The best piece of advice I ever got,” said Alexandra Lebenthal, CEO of Alexandra & James, a financial firm specializing in tax-free municipal bonds and high net-worth wealth management, “was in reference to driving a boat. ‘Whatever happens, just relax. You’ll always be able to turn around and get out of it.’”
“Sometimes you glide on the water, sometimes you go against a current – as soon as you relax all kind of things can happen.” She joked, “It’s something I should do much more of in life.”
Lebenthal, so far, has navigated her life’s currents well – in addition to having built a successful company from the ground up, she recently published a new novel, The Recessionistas, a book about New York socialites following the 2008 crash.
Building Her Own Company
After graduating from Princeton in 1986 with a degree in history, Lebenthal said, “All of my friends were going to work on Wall Street. So I went to work for Kidder Peabody. After two years, I went to my family’s firm, and I worked my way up.”
She continued, “In 1994, at the age of 31, I became head of the firm. I sold it in 2001, and for the next few years I worked for the parent company. Then it was sold again to Merrill Lynch. I left and went out on my own toward the end of 2006.”
Lebenthal says that, so far, she’s most proud of starting her own company – despite the harsh financial environment. She said she’s proud of “starting all over again with nothing and building up a whole firm in the midst of the recession.”
One of the most important lessons she learned, she said, “was how important having access to capital is at the very beginning – having as much as you need to grow your business. You never know where market’s going to be.”
Regarding new regulatory changes facing Wall Street, Lebenthal said, “There are a lot of nuances. Things will need to be clarified. I’m bracing for what will happen.”
She continued, “I’m also very focused and passionate about small business lending opportunities. Currently there’s a bill in Congress that improves loan opportunities for small business to increase capital. I don’t see the economy fully starting to regrow until small businesses have access to capital.”
Moving forward, she says, “I have a lot to do in terms of building this company.” She’s also excited about her “budding career as a novelist – I enjoy writing fiction a lot.”
She continued, “I’m sort of in the middle of the PR push for the book and reveling in that. And working my tail off at the office as well!”
Women In Financial Services
“There are so many more women in powerful positions today than 10 years ago,” Lebenthal began. “There are more success stories at the top.”
She continued, “There are still a lot of challenges – it’s a more intense lifestyle. You have to have a tough skin. And you have to work that much harder as a mom. It’s helpful to have a home life where you don’t have to do everything – either an amazing husband or great help or both.”
“Sometimes it all works and sometimes it doesn’t. One thing I’ve learned – and need a constant reminder for – is getting to the point where I can say, ‘this is not something I need to do.’”
Regarding work/life balance she said, “Balance is a thing that sometimes works. Think about somebody balancing on a balance beam or at the circus – balance is that moment when it works, but it’s not permanent.”
Young women starting in the financial services industry should “be willing to take on any task. If you don’t have enough to do, ask. Be very clear about what you want, but not overly aggressive.”
She continued, “It’s interesting, we have a few young women who are distinguishing themselves so much, so we finally decided to give these three young women a top position to share. It’s so great when you can reward people, when you see talent and ability and take the steps to make it grow.”
“There’s a lot of talk about Gen Y being entitled or demanding – but these three women really want to do a good job. It’s fun to see them get to the next level.”
As women approach more senior levels she advised, “Women have to make it very clear that they want to be in a leadership position. They have to be clear about what they want.”
Lebenthal says she looks to one of her business partners as inspiration. She said, “Right now my business partner Michelle Smith who runs our Wealth Management business inspires me. She’s a single mother with a special needs kid.” She explained that not only did Smith build the company’s divorce specialty from scratch, but also helped to found a school.
She continued, “She inspires me. She doesn’t let anything stand in her way. She gets stuff done, even in adversity. And her little boy has shown her – and me – what’s valuable in life.”
In 1996, Lebenthal co-founded the Women’s Executive Circle at the UJA [United Jewish Appeal] Federation. She’s also involved in a mentoring program and actively takes part in several philanthropic endeavors around New York, including the Reta Hayworth Gala, Alzheimer’s Association, and the Hale House in Harlem.