How a young girl from Canada with no connections to Wall Street grew up to be a partner at Goldman Sachs

goldmanAs published on LinkedIn on December 7th.

I was the first female trader to be named partner at Goldman Sachs. I was also, in 1996, the youngest woman, but I hope that someone has since surpassed me in that regard. I was at the time 32 years old, recently married, and a year away from giving birth to my first child. In total, I worked at Goldman Sachs for 14 years, and even though I left in 2002, in many ways it feels like yesterday. It was there that my passion for women’s inclusion and leadership was ignited, and it led me to my second first; the first President of Women Moving Millions Inc., the only community in the world of women funding women at the million plus level. However, the focus of this article will be my Goldman experience, as without that, the following would likely not have been possible.

So how did I get there? How did I come to accomplish that first? How did a young girl from small town Canada with no connections to Wall Street grow up to be a partner at Goldman Sachs? This is my story.

I grew up in Kelowna, BC, Canada, at the time a small town located a 5-6 hour drive from Vancouver. My dad ran a grocery store and I worked concession at the local hockey rink as good Canadian kids are wont to do. I didn’t know that my life would eventually lead me to New York City and Goldman Sachs, but I did what I could to open as many doors for my future as I could. I worked hard in school, graduating at the top of my class academically, and I honed my work ethic through my training as a bodybuilder, eventually becoming Miss Junior Canada at the age of 16. This was in part thanks to my boyfriend at the time, Mario, who introduced me to Mr. C’s Fitness Centre. Never underestimate the power of who you choose to date as a factor that may affect your future!

After two years of local college, I was accepted to the University of British Columbia, and worked as hard as I could to become one of the top students in my program. This in turn led me to be one of the first students to be accepted into a grounding breaking portfolio management program where students were given the opportunity to gain first hand experience in money management by managing endowment funds. I graduated with a degree in finance, and I was the first undergraduate student from UBC to be recruited by Goldman Sachs in 1988. I am convinced that being a champion body-builder had a lot to do with it. I guess the powers that be thought that if I could hold my own with all the power lifters in the gym, I could hold my own on the trading floor.

Looking back, it’s clear to me now that my path to Wall Street was paved with many firsts in my quest to open as many doors as possible. I am fully aware that a lot of my success had to do with timing and good luck. I was fortunate to be attending UBC right when they decided to start the portfolio management program, and I was fortunate to have incredible mentors, sponsors, and support throughout my career, but I do attribute most of my success to the choices I made along the way. I made the decision (on the advice of a family member) to go into finance. I made the decision to apply for the portfolio management program and was rigorous in my pursuit of acceptance. I made the decision to apply to Goldman Sachs, and when faced with the prospect of a permanent position at a firm in Canada with a much better starting pay package and a better title verses a two year one at Goldman, I still chose Goldman. This was once again thanks to the great advice of a mentor who told me, “Better to take a lower job at a better firm, then a higher job at a worse one.” Oh, and of course, I made the decision to date Mario. So in 1988, I packed my bags and headed to New York City.

Now, I think a lot about privilege and how that plays out in a person’s success, but back then, I did not see myself as a person with a particular privilege. Did I have a wonderfully supportive family? Yes I did. But neither one of my parents attended University, nor did they guide me forward in the way I am doing for my children. Money wise we were middle class, and both my parents always worked full time to provide for our family. There are many forms of privilege besides economic and social of course, and include race and gender, and we simply must acknowledge the role that all of these types of privilege play if our goal is to equalize opportunity.

What I did learn to do very early on was work very hard. I also learned that you have to do your best to create opportunities for yourself, and when they are presented to you, you have to make the most of them. For whatever reason, I have always been a YES person, and that has made a big difference on my journey to being a first.

But there are also the decisions that influence your life that have everything to do with the decisions that people make about you. Goldman could have easily hired someone else. My application to the portfolio management program could have been rejected. So could have my application to UBC for that matter. Unfortunately, our careers are often dependent on the decisions others make about you, and those can often be the hardest to overcome. This came to a head for me in 1994.

I started working at Goldman Sachs in 1988 and I made partner in 1996; a remarkable career trajectory for someone from small town Canada, but it wasn’t an uneventful journey. In 1993(ish), I almost left Goldman for another firm because I felt like my talent and skills were not being recognized or appreciated, nor was I being fairly compensated relative to my peers. That said, I was not actively doing anything about it. Maybe it was pride, or stupidity, but rather than proactively having a conversation with my direct manager, I went out and got an offer from another firm. When I went in to resign to my most senior manager at the time, an amazing man named Mike Mortara, he refused to accept it. Instead, he took me too lunch. There, finally, I said all the things I should have said months earlier. I shared my plans for building my business, my desire to take on more responsibility, my ambition to become partner one day and more. We agreed that I would stay, but I looked him in the eye and made him promise me he would be my sponsor. He even signed a napkin. Sure I had to do my part, but he was now accountable for doing his.

The few lessons embedded in that experience were the following: one, don’t expect your manager to read your mind. By doing great work you earn the right to have your aspirations heard and supported. Do your part to communicate them. Two, don’t assume people will sponsor you, ask for them to sponsor you. And three, sometimes it does take a bid away or another job offer for the company you are at to pay you what you are worth.

Being the first at anything is a huge responsibility, and it’s something that I take very seriously. You become a role model whether you like it or not, and my hope was always that many more talented people, and especially more talented women, would follow in my footsteps. While still at Goldman, I was a champion of junior talent, took on many roles within the firm’s diversity initiatives, and actively recruited and mentored female talent, particularly in trading. It was my job, as a first, and with a platform, to not only make the challenges I faced visible to management, but to shine a light on the experiences of others. Once that door gets opened, it not only has to stay open, but become a much bigger door. Can I look back and say that I did all I could at the time to help create a culture of meritocracy and inclusion, and in doing so help other women? Yes. And I challenge all firsts to ask themselves the same question. Are you doing what you can to support others that are following a similar path?

For myself, I chose to leave the field of finance in 2002, and it is not without occasional regret. I often wonder what if I stayed, perhaps not at Goldman, but somewhere else, what other firsts might I have achieved? (My most read post on the subject) There has never been a woman CEO of one of the big, US based, financial services firms. Nor has there been a female Treasury Secretary. But there have been two former Goldman partners that have served in that role, and now with the consideration of Steven Mnuchin, a potential third. Steven was in fact my direct manager for many years in his role as head of the mortgage department. But I did go on to be another first, and it was a first I could have in no way dreamed of back at the time I left Goldman Sachs. The gift that Goldman gave me turned out to not be the titles or promotions, but rather the fact that my time there helped me zero in on the issues I care most about in the world, and the financial resources to do something about them.

In 2012, I became the first President and CEO of Women Moving Millions Inc.(WMM), a global philanthropy network dedicated to moving unprecedented resources to the advancement of women and girls. To date, WMM members have collectively donated over a billion dollars towards causes that benefit women and girls; another first. WMM was founded by two incredible visionaries, Swanee and Helen LaKelly Hunt, and my work was to carry us from campaign to community. Now, we are about to undertake another first by creating a holistic philanthropic leadership curriculum, the first of its kind. Not only will this be an offering to our members, but we hope more broadly, as we believe that more fully supporting women to be their most powerful and engaged selves is a powerful strategy for making the world a better place.

So while this is an article, and a series, about firsts, I hope the main take-away from all the stories shared is the inspiration, and perhaps a few tips, that will serve you on your journey to reach your own potential. It is certainly true that neither success nor happiness is or should be measured by this criteria, but by many other factors. That said, without firsts, we may never know what is possible, and what it took to achieve something very special.

I invite you to check out the platform MAKERS, which is filled with the stories of amazing women who have achieved many different types of firsts. Just a few months ago my story was added to the collection and can be viewed here.

Finally, I would be remise if I didn’t acknowledge that being the first at something wouldn’t be possible for me personally if it wasn’t for the incredible network of support that I have in my life. I am unbelievably fortunate and grateful to have so many truly amazing people in my life helping me along this journey, and I couldn’t do the work I do without them. In your quest to be the first, I hope you find the support you need and the courage to surround yourself with positive influences. Whatever your goals in life, I encourage you to pursue your dreams, know that the path won’t be easy, but do it anyway. Go out into the world and be the first. We need trailblazers now more than ever.

Photos in order of appearance. With colleagues while at Goldman Sachs in the 1990s, my mom and dad 1970s, Women Moving Millions team, and lastly, three generations of Hoffman women.

 

 

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