Powerful Women on Paying It Forward

woman pointing upBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Wednesday marked the Council of Urban Professionals’ fourth annual Women’s Leadership Forum, “Women & Wealth: Ambition, Risk, Success,” held at Morgan Stanley‘s New York City headquarters. CUP Executive Director Chloe Drew opened the event with a message of what the event would celebrate: “Women as drivers of revenue, leaders of finance, builders of teams.”

She continued, “But another theme has emerged. Women as circles of trust and reciprocity.”

“All of the women we’re honoring today really represent such creativity, such ingenuity, but also those circles of trust and reciprocity,” Drew said.

CUP honored several women with awards, each committed to making a difference for women in their respective fields and serving as an example for female leadership.

The Honorees

The first woman honored by CUP was Molly Ashby, Founder and CEO of Solera Capital. The private equity firm is composed almost entirely of women from diverse backgrounds. “The [private equity] industry is well known for financial rewards… but not well known for diversity,” she explained.

When she founded the firm in 1999, she continued, she had three goals. First of all, she hoped to prove the value a diverse team can bring to the private equity world. Second, she hoped that her example would inspire more diversity in the private equity space. And third, she explained, “We had the opportunity to make a big point that you could put mission and business success together. Not just to co-exist, but to be a powerful force together.”

Based on Solera’s success, Ashby believes that her first goal has been accomplished, as well as the third. But, she continued, she’s disappointed in how few firms have followed Solera’s example of diversity. “In this country, you can do anything. You can achieve anything. I’m exhibit A of that,” she said. “I’m honored to be considered a pioneer. But I didn’t think it would be so lonely, or that it would still be so lonely.” Asbhy added that she hopes in the coming years, the private equity industry will see more diversity.

The next woman honored by CUP was Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem. Golden said, “I always knew I wanted to live my life in art and culture.” As the first African American curator at the Whitney Museum, she explained, “I went there knowing that no one like me had been there before,” which, she said, encouraged her to make her own mark and create change.

Today at the Studio Museum, she continued, she’s followed in the footsteps of women who’ve held the Chief Curator role, women who took the time to mentor her. “I can only hope to mentor young women with that same compassion,” she said.

Yet, Golden added, while women are gaining power in many industries, there are still very few women at the top of the art and culture world.

“There are still realities that I think we have to fight for,” she said, pointing out that while 40% of museums making less than $25 million per year are run by women, when it comes to women running museums making more than $25 million per year, the number is only 5%. “In the art and culture world, we still have barriers to break: leadership, what we see, and who defines what’s worthwhile.”

Finally, the last honorees were Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, Founders of Gilt Groupe. Wilson said, “We’re both very supportive of other women, and very supportive of entrepreneurship. We hope to see more women thinking about starting businesses. But not just any businesses – we want to see women thinking big, and being disruptive.”

She added, “While there have been challenges, we hope to inspire others.”

Maybank continued, “Beyond that, we both find it so incredibly important to pay it forward. We believe we all rise together.”

Weaving Together Your Personal and Professional Life

During the event’s opening remarks, Ruth Porat, Morgan Stanley’s Chief Financial Officer, shared some of her own advice for career success. Referencing Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent article in The AtlanticWhy Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Porat discussed “the whole conversation of how we weave together what we want personally and professionally in life.” She explained that she didn’t agree with everything Slaughter said, but many of her points did strike a chord, like the feeling of guilt many women experience, the importance of one’s partner, the importance of being able to control the various elements of life, and the importance of leadership.

Porat shared four elements that she believes are critical for weaving together personal and professional life successfully. “First, professionally, I feel very much that it’s important to have a sponsor.”

She continued, “All too often, women put our heads down and work hard and expect to get noticed.”

Related, is her second element: “The importance of communication.” We need to learn the value of speaking up and explaining what we’ve accomplished. “And it’s important to speak up if you want another opportunity,” she continued. “There’s nothing more frustrating for any leader than investing in someone and then they leave,” because they’re not happy with the role, she explained.

Third, she continued, “You have to have a life. You can’t delay your life until you think it’s the right time.” Porat said that she feels notions of work life balance are flawed. “It’s not about balance. It’s about getting the right mix.”

“If you don’t have a life outside work, you can become resentful because no job can give you enough,” she explained. “And you’re just not as pleasant a colleague.”

Having a life outside work leaves people inspired and helps boost creativity, she explained.

And finally, Porat said, be sure to nurture your network of relationships. “It’s about having a network of people who’ve gone through things you’re going through.”

By asking for feedback and seeking out tested strategies for managing personal and professional desires, women can better navigate these often challenging waters.