinated. I was in the foreign exchange area because, on Wall Street, it was actually one of the first areas where there was little prejudice against women. And I thought that being in New York or Paris or London was just fabulous. There was nothing I didn’t like other than there were just not enough hours in the day.”
She went to the training desk at the Bank of Montreal five years later. In her last year with the Bank, she was “on loan” to the Bronfmans, a prominent Canadian family, to work on a particular transaction; she ended up working for the family, directly and indirectly, for a total of seven years. At the end of her tenure, she was the Chief Investment Officer for a life insurance company that was a joint venture between the family and another party.
She then went on to join United Technologies in Hartford, where she served as Chief Investment Officer for almost four years. She was lured away by a very attractive offer to become the vice president for Benefit Investments at Philip Morris. But she ended up staying with the tobacco company less than one year. Said Steer, “That was a lesson in ‘if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.’ There are institutions with a culture so complex that they need an insider to lead. Philip Morris is one of those places; they probably should never have hired an outsider.”
Caring for Family as a Working Mom
At the same time, her second child, then 3 years old, was diagnosed with developmental dyspraxia, a life-long coordination and brain processing disorder. “He couldn’t put food in his mouth and couldn’t stand on one foot. He never stopped because he literally couldn’t hold his body up straight,” she explained. “A doctor later said that the three diagnoses my son received would generally lead to institutionalization.” It turned her world upside down. But Steer, with her degree in elementary education and experience teaching, as well as her “make-it-happen” attitude, was determined to do what she could to change her son’s condition. “I knew from working with kids that there was a lot that could be done; I wasn’t going to accept it at face value. I said to myself that I know I can do better. I can work with this kid. And I did, pushing him to his limits. It is about determination and discipline. In many cases, it is deciding that it just ain’t gonna happen on my watch.”
She added, “I decided to work part-time and primarily from home so that I could oversee the treatment.” She first worked as in-house consultant and Chief Investment Officer for the City of Hartford. She then joined life insurance company SBLIUSA as their Chief Investment Officer, supervising asset allocations and creating portfolios.
Once again, Steer credits the skills she learned from her track and field success with helping her to keep her foot in the industry while handling her son’s health challenges. She said, “I’m not sure that everybody could have accomplished it. It came from years of having to combine academics with six hours of training. I had to be very disciplined.”
“You don’t b***h about it, you just get it done,” she said matter-of-factly.
In her current position with Rogerscasey, Steer, a specialist in fixed income and emerging markets, “does the fundamental research trying to figure out where to make money two years from now and then merges it with long term asset allocations and long term return generation and assumptions.” She does a “fair amount of travel” to conferences and meetings around the world but still works from home 1 – 2 days a week when not traveling.
Steer is proud of what she has been able to accomplish in her career and especially of the recognition she has gained over the past 7 1/2 years. But it took her a while to get comfortable saying that. “Women go through their lives thinking that they are not good enough or need to work harder. I’ve always kept my eye on the ball but I’ve had family challenges [like my son’s health, my mother’s Alzheimer’s and my father’s elder care issues.] To be fair and really candid, I’ve only just realized that people respect me.” She added, “I guess what I’m most proud of is that I’ve been an investor in the emerging markets for 20 years that has probably influenced a number of young central bankers around the world and that may have helped to the current positive attitude towards the asset class.”
Advice to Women
Steer has always been active in mentoring younger women through her alma mater, Smith College, but wishes that women in general learned sooner the value of networking with other women, rather than feeling as isolated as she did at the beginning of her career. With her family issues now less pressing, she goes out of her way to make sure she helps young women in the industry, especially with the work-life balance issues they are facing.
“I spend a lot of time helping women who are just married or who have young children. That is a really tough four to five year period: you are married, you have young children, and you have a tough job. It is a challenge to manage it all, especially when the second child comes. I tell the women that you need to focus on learning how to do it all. You need to be able to balance. I also tell them that you learn to have confidence in a growing skill set that is not necessarily attached to workplace and you learn to manage and be more focused at work so you can focus on the other stuff when you are at home. These are skills you develop through talking with other people.”
She advises mid- to upper-level women in the industry to always be honest with themselves about what they know and don’t know. “You can always learn something new. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other women and trust your own judgment. And don’t forget to take risks.”
“There are barriers and there always will be,” said Steer, “But I have a belief that hard work pays. It’s not bad to make a fool of yourself. I always believe in asking questions. If I don’t know something, I’m not afraid to show that I don’t know it. Intrinsically, I’m intellectually curious and I’m pretty self confident. I always want to do better. I want to be extraordinarily competent and master my craft.”
Although Steer has long since left competitive sports, she still carries with her all the lessons she learned. “The drive and discipline I got from the competition – I still pretty much have that. I work lots of hours during the day. And I’m driving me, not the clock.” She also learned the importance of hard work and confidence as a means to overcoming barriers, “I’ve never spent a lot of time thinking there is a glass ceiling is because I felt that, if there is a glass ceiling, I could change it. You change it through commitment, dedication, and hard work. I believe this because I have done it.”