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Meet The Female Leaders Of Finance: “Find candidates beyond the small set of schools from which you’ve been recruiting”, with Janet Cowell, CEO of Girls Who Invest

Tap new pools of talent. Find candidates beyond the small set of schools from which you’ve been recruiting. Look for candidates with skills and interests that are relevant for finance that might be expressed in non-traditional ways (e.g., maybe the student has never been exposed to investing and hasn’t ever bought a stock, but she […]


Tap new pools of talent. Find candidates beyond the small set of schools from which you’ve been recruiting. Look for candidates with skills and interests that are relevant for finance that might be expressed in non-traditional ways (e.g., maybe the student has never been exposed to investing and hasn’t ever bought a stock, but she has analytical and creative thinking skills in linguistics or science).

As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Janet Cowell, CEO of Girls Who Invest. Prior to joining Girls Who Invest, Janet held publicly elected offices in North Carolina for 15 years and was the first woman elected State Treasurer. She also has experience in the private sector in the U.S. and abroad, and she’s passionate about education, chairing the Executive Education Board of the Wharton School of Business. Janet graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, earning her MBA and M.A. in international studies from the Wharton School of Business and the Lauder Institute, respectively.


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 kind of fell into it, really. I’d always been interested in social impact, languages and politics. As a high school student, I was sponsored by the U.S. Congress to study in Germany for one year. When I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, I intended to major in international relations but got exposed to business through classmates and enrolled in Penn’s undergraduate Wharton Business School. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, some of my friends and Wharton professors were working for business consulting firms like Bain in eastern Europe and playing a role in the rebuilding of countries like Poland and East Germany. They were buying and selling factories and businesses like it was a game of Monopoly — I saw the power and impact that business can have on the world.

Following my experience in Germany, I studied Chinese. And after graduating from Penn, I went to Hong Kong. This was also a contributing factor to going more towards the business and finance career path. A lot of U.S. banks and securities houses were building out their Asian operations at the time, and I got a job as a securities analyst with the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) and then Lehman Brothers in their Hong Kong offices.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

When I was Treasurer, I gave an important speech at a Chamber event in Rocky Mount, NC, and my good friend’s mother was in the audience. I had put a lot of time and effort into my speech, highlighting economic development policy, public financing of infrastructure, etc. When I returned to Raleigh, I asked my friend if her mother had any feedback. She said, “Yeah, she didn’t like your shoes, and you need to wear more lipstick.” It was frustrating to hear, but I didn’t want anything to detract from the work I was doing. You realize that, as a woman, people pay attention to this kind of thing. So I did put on some make-up and heels — which was in no way compromising my values — in order to move forward and focus on the things that really matter to me, like policy.

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

At Girls Who Invest, we’re currently working on affiliating with a university on the west coast to bring our finance education program and internships to a broader set of students. Our mission is to address the gender gap in the investment management industry. We started on the east coast and have expanded a lot in the Midwest over the past two years. The west coast is home to a lot of big asset management firms like PIMCO, Farallon and TPG, as well as to a lot of great universities. We’re excited about building our presence there.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company stands out because it has a tangible impact, partnerships with some of the top asset management firms in the world, and affiliations with top universities. There are lots of organizations focused on gender parity and equity in business and finance. Girls Who Invest is distinguished by focusing specifically on women managing money. Scholars take a four-week finance course, currently held at Penn and Notre Dame, and then they have a six-week paid internship at one of our 100+ partner firms — including many of the biggest asset management firms in the world like BlackRock, Charles Schwab and J.P. Morgan. The program (both the educational course and the paid internship) offers a foot in the door in an industry that has been tough for many women to break into.

One example that comes to mind is one of our scholars from 2018, Julia Lauer, who is currently a rising senior at Harvard. While she’s been impressive since high school, her background wasn’t necessarily typical of someone entering the investment management field, coming from a lower income family. During our program, she interned at Blackstone, and she’s currently an intern at D.E. Shaw, and plans to continue in the industry after graduation. We’re excited to see all that she’ll do in the years to come, and she’s a prime example of what our program can offer.

Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?

Lately, there’s been more pressure from clients and customers for money managers that look more like them. This is especially true for entities that are people-facing, like financial advisors, mutual funds and pensions. There’s also been societal pressure (from things like the #MeToo movement) in the U.S. for more equity and fairness in the workplace, including gender equity. The finance industry still lags behind other industries (such as healthcare and law) in terms of diversity and inclusion, but now we’re seeing more focus, effort and creative approaches.

Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?

The four most effective and important things are:

1) Set specific targets for hiring goals and incorporate them into how people are measured and paid.

2) Define skills sets and attributes you are looking for when recruiting instead of relying on “cultural fit.”

3) Tap new pools of talent. Find candidates beyond the small set of schools from which you’ve been recruiting. Look for candidates with skills and interests that are relevant for finance that might be expressed in non-traditional ways (e.g., maybe the student has never been exposed to investing and hasn’t ever bought a stock, but she has analytical and creative thinking skills in linguistics or science).

4) View recruiting as a long-term proposition vs. a quick transaction. Identify and build relationships with desired candidates throughout their undergraduate years instead of waiting until junior or senior year, or even after college.

You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each.

As someone who served fifteen years as an elected official, I would argue that if you actually inform yourself about candidates for elected office and how their policy proposals would impact your life/pocketbook, you would enhance your financial literacy. I’ve often been surprised how few people realize how much their welfare can be affected by one office (Mayor, Treasurer, etc.). I realize politics can seem confusing and overwhelming, but I recommend picking one issue like student debt and exploring the policy positions of a few candidates in whom you are interested (there are websites where you can look up where the candidates stand on different issues). Then think about how that would impact you and go vote.

Shop around for a health plan. Choosing a health plan is one of the most important financial decisions you can make. Choosing the wrong plan could end up costing you thousands and thousands of dollars, or could even result in bankruptcy. Sitting down once a year and using tools to help make sure you are thinking about not just the monthly fees, but deductibles, benefits, services and limitations, is critical. When I was State Treasurer, I used to run a state health plan, and one of the most important tools we invested in was a decision-making tool for the website so our members could make good, educated financial decisions.

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?

When I was Treasurer, I had to work with the North Carolina State Legislature in order to get investment authority for the pension fund. For example, if I wanted to increase the amount of money invested in real estate, I had to court 170 politicians to get permission. I had been a State Senator myself, but I was relatively young and female. John Medlin had been the CEO of Wachovia — an iconic banker in an industry that had helped shape North Carolina. He agreed to be a member of my investment advisory committee, and he helped me go to the legislature to ask for greater flexibility in investment authority after the financial crisis of 2009. With his help and the credibility he brought, I was able to successfully diversify the $60 billion portfolio and achieve investment returns of over 7.5% for the 8 years that I was Treasurer.

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

“Always keep fresh fruit in the fruit bowl.”

A friend said this to me once, and it comes to mind often. At times, the world can be a rushed, even harsh, place, and this serves as a reminder that it’s important to maintain a sense of wellbeing, which can take many forms. Eat healthy food. Enjoy the passing of seasons. Take time to take care of yourself. Appreciate the little things.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Sustainable investing is a space I’m passionate about. Sustainable investing takes into account environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in portfolio selection and management. With around $70 trillion in global assets under management, there’s a huge opportunity to invest money in ways that have more positive social impact than we have in the past. There’s a burgeoning awareness of the power of finance to have that kind of large-scale impact. This is something that has really inspired me about the scholars in our program; they’re extremely interested in investing in ways that potentially address climate change and issues like public health. I’d love to see awareness and adoption of sustainable investing techniques continue to grow, and I think the next generation will play a huge part in this.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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