Voice of Experience: Kathy Levinson, Managing Director, Golden Seeds

KathyLevinsonWelcome to Pride Week on The Glass Hammer — we’ll be profiling successful LGBT business women all week long!

By Michelle Clark (Keene, NH)

When you ask Kathy Levinson, Managing Director at Golden Seeds, what her greatest professional accomplishment is, she will modestly talk about the details of her fourteen year career at investment firm Charles Schwab, or briefly mention what it was like to be the President of E*TRADE. But, it is when she speaks about the positive difference she has made in the lives of people who face professional challenges simply because they are different, that you really hear the pride shine through in Kathy Levinson’s voice.

Levinson did not always plan to be such an influential leader in the financial services industry. “My original plan when I was younger,” she says, “was to be a professional tennis player or a professional violin player, so I really I had no idea or intention that I would be an influential business leader, much less at the time, an out lesbian or a woman leading a company.”

In 1979, Levinson answered an ad in the newspaper for a broker’s assistant job at financial services firm, Bache, Halsey & Stuart, after letting go of her dream to achieve athletic or musical stardom. This, she says, “Was my unintentional and serendipitous start in the financial services industry.”

At Bache, Levinson experienced a lot of gender-based discrimination and verbal abuse and even some physical harassment, which was pretty common for women entering the male-dominated financial services industry at that time. Levinson sums up the general workplace culture by saying, “The words to describe women came in four letter words, maybe five letter words, and none of them were pleasant.” However, despite facing such an oppressive environment, as Levinson described it, she made the most of her time at Bache. During her year as a broker’s assistant, Levinson obtained her stock brokerage license.

After leaving Bache, Levinson had a short stint at a money management firm, but continued to struggle with finding her place in such a hostile environment. She eventually found her niche at a little known company at the time called Charles Schwab. Levinson recalls how she felt, “Charles Schwab seemed to fit me from both a philosophical and a values perspective.” She continues, “It was a renegade firm, the first financial services firm to be based on the West coast.”

Charles Schwab was a game changer in the financial industry because it was one of the first financial services firms established after new laws were introduced in the mid 1970s deregulating commissions on the buying and selling of stock. Unlike all other brokerage companies, Schwab’s brokers were salaried – they did not get paid commissions. In many ways, there are important parallels between Levinson and Charles Schwab. That is Wall Street wanted them both to fail – Levinson for not fitting the profile of a typical financial services professional and Schwab for creating an entirely new way for consumers to invest which benefited the investors instead of the brokers.

“When I went into the headquarters office at Charles Schwab for my interview, I saw women and young people, and that environment felt more appropriate for me.” Apparently, Levinson’s feeling was spot on as she spent fourteen years at Charles Schwab, holding a number of different positions. Aside from gaining valuable experience at Schwab, Levinson also felt like she was finally working in an environment where the company’s leaders were receptive to change, especially when it came to welcoming women into the world of investing. “I saw my higher level purpose as helping women become more financially secure and manage their money. Schwab was making investing easier for women, since women were so unwelcome at traditional brokerage firms, not only as employees but as customers.”

Yet, Levinson still recalls moments at Schwab where she felt like an outsider. Naturally, when Levinson arrived at Schwab, one of the first steps she took was to scan the company’s organization chart for a woman’s name. She found one woman in senior management, which certainly wasn’t uncommon at the time. Levinson recalls, “I got up my nerve to walk up to the executive floor and into her office. I told her how impressed I was by how far she had gotten in her career, and how I wanted to learn from her.” The response Levinson got wasn’t quite what she expected. “I was treated so harshly,” says Levinson. “She said to me that you just need to work hard and being a woman doesn’t matter at all because we’re no different.”

Levinson was taken aback by this misguided advice, but like she so often does when faced with adversity, she used this event to fuel her greater mission of promoting diversity in the workplace by promising herself that when she got to a senior level position, she would always make herself available as a mentor to women, lesbians, or anyone else who felt like they were struggling in their career based on the fact that they were different.

Feeling fulfilled by everything that she had accomplished at Charles Schwab, Levinson turned her focus to spending more time with her family until she received a phone call from a company called TradePlus, offering her a position at their firm. Levinson was so dedicated to establishing and raising her family at the time, she refused to even consider a position at any company located outside a five mile radius of her home. Luckily, TradePlus fit the bill.

Levinson had been committed to taking some time off, so instead of joining TradePlus as a full-time employee, Levinson became a consultant for the company, as that seemed like less of a formal commitment at the time. After serving as a consultant for a little over a year, Levinson became President of the brokerage company, which soon thereafter morphed into E*TRADE, becoming one of the first financial services firms to offer internet trading. Shortly after, Levinson became President and COO of the holding company.

Paying It Forward

When Levinson talks about her professional past, she places a lot of emphasis on what she likes to refer to as her “shadow career,” a term she picked up from Debra Meyerson, a former professor at Stanford Business School, who would talk often about the idea of being a tempered radical. This concept resonated deeply with Kathy Levinson, who sees herself as someone who does her job well while subtly creating positive change around her.

She explains, “I had this shadow career at Schwab, where I would quietly educate people behind the scenes about language, laws, roles, and how to create a more welcoming workplace. As time went on, and as I moved up the ranks, I was able to have more influence in that way.” Levinson continues, “When my shadow career became more important to me than the career I was being paid for and the career that the shareholders expected me to do, then it really made sense to me to make my shadow career my full-time career.”

So, in 2000 Levinson shifted gears once again to concentrate on philanthropy when she formed the Lesbian Equity Foundation, which is something she had intended to right after leaving Charles Schwab. Through this foundation, Levinson provides grants for many LGBT, women’s, and Jewish social justice causes.

Family Matters

When speaking with Levinson, another evident source of pride in her life is her wife and two daughters. She says, “When I gave birth to my first born and she was a girl, I knew I was doing this work to make the world a better place for her.” She continues, “When my second child was a girl, I knew I just had to put that much more energy behind it.”

Although she has helped immensely in creating a less oppressive path for people following her footsteps in the financial services industry, Levinson is still hard on herself. “In some ways, I feel like I failed,” she says, “because I know it is still a very difficult work environment, not only in financial services, but in many other industries.”

But it’s the small victories that keep Levinson motivated in her quest to be a positive change agent and advocate in corporate America.

Words of Wisdom

Levinson takes a lot of pride in the positive difference she has made throughout her career, but as she has grown and matured she definitely wishes that she had approached people a little differently when she first began to take on the role of a change leader in her professional life. “In the beginning,” she says, “I wished I had known that many people really did have good intentions and that I should give them the benefit of the doubt.” Often, they were just oblivious or ignorant and needed to be educated on the issues.”

Levinson has come to recognize this now, and uses this lesson to help her be a more sensitive leader. She encourages leaders to intentionally include others who often self exclude. She explains, “Others often don’t participate in the conversation because they don’t feel comfortable, and people having the conversation don’t necessarily mean to leave them out, but if you don’t go out of your way to look for the others and invite them in, they never get a seat at the table.”

To young people entering the workforce she offers this piece of advice. “Assume that people have good intentions, and that they don’t mean to do things that are hurtful or painful.”

She continues, “If you think of people who often do have good intentions, but have not had somebody who cares about them enough or cares about the company enough to take the time to teach them, you can see your role as adding value to the company, not only in the job they pay you for but in educating people about the issues and about how they can be a more welcoming company, then you are helping to increase shareholder value and make the company a better company.”

Levinson also says, “One thing I tell women is that I started my shadow career the moment I started my employment. You don’t have to be at a senior level to do it. You can be at a junior level. You just have to look for your opportunities and be strategic, so that you continue to be invited back to the table.”

Levinson continues to look for her own opportunities to make a difference, but admits that she is selective about how she spends her time. She explains, “I am lucky to have a number of skills and experiences that I have acquired throughout my career, and I try to only do things that leverage those skills.” Levinson continues, “So when I was asked to speak at Out on the Street, there are so few out lesbians at the Managing Director level and above working on Wall Street, I really felt that it was something I had to.”

“I really value the opportunity to use my experience in a way that benefits the community of which I am a part, which includes being a lesbian, a woman, Jewish.” Levinson jokes, “That community even includes being left-handed and short.”

Levinson represents what it really means to fight for change in a corporate system so set in its ways. In honor of Pride month, The Glass Hammer extends a collective “Thank You” to Kathy Levinson for her tireless efforts dedicated to changing the world one conversation at a time, as she so eloquently put it.