35 Under 35: Sara Grillo, CFA, Principal, Diamond Oak Capital Advisors

Sara_picture-1By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“Lead with your heart and don’t be afraid of who you are,” said Sara Grillo, Principal at Diamond Oak Capital Advisors and Adjunct Professor at Marymount Manhattan College.

She continued, “If you’re a leader, a role model, a mentor, you have to live it. You have to breathe it.”

Grillo takes her duty as a leader seriously, working to mentor or teach as many women as possible that they can succeed if they believe in themselves. Why? Grillo says she is on a crusade to increase the number of female CFA Charter holders to 50% – currently only 19%.

While she serves as a mentor within the New York Society of Security Analysts (NYSSA), Harvard, and the NYU Stern School of Business, Grillo explained, “Mentors are more in need for women who aren’t in programs – like the woman who gets picked on by her boss or who doesn’t quite fit in with the other girls at school.” From the subway to the schoolroom, Grillo does her best to inspire women to reach higher.

Building A Career in Investment Management on Her Own

“When I was about 18 years old, I was a penniless freshman at Harvard, and I saw a ticker tape in Post Office Square in Boston. I stood there staring; I was fascinated by it. I was an English major, but I had a passion for finance. I took an internship at Fidelity Investments.”

She continued, “Right after college I got a job in marketing at JPMorgan. I was glad just to have a job, but I wanted to be a portfolio manager, so I decided to take the CFA-1 one day.”

“I told a friend and he responded something to the effect of, ‘you’re just a marketing girl.’”

“Well, I’m the type of person, who if you tell me I can’t do something, I go and do it and I fight even harder.” She continued, “The test was almost impossible. I had no background in finance – I passed, but barely.”

Even still, Grillo said, her coworkers didn’t have much faith in her, saying there must have been some mistake in the scoring. “One even told me to call them up and verify the grade in front of everyone or to stop talking about it. They didn’t believe me!”

“I was determined. And I got a better job,” she added.

Triumphs and Challenges

Grillo says her next triumph came when the CEO of Rochdale Investment Management, where she had been working as an analyst, called her into his office. “He said, ‘I want to start up a $50 million fund of funds… can you help me with this?’ I said, ‘Sure. Happy to do it.’ And I went to my desk and Googled ‘fund of funds.’”

“I taught myself, and wrote an essay on it… which won an international competition.” Grillo’s article “Evolution of Risk in the Hedge Fund Industry [PDF]” was published in London’s Investor Services Journal.

She continued, “I was so flattered. It was the first time I really felt like a real analyst.” She joked, “I felt like the Christina Aguilera of finance.”

Next, Grillo took a job at Lehman, and, shortly thereafter, got downsized. She said, “It was good – at Lehman I was Excel spreadsheet monkey #500– I felt that afterward I was free to be myself. I was on to better things,” – which included partnering to start her own company, Diamond Oak Capital Advisors.

Challenges in the Investments Industry

“It’s hard to start a business,” Grillo said. “People are not investing in hedge funds – it’s a difficult environment.”

But she is charging ahead. “After the financial meltdown, people are busy lamenting. They don’t see the opportunity. Whenever there is a wrinkle in the status quo, there is an opportunity for an imaginative person to break in and make a lot of money.”

She continued, “Everyone is in a holding pattern – it’s time to step up. The average return for fund of funds was about -28% in 2008. I think I can do better. There are financial products and structures that we are designing to be superior to those that caused the downturn.”

Mentoring and Networking

But Grillo says her passion for her career is secondary to her passion for helping women learn, grow, and maximize their potential.

Having received her MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business in 2007, Grillo is also working as an Adjunct Professor of Finance. She said, “Starting my company is not as exciting as being an adjunct professor. You hold someone’s life in your hands – you make a difference. It’s difficult to build that trust but when you show people your heart, the walls come down. With all I have done so far, I have merely just begun to show the world my heart. And I am going to change people.”

She continued, “I feel very strongly about reaching out to other women. I can see so much of myself in people who are made to feel they’re not smart or good enough, or they can’t do math.”

She continued, “I refuse to sit there and let women doubt themselves. Your education is the only thing no one can ever take away from you. Education should be pursued above all else because it is the best investment that a woman can make with her money.”

Grillo says her best advice is to find a mentor. “I would be so much further ahead if I had had someone to guide me when I was younger.” She continued, “I majored in English literature in college because I was scared to take hard subjects and there was nobody there to tell me to stay true to what I was truly capable of.”

She continued, “I think this is why I want to be everybody’s mentor – I can’t stand to let another woman go through what I had to go through.”

“It’s important to be humble – but the more experience you get, you should be able to make the most of your confidence.”