Voice of Experience: Virginia Gambale, Managing Partner of Azimuth Partners LLC

Virginia_GambaleBy Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)

A career in music requires discipline, years of study, and a desire to perform. Trained early as a classical pianist, Virginia Gambale was well on her way. “My first ‘job’ [as a child] was to take apart a complex Fugue. I had to concentrate for hours at a time, and practice 10 hours a day . [As a result,] I was more mature and focused than any other kid in my grade.”

“I always had a left and right brain battling for dominance,” said Gambale, “so although I was always very strong in math and science, I was planning to pursue a career in music.” She studied at the Hartt Conservatory in Connecticut and spent most of her days in the City studying with the faculty from the New York schools.

Gambale continued, “But when I went to see a musician friend’s debut performance, I said to him that his life was set.” His response to her—‘you don’t understand. I live on Avenue A, bathroom is down the hall and I eat brown rice 3 times a day. Nothing about my life will change’—“hit me like a ton of bricks,” said Gambale. She decided that was not going to be her reality. She said, “I had always been a very independent child and had never wanted to have anyone support me. So independence and the ability to take care of myself was a driving factor.”

Setting Out on Her Own, and into the Tech Industry

Without a car and parental support—they only wanted to back her if she pursued music—she approached the admissions team at New York Tech. “I went to them,” said Gambale, “and explained that I didn’t have much money, or a car, but I had a 99th percentile on my math SAT scores.” She asked them for credit for her prior studies at university, and tested out of enough classes to earn her degree—Mathematics and Computer Science with a minor in Business—in two years. She paid her tuition by giving piano lessons: “I would borrow my parents’ car, teach piano, and then go to school from 6PM – 11PM.”

She found a part-time job as a software designer with a tech-based consulting company, founded by former partners from KPMG and McKinsey, and in 1984, went to work for Mobil Oil doing tech for foreign exchange transactions. “We built a significant system of real time messaging, networking and transaction processing.”

Gambale found that her musical background helped her make the leap to technology. “There are many classical musicians in technology. There’s something about the abstract thinking of music that makes the transition to technology much easier.”

When the crash of 1987 pushed Gambale back out into the job market, she soon found a new position with risk, strategy and human capital consulting firm Marsh and McClennan. The job, she said, was “very boring on relative scale” but gave her the ability to develop executive information systems. She did well there and even the CEO and CFO saw that she was destined for more. “They said to me ‘Your abilities are beyond this. You are incredibly analytical and creative. You should be on Wall Street.” And so they made some introductions for Gambale to both JPMorgan and Merrill Lynch.

Gambale was struck at just how different the two Wall Street giants were. “Merrill Lynch was, in my opinion, a place that allowed innovation. If you could prove a concept 40%, they would give you the funding to progress.” She continued, “I felt that JP Morgan was a good fit for me both intellectually and in terms of the corporate culture; ultimately, however, since it was a consensus-based firm, the technology became obsolete by the time consensus was reached, and that wasn’t a good fit.” She ultimately decided to go with Merrill because “there were so many problems in the firm” that she felt she would have immediate impact.

A Seat at the Table: the Importance of Confidence

“The first few minutes of the first meeting were very stressful,” said Gambale. “I was the only woman in a room full of cigar-smoking, bombastic individuals. But I knew that I knew my stuff and was very confident about what I could offer them. I said to myself, ‘what’s the worst thing they can do to me? Fire me?’ I still think about that to this day even as I sit on big public boards. It is always a conscious decision whether to stay quiet and not say what you really think or take a chance.”

A few years after she had been moved off the tech team in favor of a position in investment banking at the firm, she was tapped on the shoulder by Banker’s Trust. At the time, they were trying to create investment banking groups by industry focus and Gambale educated the bankers on technology and technology strategy. Again, she knew she could make an immediate difference.

One of the first acquisitions was Alex Brown. The CEO, said Gambale, was “an ex- Marine and a strong personality.” Facing another “keep quiet or say what you think” moment, Gambale spoke to the powers-that-be in their language. “I said, ‘Think about your tech as portfolio of asset classes. You need an amount to maintain your same level and a certain amount to put on high risk/high return.’” By explaining their needs in tech terms, Gambale won a seat at the table.

In early 1999, Banker’s Trust announced their intended merger with Deutsche Bank. The plan was to have a decentralized tech organization, essentially eliminating Gambale’s role. But the CEOs of Banker’s Trust and Deutsche Bank were looking at how to give Gambale a new role. “They asked me to join as true banker. I was more interested in private equity and venture capital so they gave me my own $100 million portfolio, mostly made up of stray cats and dogs but with some big clients such as the Tisch Family and Paul Volker. The job was to liquidate the portfolio and return the capital to the bank.”

“I immediately thrust myself into it, saying to myself that what you don’t know you will go find out. But I already had the industry expertise. I could talk strategically about companies, the capital structure and financing of which is secondary. If you don’t have the right product/team/market,” she learned, “it doesn’t matter if there’s capital. ”

Gambale quickly learned what she needed to know: “I was a quick study outside meetings so I could ask the right kind of questions and not be intimidated.” She observed, “I know there are a lot of women in the industry that think they have to have the blue chip Ivy League resume to get a seat at the table. But all my access to opportunity has been due to my ability to develop relationships and inspire confidence, and educate without insulting.”

Breaking Barriers for Women in Finance

In June 2003, Gambale resigned from Deutsche Bank and later filed a lawsuit alleging sexual discrimination. The suit was eventually settled the night before trial in Gambale’s favor (Gambale v. DB).

In spite of that, Gambale doesn’t feel like there are insurmountable barriers to women in the financial services industry. “I can tell immediately with some one who will completely dismiss me because of my sex or my educational background. I used to be able to point out every man who went to an all-boys school; there was an immediate discomfort of not knowing how to make you part of the team. I had to find a personal connection, then segue into a discussion of business.” Gambale concluded, “There are barriers; we can’t pretend that there aren’t. I’ve run into them but haven’t been held back.”

Following the settlement, Gambale felt that rather than going backward, she wanted to “take a little time figure out what I wanted to do.” She started Azimuth Partners to help $2 to $100 million companies that wanted advice on how to grow to the next level. She remains a managing partner of the firm, which provides advisory services to promote growth and exit planning for financial services and technology based services companies.

Currently, Gambale is on the Board of Directors of both JetBlue Airways Corporation (NASDAQ-JBLU) and Piper Jaffray Companies, Inc (NYSE-PJC) and three private companies. She hopes to ultimately serve on up to four public and private boards, working to, as she said, “build on the Obama Administration’s attention to energy, healthcare, and technology & communications infrastructure issues.”

Gambale advises women in the financial services industry: “Don’t wait for someone to give you the job; just start doing. Develop your own voice—an expertise in a very specific area—and become the go-to person in the industry. That will give you a lot of opportunity to advance.”

And, she added, perseverance is just as important. “Never give up. Hard work will always pay off.”

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