Merrill Lynch Providing Professional Women an Opportunity for Greater Returns

by Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)

The management team at Merrill Lynch was puzzled. While it was clear that Merrill Lynch was recruiting its fair share of the most promising women from campuses around the world and developing that talent, the number of women dropped at each successive level up the corporate ladder. Moreover, there was a recognition of the large pool of talented women looking to re-enter the workforce and an opportunity to tap into it. The management at ML set out to figure out how and why.

Working with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy and director of the “Hidden Brain-Drain” Task Force, they found that women who “off-ramped” from high-pressure “extreme” jobs rarely returned to the same firm or a similar job when they were ready to on-ramp. Despite their considerable education and experience, these women often preferred to start over in a new industry.

To become a firm that attracts women with significant industry experience to come back into the workforce and, once back, to stay, grow and advance within the firm, Merrill Lynch recognized they needed help. They drafted Ms. Hewlett and Columbia Business School to help them create a program for returnees and a separate program for the advancement of current workforce women unlike any other. Thus, the Greater Returns Program, launching this October, was born.

“We are so excited to be partnered with Columbia for this program. We were looking for a NY-based educational institution with a robust executive education program. Columbia Business School Executive Education had what we were looking for,” said Subha Barry, managing director and head of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Merrill Lynch.

Greater Returns is billed as a “new suite of programs for women seeking to transition back to work as well as women professionals looking to accelerate their career growth and professional development.” This fall, “on-ramping” participants will spend a rigorous 2 ½ days in courses designed to familiarize them with the newest industry practices and technology. They will also learn how to tell their “off-ramp” story in a compelling and productive way. “The key is getting [the women] to think differently about their capabilities and prepare them for their new roles, even if they are in other parts of the industry,” said Ms. Barry. A program for current women professionals is targeted for the fall of 2009.

The faculty will be comprised of top people from Merrill Lynch, as well as Ernst and Young, Intel, and other top companies. “This is a collaborative endeavor. Sylvia Ann Hewlett has proved invaluable in using her vast network to connect us with all these companies,” stated Ms. Barry. She continued, “It is my belief that the broader the net we cast, the greater the possibility that we will find a solution we are looking for as it relates to women in the workforce.”

In addition to the coursework, senior women at Merrill will host lunches and dinners to get to know each of the participants. “The most important thing is that these women get exposed to a variety of constituencies within Merrill Lynch,” said Ms. Barry, “They will even have the opportunity for one-on-one interviews with our HR people so they can get feedback on their interviewing style and resume. It will be very hands-on for participants and Merrill Lynch.”

While the program does not guarantee employment for each participant, Ms. Barry expects realistic outcomes to include each member of the group developing a solid network of peers, establishing connections with each of the participating companies and creating an action plan for workplace re-entry.

The group of women accepted into the inaugural class of the Greater Returns program—scheduled to take place October 27 – 29 of this year—will come from a wide range of backgrounds, including investment backing, private client-side finance, operations, accounting and even the entrepreneurial sphere.

The aim is to have all participants share some common elements: to be highly qualified women who held upper-level positions before leaving the industry and who share a passion for re-entering the workforce.

There are still openings for qualified candidates. The program encourages those interested to apply today, as the deadline for applications is September 19, 2008.