By Robin Madell (San Francisco)
Elle Kaplan moved to New York City with no job, no apartment, and $200 in savings. She is now the CEO and Founding Partner of a leading independent private bank, Lexion Capital Management. “It has been a fun and often unpredictable journey,” Kaplan said.
With a background in English literature and chemistry, Kaplan’s entrance into the finance industry was not automatic. She began her career by temping, applying to every financial firm that she could think of. But she had missed the recruiting cycle and was initially rejected by every bank she tried. “I contacted headhunters, and they looked at my English and chemistry degrees and said I would never get a job on Wall Street,” Kaplan said. “However, I always think of a ‘no’ as someone’s opinion, nothing more. So the rejections did not alter my plans.”
Kaplan’s big break came during an interview to be a receptionist at a private equity firm. During the interview, the team noted her ‘A’ average and expressed concern that she would be bored answering phones. Kaplan agreed and asked whether there were any openings for analysts. Four days later, she had landed an analyst job. “That was my biggest ‘sale!’” Kaplan said.
During her career, Kaplan has worked as a private banker at JP Morgan Chase, as a derivatives specialist at a British investment bank, and as a Vice-President and financial advisor at Bernstein Global Wealth Management. Along the way, she earned an Executive MBA from Columbia University. She recommends the degree to those who work full-time.
“One great thing about getting an Executive MBA is you put your classroom management lessons into action right away versus waiting until you graduate,” Kaplan said. “You can also advance faster in your career choice because you don’t have to take off time for school. Instead you are doing it all at once.”
The Glass Ceiling
Kaplan faced challenges in addition to her educational background on her trip to the top. When she started out on Wall Street, not only was she often the only woman in the conference room, but it was still common practice to take analyst classes to strip clubs, as well as entertain financial clients there.
“The culture was not an easy one for a woman,” Kaplan said. “I wish I could go back in time and tell a younger version of myself, who used to brush glass out of her hair every night from bumping against the glass ceiling, that one day, this too will end. It has gotten better.”
In 2008, Kaplan came up with the idea to launch her own firm. Her clients at the bank where she worked gave her the idea. “Three clients, independent of one another, asked me to leave and manage their money at my own firm,” Kaplan said. “Finally, after the third request, I said yes.” To make it happen, she began working all day at her current job, and all night for herself.
Kaplan explained that although it was hard and often exhausting, it was also exhilarating—and she never looked back. “When you build something from scratch, you get to create something really special,” Kaplan said. “I was able to create a firm using the ‘best of’ from every place I had ever worked.”
She found that the biggest challenge during the transition was learning how to be a CEO versus an employee. “I have to wear more hats and have more people reporting to me,” Kaplan said. “They are fun challenges, but challenges nonetheless.”
Today at Lexion, Kaplan says she promotes a very pro-woman culture. “It’s woven into everything we do at Lexion,” Kaplan said. “It’s in the DNA of the firm, where our mantra is, ‘Would this advice be good enough for your Mother?’”
Advice to Women
Though Kaplan always found investing fascinating, she did not initially view it as a viable career. “As a child I would read about investing in my free time,” Kaplan said. “But as a Midwestern gal raised by my mom who works in marketing, I did not grow up with an understanding of Wall Street. I had no idea growing up that this would be my path.”
It wasn’t until after college that Kaplan began to believe that she could make a living from her hobby. “I was reading about biotech companies, which combined my love of science and investing, and I thought, I could make this into a career,” she said. Though she had no idea what a career on Wall Street would entail, she drove to New York City from Ann Arbor (where she studied at the University of Michigan), and jumped into her new mission with both feet. “I bought two suits and a horrible 80s-style raincoat from TJ Maxx. I slept on the floor of an apartment in Westchester, took the train to the city each day, and began interviewing.”
Kaplan said that the same confidence that took her on that trip from Michigan to Manhattan propelled her career. She recommended that younger women set their sights high and keep them there. “All women should set their own limits,” Kaplan said. “We’re often brighter and more capable than we give ourselves credit for. I hope more women ask themselves, ‘Why not?’ instead of asking ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’”
Kaplan noted that sometimes even women who are more senior have challenges with confidence. “I see women who are brilliant, talented, and capable. The only problem is they don’t believe in themselves,” Kaplan said. “You have to be your own best cheerleader. Know that you can do this, and you will exude confidence and success.”
In terms of the finance industry, she would like to see the numbers change so that more women are empowered to take leadership and board positions. “Women need to show everyone that Wall Street is their street. It’s a place that needs more women,” Kaplan said. In order for that to happen, she said women must be stereotype breakers—and all the smarter, savvier, and sharper to get to that seat at the table. “I want women to know: ‘CEOs look like me, and they can look just like you too.’”
Work Is Life, Life Is Work
With so much on her plate, Kaplan said she doesn’t think balance exists—at least not for her. “The saying, ‘if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life’ is true,” she said.
With an eye on the future, Kaplan hopes to launch two additional companies in the coming years. “I have ambitious expansion plans,” she said. “I have just begun this journey, and I hope to reach and help so many people.”
In addition to her work at Lexion, Kaplan makes time each month to teach high school students about career choices and options on Wall Street. “It is very important to me that young women see all five-feet-and-two-inches of me. That they see I am someone who can make them laugh and that I speak in language that they understand,” Kaplan said. “I hope that my lectures do a small part in changing the ratios and get more women on Wall Street.”
Kaplan said that she believes she often gets more out of teaching than the students do. In fact, her proudest moment to date came from teaching: “I was on the subway and a young woman looked up and asked me if I was Elle Kaplan,” she recalled. “I said yes. Then she thanked me for lecturing at her college. I was so moved… that subway ride solidified my commitment to educating and mentoring young adults, and especially young women.”
She also supports charities that support humane treatment for people and animals, working with women survivors of domestic violence as well as animal shelters. And she does find time to travel with her significant other, spend time with family and friends, and go on long walks with her rescue mutt.
“There is something very liberating about living a minimal existence and focusing on creating special experiences and memories,” Kaplan said. “I am always seeking new challenges. I am always having fun. I love what I do, so work and fun are interchangeable.”