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Mover and Shaker: Jennifer Macdonald, Director of Product Management, NYSE

Jennifer MacDonaldWhen Jennifer Macdonald describes her career path as highly unusual, “one very few people would ever even consider,” she is not exaggerating.

Macdonald first attended Brown University and then graduated with honors from the School of Visual Arts in New York. With her partner, Hillary Leone, she founded a fine arts collaborative and successfully exhibited internationally, becoming well-known as the only practicing lesbian art duo in the United States. As up-and-coming artists they showed in the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art, among other places. Their collaboration ended 10 years later in 1999, when her partner decided to move to Washington DC and they realized that collaborating long distance would be too challenging.

Macdonald wasn’t daunted, because she had always been given the message that there was nothing she couldn’t do from her mother, who had been an opera singer, poet and then psychoanalyst. “She made me feel like I could do anything I put my mind to– it might be harder as a woman and a lesbian, but with hard work, definitely possible.”

From Arts to Tech

This confidence led her to accept an opportunity at Sotheby’s, which was her first stop in the transition from artist to executive. Leveraging her art background and her knowledge of computers, Macdonald accepted a position as vice president to launch Sothebys.com taking the 260 year old Sotheby’s auctions, magazine and educational foundation content online in the space of year. She was soon promoted to senior vice president where she led a partnership with Amazon, as well as oversaw the development of the first live arts and antiques auctions streaming with transactional bidding online.

Being in the arts had always been Macdonald’s expected path but when a friend told her the New York Stock Exchange was working on launching the first ever 3D trading floor experience with real-time trading data mapped to it Macdonald says she figured, “I’ve never done anything in financial services; what an amazing opportunity to find out what that would be all about,” and went to work for the company that handled technology for NYSE and Amex. “I had started my career so far on the right brain side, how could I not want to challenge myself to see how far the left brain side might be able to go?,” she said.

Working for the NYSE as a director of product management, Macdonald moved into developing strategic technology for enterprise monitoring and operational tools as well as several major relaunches of NYSE’s core trading platform. She also developed enterprise platforms for consolidating trade desk customer tools and currently is overseeing a major process reengineering initiative creating a plug and play product management practice that will be used across the company’s disparate asset classes that have come online as mergers and acquisitions have brought new products and services in house.

And that is the professional achievement she currently points to as the one she is most proud of. “The processes that my team first instituted in the NYSE Equities Market are being held up as an example of best practices from a regulatory and compliance perspective,” she said. “When we were audited by key regulatory agencies without whose approval we cannot operate our business, it showed that the model I was able to put in place is top of its class, and will make us highly efficient and more profitable as we look to bring new services and products online.”

Finding Strong Women

Over the years, Macdonald has learned how important it is to find a mentor and cultivate that relationship. But it can be a challenge, she acknowledges, given that the lack of women in many industries mean there are fewer choices from which to select. While she says that you can find good men as mentors, she believes it can be an advantage to choose a woman because they often better understand the challenges that other women face.

She advises women to consider mentors at all levels of the organization — not just at the highest levels. “Don’t discredit a middle manager who can be your mentor when you’re starting out; they know a lot you don’t know,” she says, adding that a mentor doesn’t have to be someone who has achieved absolutely everything you want.

In addition to strong relationships, she believes you have to value your own ability to be ambitious about your accomplishments, to exhibit confidence that you can achieve your goals despite obstacles.

Macdonald observes that financial services is an industry that still has a high fall off rate for women as they reach a certain level. “Add in being a lesbian, and you exponentially reduce the number of women in the industry in my shoes.” That doesn’t daunt Macdonald, though, who says that it just takes courage.

Back in the Closet – and Back Out

And that courage led her to be the first woman ever to come out at the NYSE. What was surprising was that she slid back into the closet when she first joined the industry, on the advice of a colleague He told her that even though she had been well known as an artist, that the worlds were so far apart no one would ever connect her with her fame and identity in her other career and it would be best to start this way.

Ultimately she made the decision to come out at work when she and her partner, now wife, decided to have a child. “Regardless of any real or perceived risks to my career it seemed clear to me that it would be unethical to raise a child from within the closet,” she says.

And that’s one of the reasons she believes in being an agent of change in the industry. “It’s still hard for many individuals in our industry to be comfortable with their identity as LGBTQ. Diversity has been proven to be good for corporations and for individuals. It’s a win for all if we can improve the diversity in financial services.”

Toward that end, Macdonald as Co-Chair of OPEN Finance, runs an organization with a mailing list over 5,000 strong that is comprised of more than 40 LGBT ERG networks across major financial services firms, such as Citibank, JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America. OPEN Finance shares best practices for fostering diversity to member firms. At OPEN, Macdonald is also working to boost women’s involvement. “It’s not unusual for me to be one of two or three women in a room with 80 men,” she says.

Macdonald likes to talk about driving positive change through OPEN, citing the group’s support of marriage equality in the upcoming case before the Supreme Court. “Marriage equality is good for financial services firms. We don’t want a patchwork of different classes of marriage for HR to manage in every state and every country. That makes no sense from a bottom line perspective and we have numbers to prove it, not to mention the injustice of it and inconvenience if you move state to state. Married in one, not in the other? “‘ she said. The group actively worked with member firms to collect a record number of signatures in support of marriage equality in a brief that will soon go before the Supreme Court.

On the home front, she and her partner concentrate on raising their five-year-old son, as well as launching their new business, the first urban mushroom farm in New York City which will grow mushrooms from waste such as coffee grounds and sawdust. They also make time as a family to visit their house in the Catskills. “That’s my refuge”.

By Cathie Ericson