It’s never too late to do what you were meant to do. Some of the most successful CEOs have decades of experience, so it’s never too late to be a CEO. No one on their deathbed regrets the things that they did, they regret the things they didn’t do.
As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing, Sallie Krawcheck the CEO and Co-Founder of Ellevest, a digital-first, mission-driven investment platform for women. Ellevest is one of the fastest growing digital investment platforms and has been named a #24 on CNBC’s top 50 “Disruptor” list, #14 on LinkedIn’s 50 “Most Sought-After Startups” (and #2 in New York), and one of Entrepreneur Magazine’s Top 100 Brilliant Ideas. Before launching Ellevest, Krawcheck built a successful career on Wall Street: She was the CEO of Merrill Lynch, Smith Barney, US Trust, Citi Private Bank, Sanford C. Bernstein and CFO for Citigroup. Krawcheck has also been called one of the top 10 up and coming entrepreneurs to watch by Entrepreneur Magazine and has landed on Vanity Fair’s “The 2018 New Establishment List.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Well, I wanted to be a princess when I was a child, but that didn’t quite work out! My second choice was a career in financial services, and so that’s what I did. This CEO role that I have today at Ellevest combines my financial knowledge and background with my passion for helping women advance their financial power, careers, and impact on today’s world.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I remember a very specific lightning bolt moment when a woman I knew asked me to expand Ellevest’s offerings beyond our digital approach. And I said, “I don’t know if we’re ready for that just yet.” The woman said to me, “Please, Sallie, I’m tired of having my money managed by a company where I wouldn’t want my daughter to work.” This was the moment when I realized how important what we were doing was and how immediate the need was.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we first started, we rented a shared workspace. Shortly after we settled in, I discovered that there were mice in the building, so I would get up super early and get in before anyone else to clean mouse poop off of all the desks. I learned that as a CEO, there’s no job too small, and I also learned that we needed a new office space very quickly!
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO that most attracted you to it?
My passion for this position revolves around getting more money into the hands of women. When women have more money, they have more power — and then good things happen to society. There’s a substantial, positive ripple effect on the economy, non-profits, culture, and business when this happens.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Ultimately, as a CEO, you’re responsible for the strategy, and that drives everything. But aside from that overarching role, you are the chief cheerleader and chief devil’s advocate. You’re also the chief people person, meaning you can’t do it all yourself. You need to be able to pull together a good team and coach them to become even better than they were before you hired them by providing them a culture and space for them to become great.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being a CEO?
At Ellevest, it’s about the impact we’re having on women. Literally last night, a woman came up to me in tears and told me about how Ellevest is positively impacting her life. Someone else recently came up to an Ellevest employee at an event, who was likewise in tears, and shared how Ellevest had changed her life. This speaks to the broad idea of what Ellevest stands for, which is to relieve her number one source of stress: money. We’re touching on something that’s so deep and unspoken, and at the same time helping women recognize their power.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
Of course, the stress of being an executive can be crushing. I woke up at 2:30 am and couldn’t get back to sleep because there’s just so much to think about when you run a company, especially a start-up. We have employees that we’re responsible for who are making a very important bet on their career. My job is to absorb most of the stress so they can do a great job for us and be great in their careers.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO? Can you explain what you mean?
It’s not all glamour, of course. The stress level is high and it can be very lonely being on this stress mountain. If you’re working to be a great CEO, it means recognizing you shouldn’t get your way all the time. Many times the team has the better idea.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The research tells you that the bar is higher for women and women have to be better to have the same opportunities as men, especially in the workplace. It’s the way we have all been socialized. We tend to think of a CEO as a man who is white and heteronormative. If you’re someone who’s outside of this sweet spot demographic, the fight is harder. For example, women raise just 2% of venture capital dollars.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The most striking difference between my actual job and how I thought the CEO job would be is that it’s more about communication than I thought. What has surprised me in a number of executive roles I’ve held is that you think that the job is more about strategy, and you forget that communication is also the job. You have to communicate more often and more consistently than you think you do. It is integral to success. There are very few successful CEOs who can’t communicate, and very few CEOs who are pessimists.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
You have to like to work hard. There’s no way around that. There is a correlation between hard work and success. You have to enjoy solving problems and puzzles, and you have to be creative about it. Deep down, you have to be an optimist.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
You have to have the right team in place, and the right team is not twelve people just like you. You have to build a team with an eye for balance — it’s like solving a Rubik’s cube. It has to be balanced with creatives, optimists, pessimists, multiple genders and ethnicities and backgrounds, and then you have to manage each one individually. What motivates people is different. Individualized coaching, feedback, and giving everyone the room to do their jobs is key.
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?
There are so many! The opportunities I was given, in hindsight, I’m not sure I always deserved. For example, the first major promotion I got was when I was 6 months pregnant with my daughter. Then later, Sandy Weill brought me in to manage a team of forty thousand people.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I hope I’m doing it every day at Ellevest. We are so mission-driven. Everything we do is to make the world a better place by providing financial freedom and empowerment to women.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- The highs are high and the lows are low and there’s very little in between
- Hire slow and fire fast
- The advantage of a startup is to move fast, so do that.
- Cindy Gallop always says, “There’s a huge amount of money to be made out of taking women seriously.” I would amend that to say there are great businesses to be built out of taking women seriously.
- It’s never too late to do what you were meant to do. Some of the most successful CEOs have decades of experience, so it’s never too late to be a CEO. No one on their deathbed regrets the things that they did, they regret the things they didn’t do.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think we’re doing it! Ellevest is about getting more money in the hands of women. When women have more money, women increase their power and it improves our economy and society. Gloria Steinem said it best: “We’ll never solve the feminization of power until we solve the masculinity of wealth.” And that’s what we’re trying to do here at Ellevest — it’s about equality, not just financial equality.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.” On the path to success, there have been so many failures, and I’m grateful to have withstood them.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Oprah Winfrey because of the positive effect she’s had on the lives of so many.