The Price of Motherhood: My Goldman Sachs Story

Original drawing by Liza Donnelly in collaboration with Jacki Zehner for SheMoney.

Originally published as part of the SheMoney newsletter on LinkedIn.

The year was 1996 and I had just been made a Partner at Goldman Sachs in New York City. My husband, Greg, was made a Partner that year as well, making us the first Goldman couple to make partner at the same time. I also became the first female trader and youngest woman to achieve this milestone. To the best of my knowledge, I still hold that record 25 years later. I was 32 at the time, and among my partner class, only two of us were women. For additional context, prior to 1996, only nine women had been made a Partner since Goldman’s founding in 1869.* And here is another kicker. I was expecting my first child when I got that life-changing call about my promotion.

As any parent knows, the decision to have children is one of the biggest decisions you will ever make. And it’s not just one decision. It’s a series of seemingly never ending decisions. When to start trying. Do you want more than one child. How many children. When to start trying again. And maybe, again after that. The implications on all aspects of your life are vast, and at this point you might be thinking, “Yeah, we know that captain obvious.” But do we really? Can any of us look back at the decision to become a parent and say, “I had it all figured out.” I think not. And I think this is especially true for women who are also aspiring to have a meaningful career. At the very least, I know this was true for me.

I married my husband, Greg, in 1995, just days after turning 31. Before we got married, we had a lot of talks about what our married life might be like. What we both wanted. We both wanted to have kids (he wanted five, I wanted two), and we both wanted to have meaningful careers. At the time of our engagement, we were both Vice-Presidents at Goldman Sachs, with similar jobs, similar responsibilities, similar work hours, and similar paychecks, which, given that we worked in the financial services as traders, were substantial. However, we had both had modest upbringings, and, well, we were both cheap, to put it bluntly. We were taught that a penny saved was a penny earned, and to try to never have any debt if you could help it. On money issues we were, and remain 26 years later, very much aligned.

After we tied the knot, which, by the way, is a term that I hate, we decided pretty quickly that we should start trying to get pregnant. Although I could not do a simple Google search back then, there were still plenty of resources that told me all about how fertility does drop off with age, and one never knows how long it might take to get pregnant. For me, however, it did not take very long. I vividly remember the two of us reading that pregnancy stick test and immediately thinking, “Heck Yes!!!!” This was then followed very shortly after by a “Heck No!!!!” In all honesty, I had expected it to take some time to get pregnant, but it didn’t. And in that moment, all I could think was HECK YES we were having a baby. But HECK NO it was a partner making year.

Goldman operates on a two year cycle of making partners, and I immediately felt the fear that if I told my manager I was pregnant, that would be the end of any chance I may have had of being made partner. I was barely pregnant, and yet my future suddenly felt immediately different. Out of my control. More vulnerable. And no amount of talking it through prepared me for that feeling. Whether or not someone gets a promotion is almost always subjective, and it is always a ledger game of pros and cons; you vs another person. Now, at the top of my ledger, was PREGNANT FEMALE. And I can guarantee there was no man who had SOON TO BE FATHER on his ledger. For the next few months while my pregnancy was taking hold, and therefore no one knew yet, I struggled with the paradox of feeling both joy and dread.

Luckily, I was not someone who had a lot of morning sickness. I was able to keep my pregnancy a secret until I got through the first trimester where the risk of miscarriage was the highest. But that did not make any of it easy. At the time, Greg was managing the emerging markets trading desk, while I was at the fixed-rate mortgage pass-through desk. My work days would start around 7am when I would arrive at the trading desk at 85 Broad Street, and for the next ten (ish) hours, I would be buying and selling mortgage backed securities on behalf of the firm. I worked alongside amazing traders, salespeople, and clients, and my days were spent processing market-driving news and information and establishing positions to reflect them. It was a very stressful job, but it was also one that I loved very much. And I should note that when I say alongside, I literally mean alongside. Trading floors contain rows upon rows of desks where traders sit at an arm’s length away from each other. It is a very intimate type of job, and you all know each other’s business. As I approached the end of my first trimester, I knew that my time keeping my pregnancy a secret was short-lived.

I should note at this point that I don’t remember any other woman in close proximity to me and/or of a similar seniority being pregnant. In other words, there were virtually no role models for how to be pregnant while being a trader at Goldman Sachs. There were, of course, women at the firm who did have children, many of them salespeople, but at the time it was still very much the exception, not the norm.

Greg and I had a lot of talks before we disclosed the news and prior to the announcement of who would be made partner that year. We had a plan for what would happen if he made partner and I didn’t, and vice versa, because financially speaking, it would have made sense to prioritize the career of the one who made it. However, we really didn’t talk about what would happen if we both made partner, because we thought it was such a long shot. And yet that is exactly what happened. We both got that life-changing call.

So there I was, a new Partner at Goldman Sachs, and becoming more and more visibly pregnant in front of row after row after row of predominantly men. Thankfully, it was pretty much business as usual. Except, of course, for the trips to see clients, which went down, and the trips to the bathroom, which went up. Dramatically. In some ways, the pressure was off. I had made partner. But in other ways, the pressure was even more intense, because I wanted to prove that the firm’s faith in me was not misplaced.

I think this is a good time to mention that I was not a cute little baby bump kind of pregnant woman. I was a “Holy smokes! How can you have such a huge belly?!” kind of pregnant woman. I had been a competitive bodybuilder in my youth, stayed in great shape through my 20s despite my crazy work hours, and yet I still gained 60 pounds over the course of the pregnancy. And it wasn’t just about that number. I don’t think we talk enough about what it is really like to grow a baby, even now. Especially what it is like to do so alongside other people, in my case mostly men, in a professional setting. Day after day of feeling what you are feeling, which is often weird and uncomfortable, and having people endlessly comment on it, touch you, make it either the biggest deal or no deal at all, and everything in between. Yes, it takes a lot of physical energy to make a baby. But there’s also the emotional energy you need to ride the ups and downs of doing so while carrying on like business as usual and having sights on a long and successful career. For some, sure, easy peasy. For others, not so much. I was in the not so much end of the spectrum. I have always been one to journal, and my gosh did I have a lot to say back then. I filled random notebooks full of my fears and doubts, while also capturing the firsts. The first time I felt the baby move. The first time he had hiccups, which was, by the way, while I was doing a presentation to a client.

As the day of my expected delivery drew closer, so did my level of anxiety. Prior to getting pregnant, I barely took a week’s vacation at a time most years, let alone a maternity leave. I was scared. There was no ‘how to’ manual, barely any guidance of any kind from anyone that I can remember. That said, I was so unbelievably supported by the amazing guys on my desk. I was two weeks past due when I finally delivered by emergency c-section, and I worked, or I should say waddled, almost right up to my delivery day. Side note. One of my biggest pet peeves to this day is when people say things like, “Oh, you poor thing. You did not deliver ‘naturally’.” Yes, I was a woman who “failed to progress” and had to have my baby cut out of my stomach while I was strapped down like Jesus on the cross vomiting over my shoulder because I reacted badly to the anesthesia. Think about that language for a moment. Failure to progress. I had a failed natural delivery. It makes my blood boil. But in the end, I delivered my beautiful, big, and healthy child.

Maternity leave ended up being awesome. Minus the whole having to recover from major abdominal surgery while trying to tend to a newborn part of it. My amazing team was doing an incredible job at work, and back then you couldn’t trade from home so it was a real maternity leave. Greg, of course, barely took a day off, as paternity leave was not a thing back then, and likely still isn’t. I loved my time with my child, and I was a newly made Partner of one of the world’s most prestigious investment banks. I still had a lot to prove at work, let alone as a new mom.

When my maternity leave was up, I went back to work, and Greg and I had to figure out how to manage it all. What has always been true for us is the fact that we were always in it together. And what was so unusual about us as a couple was that the economics of our jobs were virtually identical at that point. We both had the same financial ownership of the firm, and we were both, at that time, very committed to having long term careers. That said, wow, did it get hard, and fast. And I say that with full acknowledgement of the extraordinarily privileged position we were in.

We hired a full-time nanny who traveled an hour by train each way to take care of our child for basically 10 hours a day, five days a week. Greg and I worked out a schedule where one of us would try to be home by 6pm on any given day, while the other could work as long as needed, which often included work related dinners. We became masters of scheduling. Like any new parents, we were sleep deprived. And like any working parents, we tried to make the most of every minute we were at home with our son, all the while feeling like it was never enough.

Our nanny was amazing, but sometimes life happened and she was late arriving or had to leave early or was sick or her child was sick, and we, Greg and I, were left scrambling. We did not have any family close by who could help with childcare at that time, and there was no back-up plan other than for us to miss work ourselves. And then there was work travel, both expected and unexpected, especially for Greg as he traded emerging market securities. We would have to take trips to South America, Europe, you name it, and it was beyond exhausting. It did not take long for us to realize that it was not sustainable. We could not be the parents we wanted to be, nor could we be the professionals we were expected to be. We were both struggling. It has no wonder that the vast majority of partners at Goldman were men with stay at home wives.

I remember one day Greg sharing this story with me. He was leaving work at around 6pm and one of the other Partners he reported to stopped him to ask “where the hell he was going?”. Greg responded that it was his turn to relieve the nanny at a reasonable hour, at which point the Partner said to him, “I don’t see my kids, so what makes you think you can see yours?” Greg and I talked about it and it felt like a breaking point. Something had to change.

We talked and talked about what change we could possibly make. Should one of us leave the firm? Neither of us was ready to do so, and it was clear at that point that the firm would go public, likely in the near future. To leave prior to that happening would have been absolutely stupid from a financial point of view. But there were also no guarantees about if and when that would happen. In the end, we decided that just having one day a week more with our child was an option worth asking for. At the time, we didn’t know of any senior professional, let alone a Partner, who had a formal, flexible work arrangement. We thought it would be more likely, and more socially acceptable, for me, as a woman, to ask for the accommodation. I asked for it, somewhat surprisingly got it, and my partner share was reduced accordingly. Having a four day work week instead of a five made a huge difference, and it felt, at least for a while, to be sustainable.

The following year Goldman went public, and as two of the 221 Partners of the firm, it was an absolutely mind blowing experience from a financial point of view. Like any Initial Public Offering, shares are allocated according to the percentage interest that each person holds. In my case, my share was 80% of what it otherwise would have been because of my reduced schedule. I have done the math in terms of what that one day a week for just over a year cost me from a financial perspective, and it was a lot. An unimaginable amount. But we both knew that this would likely be the case when we made that decision and we did it anyway. For us, it was the price of being the type of parents we wanted to be. The alternative would have likely been one of us leaving or having a breakdown, so we felt it was worth it.

Again, I want to stress that I am very aware of the extraordinary and privileged circumstances I am describing. I know that my story of being a mother on Wall Street, especially at that time, was far from the norm, nor do all mothers receive nearly the same level of support that I did, if any at all. But here’s the thing. How many working couples, regardless of where they’re working or how much they’re making, find themselves in a similar position? How many couples find themselves trying to figure out how to be responsible, loving partners and parents in these modern times? Whether it’s struggling to make ends meet day to day, struggling to save and buy a home for their children, saving for their college funds, or wondering how much is enough when the bank account looks solid but that account balance came at the price of countless missed ball games, dance recitals, and birthdays due to work commitments. I would bet that there are very few full-time working parents out there that have not seriously discussed the financial implications of one of them reducing their schedule, leaving work, and measuring that against the cost and workability of child-care options. And what about the parents who must do it on their own as single parents? For them the option is likely not at option to stop working and the job of finding and managing child care solutions falls on a single set of shoulders.

It would be years later, in 2004, that I would read a very long and intense article in The Atlantic, How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement by Caitlin Flanagan, which, being a finance major and not a woman’s studies major, was both enlightening and troubling to say the least. As I sat down to write this piece I went searching for it, because that is how much it has stuck with me all these years. I wish I could summarize all 30 pages of that article for you, but I can’t. Consider reading it. But I will say that it is the title that has stuck with me the most. It spoke to how much professional, working class women depended on other working women, domestic help and nannies, to support their lives and ‘liberation’. Though our time with full-time nannies was short-lived as Greg left Goldman when our second child was born in 2000, Ms Flanagan’s attack on privileged white women for not fully valuing domestic laborers felt personal, despite how well we paid and treated our help. It is currently estimated that nearly 500,000 people, mainly female, work in the childcare profession in the United States, and sadly so many of them do not have access to benefits of any kind, and many find their way in to that work as their only option given challenging life circumstances. Fast forward a few more years and I would meet the incredible Ai-jen Poo, President of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, whose mission is to support and organize nannies, housecleaners and home care workers. All of this helped me to see that I would never be free, achieve anything close to equality on a personal level, if I did not do more to help and support other women on their journey as well. It helped me to see that the personal is truly political, and as a woman with substantial resources, it was on me to try to change the systems that didn’t, and still do not, support working mothers, domestic workers, and women more generally.

For working mothers, parents, life often feels like a game of dodgeball. You spend your days maneuvering around the curveballs of managing child-care while navigating a corporate career, pursuing an entrepreneurial venture, managing a small business, or just holding down a job, while trying to achieve financial and professional stability and achievement. These are struggles that show up in any income and wealth bracket, but certainly most acutely for younger and lower income families and single parent households. Especially for single mothers.

I remember thinking when I was a new mom, and I believe it is still true now, that mothers are the giant dumping ground for mostly useless advice and conflicting messages. We are told that there is no more important job in the world than being a mother, and yet the lack of policies and practices that support motherhood, from paid maternity leave to affordable childcare options, makes it clear that motherhood is not valued at all. The pressure to raise ‘great kids’ falls disproportionately on the shoulders of mothers, and mothers are both celebrated and shamed for their choices when they attempt to prioritize the well-being of their children over their own, or vice versa. There should be a book that is called, No Way to Win: Motherhood in America.

That said, there are more than a few books that get at the heart of this problem. Books like The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? by Leslie Bennetts (2007), which sounds the alarm about the financial risk women take when they leave the workforce once they start a family. There’s Forget “Having It All”: How America Messed Up Motherhood–And How to Fix It by Amy Westervelt (2018), who astutely notes that while the US may claim to revere motherhood, we treat mothers like crap. There is also  The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued by Anne Crittenden (2010), which describes how mothers are systematically disadvantaged by society, especially single mothers and/or mothers of color. And finally, a new addition to this esteemed list, Ambitious Like a Mother: Why Prioritizing Your Career is Good For Your Kids by Lara Bazelon (2022), which pulls at the seemingly timeless threads of the many ways our culture makes it all so darn hard to be a mom and have a secure financial situation. And beyond the books there are countless reports that present research on the costs of not valuing motherhood and what policies and practices that, if in place, would lead to significant social and economic gains. Taken together what is presented is a rather dark picture of the many realities of modern motherhood.

There is no denying that having a child is expensive, and the more every prospective parent acknowledges it and plans for it, the better. It is estimated that it currently costs about $233,610 to raise a child in the US through to the age of 17, meaning this number doesn’t include the cost of sending your child to college. It also doesn’t account for the fact that due to skyrocketing living costs, children are moving out much later in life than previous generations, with about 50% of Millennials having returned home at least once by the time they’re 27. But the financial implications of having children are much bigger than the actual costs you are likely to include. There’s the gender wage gap to consider, meaning that mothers have to work longer and harder to provide for their children. And then there’s the infuriating statistic that overall, a woman’s income decreases by 4% once they become a mother, whereas a man’s income increases by 6% when he becomes a father.

But all of those stats don’t come close to telling the full story. It is no secret that on average, women of color and/or single mothers have it so much harder. Nearly 80% of single parent households are run by single mothers, and nearly a third of them live in poverty. Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. And being a mother is the single greatest predictor of bankruptcy and poverty in the US. Now imagine the emotional, physical, and psychological toll that all of these issues (and so many more) take on a day-to-day basis. No wonder more and more women are looking at motherhood and saying, “No thanks”.

I think we can all agree that a child, our child, our children, are priceless. Having children has been one of the single greatest joys of my life, so I would never want to discourage anyone from having children of their own. Maybe next year, in honor of Mother’s Day, I will write a perky piece where I only tell you the upbeat stuff about being a mom. But that is not this piece. This is SheMoney and my goal with this newsletter is to share my personal experiences, advice from experts, and facts. Lots of facts. Yes I chose to be a mom, and I feel strongly that being a mother should not be seen as the be-all and end-all for being a woman. Further, if you choose to become a mom you should have your eyes wide open about the implications. What I hope for, and will work for, is greater awareness around the potential financial costs of motherhood, as well as for better policies and practices to support mothers and families. It cannot be denied that there are huge costs and consequences of having a child, especially for women. Financial costs, yes, but also less tangible and potentially more insidious costs. My story is from my experience in America, as are most of the resources and data cited, a country which ranks 28th in terms of work-life balance. As I hit publish on this article I am sitting in a hotel room in Copenhagen, Denmark, a country which ranks the highest . Walking around this beautiful city today I can see and feel the difference.

When I sat down to write this special Mother’s Day edition of the newsletter I had no idea I was going to share my story in the way that I did above, including a full belly pregnancy photo. It’s just what fell onto the page. What writing this has helped me to realize is that I have rarely been asked about my journey as a mom, except in the most superficial ways, and I have barely asked others. Looking back, I wish I was more forthcoming about my challenges, and I can only hope that today’s new parents are more free to do so. What I see amongst many of my friends and work colleagues who have babies and younger children is a greater sharing of responsibilities with their partners, less gendered expectations of who does what, more willingness to change careers when things are not working, and more realistic expectations of what is possible. Words like ‘work-life balance’ and ‘having it all’ are starting to be replaced with phrases like ‘juggling act’ and ‘making it work’, which are steps in the right direction. We have so much work to do to change the narrative and we can all play a role in doing so. And, as an investor, I also know that there are more and more companies sprouting up every day that are bringing innovative solutions to the many, many, many challenges faced by working parents today.   And, it is up to all of us to champion for, and vote for, better policies that more fully support families.

In closing, I want to say Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms reading this right now. And if you are not a mom, you likely know a few, so why not send them a little extra love on May8th. I am lucky enough to have an extraordinary mother named Rose to whom I could not be more grateful. My mom worked outside the home to support our family and I always felt loved, valued, and supported. She really did ‘do it all’ and somehow made it look easy, even though I am quite sure it was not. I was raised to believe that I not only could I have a career and be a mom, but should, while respecting that my choices might not be other women’s choices. She raised me to be a woman that supports other women, and I’ve done my best to make her proud. I also have to give a shout out to all the amazing women and moms that have been there to love and support me on my mothering journey. You know who you are, and I love you. We are in this, together.

*This information is based on my memory, and has not been verified by anyone at Goldman Sachs.

She Invests #3 – Data. Money. Power. Cheerios. Change.

An info graphic of the data points from the Women in VC report listed in the article.

As published on LinkedIn for the She Invests monthly newsletter.

Welcome to She Invests, a monthly newsletter on women, money, and investing. This is newsletter #3! If you have not seen the first two yet, please click here and here. Thank you for reading and sharing. So far 11,553 subscribers and I thank you all! If someone is sending this to you, please subscribe. Just a note to keep you reading, there will be a picture of me in a bikini.

This post is a mix of the old me and the new me. You will see the difference. The old me finds a new report about gender inequality and shares it. The old me continues to curate a list of 650 (and counting! And thank you Laura) reports that highlight this data across 21 different categories for all to see and use. The old me still thinks in some small part of my brain that data, enough data, will drive people towards change. The old me still thinks in some small part of my big brain that if we all just give more philanthropically, we can change the world enough, or at least enough for now. The old me does not want to rail against the systems that created this f’d up world because I am part of the system, and to fully rail against it would be to more fully be accountable to myself to change it, to be willing to change, and to be willing to accept what that might mean for me, someone who has a lot. That I would have to do more at a time when I really want to do less. Because I am so damn tired (and scared).

No, really, I am tired. SO tired, that my therapist doing QNRT (Quantum Neuro Feedback Therapy) with me said, “Jacki, you are exhausted. Long-term exhausted, not just the you-don’t-sleep-much-anymore exhausted.” And why is this? Because I have been carrying around indigestible anger, both my own, and those of other women for a long, long time. This is the kind of stuff that shows up when you do QNRT. It is not for the faint of heart. No wonder I have had digestion issues, I immediately thought. I burp and hiccup all the time, which frankly, is really annoying. And gross. My stomach feels knotted up most of the time, but until a month ago, I could not feel it as much because my tummy was so loose and distorted from birthing two, BIG, beautiful babies. (9 pounds 5 ounces, 8 pounds 3 ounces, and I gained 50+ pounds with each pregnancy)

But then I had a restorative abdominoplasty on October 16th (thank you Dr. Angela Keen), and now, as I am healing, I am feeling so much more in my belly, and it feels really uncomfortable. It feels like I am pregnant, which I know may sound weird and unrelatable, especially if you have not been pregnant. But for me, it feels like the time, 23 years ago, when my tummy was tight, but I had to make space for someone growing inside it. And at times, that someone, a literal body part of another human, started to press out against the skin, and I would feel it and need to rub it. That kind of uncomfortable. If you want another analogy, imagine a moving bumpy ballon being inflated in your stomach. It’s an inside out feeling of discomfort. Okay, okay. At this point, you either get it or you don’t. And that’s okay. Moving on. So I had an abdominoplasty, which I refuse to call a Tummy Tuck because it is insulting in my view, and although it is really uncomfortable, it looks amazing. I’m hoping tank tops are still in next summer, because I am going to rock it. I mean, who said 56 year olds can’t wear crop tops? Also, I promise I will get to writing about investing.

But first, back to my exhaustion and my anger. To be honest, I have not fully processed what that means for me, as my therapy that revealed and released this was just two days ago, but what I think it means is this. My anger relates to being born a woman into the Patriarchy, and in particular, into the Patriarchal Financial Systems that are just not working for women. Never have, and at this rate, never will. Now, full disclosure. I am a woman who had a successful in a career in finance. I was a Goldman Sachs Partner at the age of 32, and because of that, I am in fact a rich woman. And while I have done lots, arguably more than most, to use my financial power to change things, it still feels like mere crumbs in a big pile of “how to make a difference” Cheerios. Don’t worry. I’ll explain what I mean by that.

But first, just in case you need a definition:

Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authoritysocial privilege and control of property. Some patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage.

Patriarchy is associated with a set of ideas, a patriarchal ideology that acts to explain and justify this dominance and attributes it to inherent natural differences between men and women. Sociologists tend to see patriarchy as a social product and not as an outcome of innate differences between the sexes and they focus attention on the way that gender roles in a society affect power differentials between men and women.

Now, this next part is still the old me. It will likely feel familiar, because it is what I, and so many other people, do all the time. We illuminate data that should be rage inducing in a thoughtful and kind way, hoping that it will lead to more people doing more. So here it goes.

It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has delivered brutal setbacks to the progress of gender equity. The list of ways this virus has disproportionately affected women is long and frustrating, and has been covered widely in the media. But a recent headline in particular jumped out at me: “Quarterly VC funding for female founders drops to three-year low“. The reason why it caught my eye is that it is a well known fact that venture capital funding directed towards women and/or people of color was already minuscule, and remains one of the highest and most stubborn glass ceilings in the finance and business world. The high point came last year (2019), when female founders received 2.8% of funding dollars in the US in 2019. Yes, you read that right. 2.8% is the highest that number has ever gone.

If I had any tech visualization/presentation skills whatsoever, I would create a snazzy video to illustrate just how ridiculous and insane that number is. But sadly, I do not have those skills. Just to give you an idea of how technologically challenged I am, I just learned how to use bluetooth on my iPhone a couple of months ago. So we’re going the analog route instead, with an invitation to do your own live visualization at home. Take a household item that you have a lot of. I’m going with Cheerios. Clear a space on a counter in front of you and count out 100 pieces. Now pull out three of those pieces, three, and separate them from the rest. Look at this image. Sit with it. Think about it. How does it make you think and feel? If you have children, maybe a son and a daughter, imagine you are giving them breakfast and you gave one child, your son, the bowl with 97 Cheerios with a proportionate amount of milk, and you gave your daughter three Cheerios with a few drops of milk. How might you think and feel? How might you think they think and feel? Because that is the world of Venture Capital. A world where we feed male founders and pretty much starve the female ones.

A photo of a box of Cheerios with a pile of 97 Cheerios and a pile of three Cheerios sitting in front of it.

Now let’s try to stretch this visualization. According to the data, Latina and Black women currently only receive 0.2% of all VC funding dollars in the US. Go back to that pile of Cheerios you have in front of you. Remove just one of them and cut it into five pieces. Or I should say, try to cut it into five pieces. You literally can’t, because it results in a small pile of Cheerio crumbs. Crumbs. That is what we are investing in Latina and Black women founders in this country. Crumbs. And, if your brain might be thinking… but, but, but… stop it. Look at it again. Sink into the image.

A photo of a box of Cheerios with a pile of 97 Cheerios, a group of three Cheerios, and a cluster of crumbs in front of it.

If you’re not infuriated yet, let’s go back to the data. Always the data. I wonder if it is time to burn the stack of mother friggin data and reports because it is so damn frustrating. Oops. Sorry. New me snuck in there for a moment. Back to old me. Recent reports suggest that 2020 is on track to be the worst year since 2017 for female founders. Investments in female funders dropped a whopping 48% between the second and third quarter, and while pundits are quick to blame COVID-19, the fact is that overall VC funding is on par with previous years. Meaning once again, this pandemic is disproportionately affecting women. And even if it wasn’t, the fact that even in the best year, women founders were given less than 3% of all funding dollars is simply not acceptable, right, or fair. Especially given that women are in fact half the population of this world. And if you’re thinking, “if just”, “yes, but”, “if only”, then think again. Look at your pile of Cheerios, and then look at the tiny little pile you carved out. There is simply no way that this image is right or fair, so instead of continuing to search for excuses, it’s time we find the solutions and actually do something. And what can we do? Invest. Invest. Invest.

Time for another report.

Women in VC, the largest global network of women in venture capital with 2,500+ members, understands the urgency of this issue all too well. Despite a sea, make that a lake, full of good intentions and numerous initiatives over the past several years aimed at diversifying the venture capital industry, the numbers aren’t going up fast enough. This is why Women in VC has decided to look further back in the process for potential solutions. Last month, they released a report that tackles the pipeline issue head on by examining the demographics of the decision makers at VC funds. It should come as no surprise that the numbers are dismal, particularly as it relates to representation for women of colour. Select data points are listed below:

  • 5.6% of all VC firms in the US are women-led, and only 2.1% of VC firms are founded by a woman of color.
  • 4.9% of all VC partners in the US are women; and only 2.4% of all VC partners are Founding female partners.
  • 73% of all women-led VC firms were founded in the last 5 years (since 2015).
  • 23% of women-led firms are currently raising their first fund, and 44% are deploying Fund I.
  • 90% of all women-led funds are considered emerging managers.

So why does this matter? For one thing, people who share demographics in common, including gender, race, ethnicity, etc., are more likely to invest in people who share common backgrounds. Many studies have shown this to be true. Many. And if you need to, refer to the definition above for a reminder on what a patriarchal system is. Think of the Cheerios, only now for the funds themselves. Decision makers (96% of them) of certain shared characteristics (male) are more likely to be present in formal and informal networks with their types of people. They see possibilities in people with shared characteristics, trust them, give them the benefit of the doubt, believe in them, and connect with their stories, products, and services. So who controls the funds really matters. Really, really, matters!

Funds run by women and people of color are also more likely to have embedded mandates to invest in the most underinvested groups. But even if they don’t, by default, they are more likely to invest in people who are like them. Does this mean that all male VC investors are intentionally NOT investing in women and people of color founders? Of course not. But it is likely that a lot of them, most of them, have embedded biases that will kick in. If you don’t think this is true, go back to the Cheerios photo. The system in which this world works is one of a patriarchy, and therefore it’s likely that we all have these embedded biases to some degree. It takes work, a lot of work, for each one of us to unpack our core beliefs around the decisions we make, both consciously and subconsciously. Furthermore, if I dig back to my old psychology classes, science shows us that people are more likely to behave according to their core beliefs, again, consciously or subconsciously. Therefore, to change systems, we need to work, and work hard, on changing our own beliefs, and belief systems.

One key takeaway of the Women in VC report is the fact that nearly three quarters of all women-led VC firms were founded in the last five years. I can only hope that this is the start of a massive wave and not a flash in the pan. I’m also heartened by the fact that of all women VC-partners, 33% are women of colour. These women have created the structures needed to take in our investments, and now what we need to do, collectively and in a big way, is invest in them. I also understand that most people invest in funds primarily to make money. And to that I would argue that investing in small funds, especially those that are mining opportunities where others aren’t, is more likely to yield better returns. Is there data on that? Likely yes, and, but, most of the women led funds are too early in their investment cycle to know.

Of course, there will always be challenges when investing in small funds, especially small, first-time funds. Personally, I have invested in a number of them over the years, and sometimes it worked out or is working out well (my open investments), while other times it did not (closed funds). Sometimes I have done well financially, and sometimes I have not. But I will say that of all the funds I have invested in over 20+ years, the worst performing were, are, ones run by teams men. In fact, one of the funds I am currently in is so poorly run and managed that every time I get a statement from them I rage. RAGE. Because once you are in a fund there really is no way out. I may just write about it directly one day, but I need the numbers in front of me when I do.

It is also worth noting that when I invest in a female-led fund or a female-led company and it does not do well, I actually feel okay about it, because at least what I did was give that woman a shot. I used my money to invest in a woman, or women, who had the courage to at least try in a system that is deliberately set up, designed, to tell her not to. And that takes a lot of GUTS and TALENT and PERSISTENCE to do it, anyways. Not all women will succeed, and neither do all men, but it has not stopped a disproportionate number of men from trying. The system, again, think of the Cheerios, is set up to help them, men, succeed in a disproportionate way. While we/people/the system make it so hard for women to succeed.

I recently did a talk with Olga Miller, cofounder of SmartPurse, with female founders in Switzerland, and I described it this way. In the movie Wonder Woman, she walks through the trenches where all the dirty and beaten down men are huddled up, holding their guns, and the dirty women are holding dirty children, in the trenches, beaten down by oncoming fire. There are casualties everywhere. She looks around, is told not to go, and climbs up that ladder and dares to try and cross No Man’s Land. I know this is slightly dramatic, but women founders have to do the same. They pop up from the trenches, and then have to cross a minefield of oncoming fire to get funding and to do everything else they need to do to succeed. And some of them do actually make it through. So let’s recognize, finally, how hard it is for them. Let’s put up some shields for and with them to help them get through so that there are more of them on the other side. Because the more women entrepreneurs that are successful, the more that will be successful in the future. “We cannot be what we cannot see”. Period. Full stop.

Photo still from the No Man's Land scene in Wonder Woman, with the character looking straight into the camera.

Again, the simple and very painful truth is that we, the royal we, make it so much harder for women to succeed as founders and fund managers. We punish women so much more for failure, especially in finance where we need them the most. This is true not only in Venture Capital, we do it across the spectrum of investing classes and strategies. If my 2009 report remain true as it relates to women hedge fund and mutual fund managers, women actually outperform on average. I believe this is because it is so much harder for them to get the damn money in the first place. I’m beginning to think I may benefit from anger management classes…

At the end of the day, there are a number of reasons why an investor, including me, will choose one fund over another, one company over another, but we all need to start looking at this more deeply from a top down as well as a bottom up perspective in order to solve this gross inequity. And we must hold ourselves accountable for unpacking the belief systems we may have as to why we are not doing more.

So first, top down. What can the industry be doing? What can financial planners (notice I did not use the term advisor, it should be planner) do? What can people with big money be doing? What can people with smaller pools of investable assets do as it relates to these founders and funds? Create a Fund of Funds? Provide better operational support for small, first-time fund managers? Create better ways to access family office money for small and first time funds? Require that pension funds and endowments change their rules to include and not exclude first-time managers? If you have large pools of money, carve out a chunk of it with a strategy to invest in small, first-time fund managers? Yes, yes, yes, yes. And, and, and. In 2009, in that report that I created in partnership with the National Council for Research on Women, an organization that gave me my first board seat, I laid out what was true for me at the time with respect to a list of solutions on how to fix finance for women, and while some of them still hold (take a look here), there is so much more we can do. Different times, same solutions maybe, and different solutions likely. But come on people, work with me here, let’s get to the solutions already!

So what can women with big money do? Invest. Invest. Invest. I know it’s hard and it feels scary. I get it. I REALLY get it, but we need to do it. And we, rich women, need to stop thinking that charitable dollars alone will solve the worlds problems. Nope. Never. Watch my TED Talk from 2012. Please. I have been saying this for nearly a decade. Maybe I was ahead of the times back then, but I shouldn’t have been. What I said in 2012 still applies today, so let’s just get on with it already. On a side note, if you haven’t seen my Ted Women Talk (TedX technically) , I don’t blame you. Someone, somewhere at TED, decided that my talk wasn’t good enough to be included on their main platform, despite being a Goldman Sachs partner talking about women and money. To this day it still pisses me off. Definitely looking into those anger management classes…

Next, what am I doing? Personally, I currently have a mix of funds and direct investments in companies. You can view the list of companies here, although there are a couple that are not listed yet (on my to do list!). In total I have 16 active direct investments, and three that have closed, failed. After years of not staffing myself up so that I can finally honor my intentions to more fully support them so that they can be successful because of their talent, I am going to hire someone, maybe a few someones, to help me. And by the way, my returns on my direct investing are incredible. I have not done the full spreadsheet, as I need to hire someone to do that, but over the past 15 years I have invested around $3 million, and so far have returned around $6 million in cash. And that was by having ONE exit. Thank you to Alexa von Tobel and her team at LearnVest. So might I start my own fund? Yes, I might. And….

I am also an investor in a number of funds that meet the above criteria, including Illuminate VenturesGolden Seeds FundAsia Alternatives and Inspired Capital. At the moment, I am in the process of figuring out just how much of my total investment capital to put into early stage investments, which includes the money I am hoping to set aside to invest in up rounds of my existing companies, new directs, new funds, and my own start-up. Yes, you heard that out loud for the first time. My own start-up. More details to come later, but I am so excited about it. I feel it is the fulfillment of a vision I have had for over two decades, or maybe even my whole life, or maybe even before I was born. (Thanks to my mom and my grandmothers!)

And, this past March, at the onset of COVID-19, I made my single biggest investment ever in one company: SmartPurse, which I mentioned above and wrote about in my first newsletter. In fact, one of the reasons I am so tired at the moment is because I woke up at 2am on Saturday to take part in their first ever Money Rally that started at 3am my time. And it was AMAZING! Never, in all my years of dancing in the space of women and money and gatherings, have the conversations been more honest and helpful. If you’re sad you missed it, you should be, because I posted about it and you could have joined. But don’t worry, there will be more, so be sure to join next time. And you can join for FREE if you want to become a financially empowered woman, so just do it, now. Not for me, but for you.

Why did I invest in this particular company? Well, because it checked every single box except one when it comes to why I would consider investing in a start-up. Women Founded. Amazing women. Values based. Product/service for women. I loved the product and could relate to it personally. Designed with women and by women. Meets a BIG need in a NEW way. It’s coming at the right time, which means historical context, future looking, and right for this exact moment. The right team/founders!!!! Right valuation for the stage of the company. Availability of the tech to scale. All of this is why SmartPurse, in my view, will be a billion dollar company, and I said that to the founders on our first call. They had be at hello, but that is Olga’s story to tell. The only thing it didn’t have was a woman founder/co-founder who was a woman of color. That would have been EVERY box as it relates to my investment criteria.

Over the years, I have learned to try and not judge people based on what I think I know about them and their money. In part, because judging others would mean I would have to judge myself. Some people have less and do more, while others have more and do less. That’s just the way the world works. But what I hope I stand for, have stood for, from the first day I really felt, deeply felt, what it was like to be controlled and manipulated by a man who led me to believe that he held my financial future in the palm of his hand and could punch me with it anytime he wanted to (he was a boss at Goldman Sachs), is stand up for other woman in the way I could at the time. My new mantra, thanks to my supershero Brené Brown, is “know better, do better”. I realize now, post QNRT session three, that I walked into work at 85 Broad Street most days bracing to be punched in the gut. Did I always get punched in the gut? No, of course not, but many days I would be. And of course not literally. Funny enough, the reason why I think I was hired at Goldman Sachs to begin with was not because I had amazing grades and work experience, but because I was a champion body-builder. I literally had a six pack. I used to joke that being in a gym all those years prepared me for my big shot to make big money to make big change, and it really did. (photo below was when I became Ms. Junior Canada 1982)

Photo of author during her bodybuilding days.

So yes, I’m angry. Really angry, and I have been for a long, long time. That’s the new me. And as my therapist said, that’s okay. She said that she has learned to love her anger because anger’s job is to help us set boundaries. Don’t you dig that? But what I also know is that I can no longer carry around my anger inside, so this newsletter will be one of the places I will let that anger out, among other places and spaces. I am tired of feeling knots in my now flat-as-heck stomach because of financial systems that are just not working for women and people of color when I know I can do more to change it. I am tired of bearing witness to women and people of color being punched in the gut over and over again by patriarchal financial systems in a thousand different ways, including talented people who check all the boxes for starting a company but don’t get the funding, or deserving first-time fund managers who don’t have enough investors to get their first fund off the ground.

I was the first woman trader and still am the youngest woman trader to make partner at Goldman Sachs, a title I thought I recently handed over because I thought I had just turned 33, but nope. The year was 1996, I had just turned 32, and I was pregnant with my first child when I heard the news. And if you are connecting the dots and thinking, weird, she made partner while her belly was making room for a new human at a patriarchal institution, and now she is writing this article with a tight belly birthing the possibility of a matriarchal/just/equitable system of finance, the irony is not lost on you. Not only will I continue to use the money that I received from that IPO to fund and support women and people of color, but I will use it more boldly, bravely, and fully, because I am letting that anger out, finally, and I will more fully and productively help change the financial systems that are just not fair. And maybe when that pile of Cheerios is spit equitability and rightfully, I can actually rest and the annoying burping and hiccuping will finally stop.


Jacki Zehner

(with a huge thank you to the incredible Laura Moore for helping me birth the She Invests Newsletter and so much more. Love ya, sister)

To read the full report, please click HERE. A huge thank you to all the contributors of this report. For more reports on Women and Girls, please see my top reports list HERE.

To apply to join Women in VC, please click HERE. The directory is password protected and open to women employed full time at institutional, corporate, impact, accelerator and family office funds making direct investments; applications are reviewed and approved on a rolling basis. And thank you to the founders of Women in VC Sutian Dong and Jessica Peltz-Zatu love! You two rock.

By the way, I ate the whole bowl of Cheerios.

A photo of author Jacki Zehner holding up a bowl of Cheerios to the camera.

QNRT™ is a proprietary protocol designed to initiate a quantum shift in the nervous system by resetting the brain’s response to emotional triggers for both past and present emotional trauma and stress.

* I highly recommend Brene Brown’s books, and especially her podcast, Unlocking Us.

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.