Voice of Experience: Kelly Williams, Group Head and Managing Director, Customized Fund Investment Group, Asset Management Division, Credit Suisse

KellyWilliamsBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Kelly Williams, Group Head and Managing Director of Credit Suisse’s Customized Fund Investment Group, believes that networking is critical in the private equity business – especially for women.

“Too many people focus solely on doing deals, and not as much on being part of firm building,” she said. “Networking and relationship development with both entrepreneurs and investors are equally important for building a sustainable career. That’s where women need help in this industry.”

Williams, whose group manages over $28 billion of assets on behalf of clients globally, is the founding chair of the Private Equity Women Investor Network, and believes that by playing a bigger role in generating business, women can raise their profile across the industry.

Career in Private Equity

Williams began her career in law. After graduating from New York University Law School in 1989, she joined Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy. “I joined the project finance practice, working on large infrastructure projects around the world, representing developers and financiers.”

After four years, Williams joined Prudential Insurance Company as in-house counsel – the firm had provided financing for projects she had worked on, she explained. “It was a fairly male dominated industry at the time, but at Prudential, the head of the private markets law department was a woman and there were a number of women in the group. It was exciting to work in that environment.”

In 1996, Williams received an offer from an energy company that was a former client to do project development – on the business side. “I was close to accepting the offer and moving to the business side. However, when I approached Prudential, they asked me to stay, and offered me the opportunity to work in product development for private equity – so I stayed.”

In 1999 while still at Prudential, she founded the Customized Fund Investment Group. “After structuring and negotiating fund investments for so long, it made sense to apply that expertise on behalf of clients,” she explained. In 2000, the business moved to Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ), and then shortly thereafter, DLJ and Credit Suisse merged.

“Obviously as a woman-led business, it’s very gratifying to be one of the largest asset managers within my field of specialty.” Williams said she feels very fortunate that, although her group has a very broad investment mandate on behalf of its clients, one of the specialties she and her team have developed is investing in emerging managers, many of whom are women or minority-led.

She continued, “Many pension funds have expressed the desire to see more diversity reflected in the managers contained in their portfolios, and it’s very gratifying to have the opportunity to support emerging managers and contribute to diversity on Wall Street.”

Williams said she is also particularly energized by the work CFIG is doing in the emerging markets. “Our strong track record in the private equity space, coupled with Credit Suisse’s global footprint, helps us provide clients around the world with access to developing economies. It is personally exciting for me to see emerging market growth, especially the dynamism in Latin America and Asia – these economies are booming! Private equity by its nature is risky, particularly in newly developing economies, so it’s helpful for investors to have someone experienced by their side.”

As for the industry at large, she said, “Private equity provides an important service for the US and the global economy, supporting growth and entrepreneurism. Unfortunately, private equity has been in the spotlight lately and not necessarily in a positive way. I think the industry could do a better job explaining what it does.”

Advice for Women in Asset Management

Williams said she wishes she had learned earlier that making mistakes is part of career development. “As a young person starting your career, even a small mistake can be earth shattering. It’s okay to make mistakes.”

She continued, “You can learn a lot from mistakes, and if you explain what’s happened, people are often willing to help you correct the mistakes. If you’re honest, people are willing to work with you to get to a better place.”

“I also believe that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks,” she added.

She advises junior women to cultivate an expertise. “You have to be an expert on the substance of what you are doing in order to get transactions done.” That means developing an understanding of the sector on which you focus and its financial structure, she said.

She also discussed the importance of role models for young women. “One of the challenges for women in the private equity industry has been that there aren’t a lot of senior women. In my experience, it’s been difficult to find female role models in the space.”

Williams is the founding chair of the Private Equity Women Investor Network. “We provide opportunities for senior women in the industry to get the recognition they deserve and to get exposure to each other, while providing junior women exposure to them.”

“There are many senior women decision makers, but people still are not familiar with each other. Networking, whether on the private equity side or the limited partner side, helps increase the profile of women in the industry.”

In Her Personal Time

Williams is on the board of the Toigo Foundation, which provides scholarships for people of color and women to go to business school. “Our goal is to change the face of Wall Street,” she said.

She is also on the board of the Council of Urban Professionals, which focuses on increasing the numbers of people of color in the political and financial arenas, and also recently joined the advisory board of Export-Import Bank, based on her interest in the US mid-markets and job creation. In addition, she sits on the board and investment committee of Union College.

Williams also supports Artists Association of Nantucket, Nantucket Historical Association, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and Guggenheim Stillspotting project, among other charitable endeavors.