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Lessons From the Female Titans of Wall Street: Alexandra Lebenthal

There are a lot more women going into the industry than there used to be, so there is a greater pool from which to start. In addition, there has been a focus on diversity that actually goes back ten or twenty years. In many cases, women’s networks that were created to address this need were […]


There are a lot more women going into the industry than there used to be, so there is a greater pool from which to start. In addition, there has been a focus on diversity that actually goes back ten or twenty years. In many cases, women’s networks that were created to address this need were more focused on networking, social events, and development, but over the years they have become a way to identify and advance talent. Lastly, there are more and more men who realize that women add tremendous value, earlier in their careers and in some ways (for some women), even more so after having children.

A legendary banker once told me that women made better investment bankers than men, because of how much they had to do to get to the top. In acknowledging the need for more women, something very meaningful came out of it- the realization that diversity leads to diversity of ideas, and in most cases, better results!

One of the things I am really excited about is how diversity has taken a new step, as institutional investors, be they banks or Venture Capital firms have realized that female founded or led companies also produce strong results. That is an important step because it expands throughout the economy, creating more opportunity for women to lead, and to create wealth for themselves and others.


Alexandra Lebenthal is a financial expert who has been on Wall Street for over thirty years. She was the CEO Lebenthal & Company until June, 2017. She joined Lebenthal in 1988 and became President and CEO in 1995 at the age of 31. Ms. Lebenthal remained at the firm for four years after its sale, leaving in 2005 before starting anew in 2006. A passionate supporter of women in business, she was named one of the top 50 Women in Wealth Management by Wealth Manager Magazine. She has also been named to the Crain’s New York Top Women Owned Business and the Crain’s Fastest 50 Growing Businesses in New York. As one of the most recognizable women on Wall Street she is a frequent commentator in the media. Ms. Lebenthal is a former board member and Treasurer of the Securities Industry Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), and a current member of its Advisory Council. She is also a board member of Savvy Ladies, a non-profit organization that provides financial literacy education and resources for women. She is a member of The Committee of 200, the leading organization for female businesswomen. Ms. Lebenthal is involved in many cultural and philanthropic institutions in New York City. She also is the spokesperson for Weill Cornell Focused Ultrasound, a ground breaking procedure for Essential Tremor. Ms. Lebenthal published her first novel “Recessionistas”, in August 2010, which was sold to Universal Cable Productions, and is currently writing the sequel. She is also the Co-founder of “The Women’s Executive Circle,” a group of high-profile Jewish Women that mentor other women under the auspices of United Jewish Appeal. She is now undertaking the same effort with Women on Wall Street as a part of UJA as well. A graduate of Princeton University in 1986, with an A.B. in history, Ms. Lebenthal began her career in the municipal bond department at Kidder Peabody Inc. Ms. Lebenthal lives in New York City with her husband, Jay Diamond. They have three children, Benjamin, Charlotte and Eleanor.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Banking/Finance field?

I grew up in a finance family, and while I didn’t plan on entering the field while I was in school, it was clearly in my blood. My grandmother and grandfather started Lebenthal & Company in 1925. While my grandfather passed away in 1950, my grandmother lived until 95 and worked until the age of 93. My Dad joined the business in the 1960s. As a result, most of the talk around the dinner table was about the business. When I graduated from college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and when I got a job at Kidder Peabody, (one of Wall Street’s firms of the time), I didn’t know that I planned on staying in the industry. Somehow, two years later I ended up at the family business and I sometimes marvel that I am in financial services. I am a very creative person and was often drawn to that style of work, however I have found that there is room for every type of person in any job. There is also an excitement about markets, and deals that is undeniable.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have had a lot of help. A lot! It is hard to single one person out, but above all it clearly was my father, Jim Lebenthal. My Dad was unorthodox, creative, passionate, funny, and couldn’t have cared less whether I was a boy or a girl. He appointed me as CEO and the spokesperson of our company when I was 31. He had more concern about my need to balance work and family than I perhaps did myself. Even when he wasn’t in agreement with my decisions, he always supported me. In fact, I had pushed to sell the company in 2001, and about 6 months after the sale was complete, as was the case with many people who sell their business, I was not happy with the result. My Dad had not been in favor of the sale and for that reason, I didn’t share my feelings with him. My sister, however, did tell him. He called me into his office one morning and told me that he knew I wasn’t happy but wanted me to know that he was there to help me in whatever way he could. It would have been so easy to ignore my feelings, or even say I told you so, but he did the exact opposite. He was an amazing man, and to this day people come up to me to say how he affected their lives and careers as well.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am working on producing a television series for a fascinating book called “Keep the Damned Women Out”. The book details the story of the coeducation of Ivy League schools, specifically Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth. It’s written by a Princeton Professor, one of the first women hired by the University. She continued as a Dean and Professor for nearly 50 years, and thus had a front row seat in watching women enter and ultimately thrive in what was once an all-male world. The story is particularly meaningful to me for two reasons. My father went to Princeton when it was all male, and I was a student there in the early 1980s when women had only been on campus for a little more than a decade. I was unaware of what the first classes of women had endured, which was a lot, and was very naïve in thinking that women were on equal footing during my time. This is a story that has not been told before, and one of so many that need to be in order to further our discussions of challenges women continue to face in the workplace.

Wall Street used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change? What lessons can be learned from that to support this change going forward?

There are a lot more women going into the industry than there used to be, so there is a greater pool from which to start. In addition, there has been a focus on diversity that actually goes back ten or twenty years. In many cases, women’s networks that were created to address this need were more focused on networking, social events, and development, but over the years they have become a way to identify and advance talent. Lastly, there are more and more men who realize that women add tremendous value, earlier in their careers and in some ways (for some women), even more so after having children.

A legendary banker once told me that women made better investment bankers than men, because of how much they had to do to get to the top. In acknowledging the need for more women, something very meaningful came out of it- the realization that diversity leads to diversity of ideas, and in most cases, better results!

One of the things I am really excited about is how diversity has taken a new step, as institutional investors, be they banks or Venture Capital firms have realized that female founded or led companies also produce strong results. That is an important step because it expands throughout the economy, creating more opportunity for women to lead, and to create wealth for themselves and others.

Can you tell us 3 top challenges that many women face when they step from a from mid-level position to a senior board?

Women can be their own worst enemy. I think in many cases, we can have a tendency to feel like we are not qualified. People joke that if there are four qualifications for a new job, a woman will think she needs six, while a man will feel like he is in good shape if he has two. We cannot be afraid to take on that new challenge and I’d encourage all women to pursue their passions.

Unfortunately, a great deal of misconceptions still exist around women in business. Men in leadership positions can often be seen as a strong, whereas a woman in the same position may be labeled as too aggressive or just even “bitchy” when displaying similar leadership qualities. Finding a way to combat those stereotypes is important. I have always felt that having a sense of humor is a really good way to do that and help facilitate needed discussions on this topic. When people laugh they are relaxed, and generally more comfortable.

Lastly, I think it is really critical for women to embrace the transition from mid-level to a senior role and to envision themselves as the successful leader they’re full capable of being. Many women decide to work with executive coaches as they rise. Getting outside perspective, suggestions and experience with female and male leaders can be invaluable.

I know women who tell themselves that they will not try to take up senior executive roles because they want to prioritize being a “good mother”. In your experience, are the two really in conflict? What suggestions would you give to balance both?

I don’t think having a senior role and being a good mother need to be a conflict at all. In fact, I can name several women who are at the top level of finance, and also incredible mothers. It takes commitment, time management, and having enough help- especially a spouse to make it work. There are certainly tradeoffs including some missed moments and events (with family and work), but being confident and comfortable enough to take time for one’s family and personal life allows leaders to be more present in any situation.

Unfortunately, “balance” has become its own mountain to climb. Rather than thinking of it as a permanent state that once achieved will never disappear, we should recognize that balance is never permanent, it’s a constant ebb and flow. There are moments when it works and you feel like Super Woman, but there are also times when it doesn’t work, and you are kicking yourself. It’s important to remember that while good moments come and go, so do the bad ones. Once I realized that I felt a lot less stress about having balance.

Boards are more effective when there is diversity in its members. What are 3 benefits that bank boards will see if they seek to be more inclusive of women?

Many women have typically risen to the top, not by running a P&L, but rather in non-line jobs: compliance and risk management, human resources, and marketing. They bring different skills and benefits to boards. Some of those are:

1) More dialogue, not only with other board members, but also with senior management, the latter of which is very important, as people want to feel that their board is engaged and aware of what they do, and the issues they face.

2) More questions particularly about tough issues, problems and crises. In my experience, women are rarely willing to let things go without resolution.

3) Greater input on the public face of a company, particularly in times when a CEO needs as much help as possible.

Sadly, there is a gender stereotype that men are “more strategic” than women. This perception may be one of the reasons why boards have a smaller female representation. What should be done for women to position themselves as strategic leaders?

I haven’t heard that in my experience, however I see statements that men are more, “fill in the characteristic of our choice”, than women as excuses to not add a woman to a board. It’s pretty easy to identify many women who are not only very strategic, but brilliant, successful and experienced.

One of the main reasons why there isn’t a larger representation of women on boards is because much of the time board members are recruited by existing board members. They tend to recommend people that look like them and have had similar senior roles. The good news though is we are seeing increased pressure from investors to add diversity to boards, there is a much greater focus on finding great women and people of all different backgrounds. I feel confident that the many qualified female candidates will continue to build their presence in the industry going forward.

Which organization would you encourage a woman aspiring to be on a bank board to join?

Over the last few years there have been a number of organizations that have been created to find board opportunities. A favorite of mine is Boardlist (theBoardlist.com); it has placed women on some top boards like Ebay, Cisco, and Pinterest. Many of the top venture capital and search firms are partners. Note, a nomination by an existing member is required to be listed as a candidate on Boardlist, but there is a very extensive list, so getting to one should be possible.

Can you please give us your favorite” Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“So far, you’ve survived 100% of your bad days. This too, shall pass.” I have had moments of being in crisis, feeling like it was never going to get better. Ironically, I was recently reading some old emails from one of those times, and I was reminded of how true this quote is. Two emotions went through my mind — One was “Ugh. That was the worst time of my life”, and “Wow. It passed, I am still here, and stronger for it. “

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

I have been very lucky over the last two years to bring a positive change to many people. I have suffered from “Essential Tremor” (ET) for almost all of my life. Basically that means my hands shake and performing daily tasks like drinking a cup of coffee can be a challenge.

It’s been embarrassing, frustrating, and at times problematic in my career. A few years ago, I learned about a new procedure called, “focused ultrasound.” Developed by INSIGHTEC, an Israeli medical technology company, the Exablate Neuro focused ultrasound device allows trained physicians to heat a small target deep in the brain that causes the tremor, and create a lesion that will stop the tremor. This is an incisionless surgery and one-time treatment, but still a complex procedure.

I was one of the first people to have it done in the United States, only a month after it was FDA approved. It was a great success that instantly made a difference in my life. I have used my profile to help people with ET learn more about the condition, and have done many interviews about it.

Essential Tremor affects approximately 10 million of people in the United States alone, so creating awareness is really important. To be given the opportunity to change someone’s life isn’t one that comes often, or at all. It has been a great honor that fills me with pride.

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