She Invests #1 – My Story and Announcing SmartPurse

As published on LinkedIn for the She Invests monthly newsletter.

Welcome to She Invests, a monthly newsletter on women, money, and investing. I have been thinking about starting this endeavour for a while now, ever since I hit a professional reset two years ago to refocus my time and energy from philanthropic interests to investing. This first edition will serve as a context setting for those who are not familiar with my writing here on LinkedIn and on my blog, but be sure to stick around until the end for the big reveal! 

So, who am I and what credentials do I have to tackle such big topics? Going way back, my degree is in finance from the University of British Columbia. During my time there, I had the honor of being chosen for the University’s Portfolio Management Foundation, where a small number of students take part in a two year program of managing endowment funds. They also undertake summer internships in the industry, and have active mentorship by professionals in the field.

Upon graduation in 1988, I was hired as an analyst by Goldman Sachs in New York City in the mortgage securities department. I went on to enjoy a 14 year career at the firm, and 1996, I became the first female trader and youngest woman in the firm’s history to become partner at the age of 32. While at Goldman, I was very active in the firm’s diversity efforts, and I spent the last two years of my time there working in the Executive Office in human capital management. My job was to help ensure that Goldman was a truly meritocratic and inclusive workplace. I “retired” in 2002, and spent the next eight years learning as much as I could about investing, including general, impact, and early-stage investing. I also sought to learn more about family financial management, philanthropy, tax, and estate planning in a multi-family office setting at Circle Financial Group.

Even though I no longer worked at a large financial institution, my passion for advancing women’s careers in finance continued. To this day, I remain extremely proud of a seminal piece of research I sponsored in 2009 in partnership with the National Council for Research on Women. This report, Women in Fund Management: A RoadMap to Critical Mass and Why It Matters, asked the question, “Why are there so few women in leadership roles in asset management specifically, and finance more generally?” We looked at all the research that was available at the time that might explain why women were so dramatically underrepresented (less than 20% in leadership positions), and came up with a list of solutions to address this imbalance. My hope is that this newsletter might ignite new interest in the proposed solution set, as it needs a widespread industry buy-in for meaningful change to happen. It was only last week, for the first time ever, that a woman, Jane Fraser, became the head of a major US financial institution at Citigroup. And while this is such an important step, it is just one step along the path to create a fully inclusive financial sector.

Around the time of the report’s release, philanthropy became my main focus after becoming a member of Women Moving Millions (WMM) in 2009. WMM is an organization with the mission of mobilizing unprecedented resources towards creating a more gender equal world. The effort was sparked by a campaign that invited women to dedicate $1 million or more over 10 years or less towards organizations that were women-led and women-focused. Post-campaign, I was enthralled with the idea of creating a community around women and giving, and for the next nine years, that idea is what I lived and breathed. During that time, attention and awareness of the impact of gender lens philanthropy skyrocketed, but funding remains stubbornly slow to respond to this day. Just last week, WMM announced a newcampaign, hoping to mobilize an additional $100 million in funds towards women-focused organizations. Be sure to check it out HERE.

While most of my time and energy during that time was focused on identifying organizations to support in the non-profit space and engaging in philanthropic movement building, I always kept an eye on my investments. Specifically, I tracked progress in the emerging space of gender-lens investing. My family foundation made grants to the field building work being done by Joy Anderson and Jackie VanderBrug of the Criterion Institute, an organization founded in 2002 that has worked to change the power dynamics in finance in order to create financial approaches, products, and systems that work for the common good. In 2011, Criterion published a Gender Handbook for Investors, which quickly became my go to resource for how investment capital can be used to advance gender equity. Since then, Criterion has published many reports on both this topic and many others, all of which can be accessed HERE. It was also during this time that I became obsessed with reading, collecting, aggregating, and sharing research related to all things women and girls. You can find my most recent list HERE , which consists of 650 reports in 20+ categories, including robust sections on women and wealth, impact investing, and more. 

As a result of the progress being made in this field, I began to implement a gender lens in my own portfolio by working with a female-led investment manager (Circle Wealth Management), investing in female-led private funds, and picking public equity vehicles that included certain gender metrics. In addition, and in response to mind-blowing data that shows how female founded start-ups receive less than 5% of venture capital, I began to do angel and early stage investing.

The very first company I invested in was Tango, which at the time was a magazine founded in 2005 by Andrea Miller about love and relationships. I have always loved magazines, and in fact, I thought long and hard about starting one about women in business when I left Goldman Sachs. I still fondly remember attending the launch party for Tango’s premiere issue, where the celebrity guest was James Denton of Desperate HousewivesTango has now evolved into YourTango, an online platform that is still about love and relationships, and it is still led by Andrea.

It would be a few more years until my next investment, but it was a big one. LearnVest. The founder was an amazing young woman named Alexa Von Tobel, who had the brilliant idea of creating a platform to help young people, specially young women, with their finances. At the time of our investment, the company was little more than a business plan, but it had the vision, passion, and talents of Alexa behind it. Therefore, it was not at all surprising that Alexa and her team executed the hell out of her idea, and in 2015, she sold the company to Northwest Mutual for a reported sum in excess of $300 million.

A photo of LearnVest founder Alexa Von Tobel on the cover of Forbes magazine.

To date, LearnVest is my only exit out of the 16 companies I have invested in so far. You can check out some of the other companies I am invested in by checking out this link. Almost all are founded by women, including one, Translator , started by Natalie Egan, an openly transgender B2B software entrepreneur, which provides technology to create more inclusive workplaces. The success of LearnVest not only opened my eyes (WIDE) as to how financially rewarding angel investing can be, but more importantly, how when you fund amazing people with great ideas, the ripple of good that can be felt is immense. How so? Well, Alexa received funding for her business and then hired people to build it up. In doing so, she gave many of those people equity in her business, in addition to salaries. The company’s mission; to financially educate and empower people, hopefully resulted in positive outcomes for its customers.

Alexa was also relentless with respect to her media presence around money, and went on to write two books on the topic. In doing so, she was changing public perceptions as to what experts in finance looked like. When the company sold, Alexa, many employees, and of course the investors, made a lot of money. She broke the glass ceiling in terms of a sale by a femfintech founder (my term), inspiring countless others to follow the path she blazed. Upon leaving Northwest Mutual, Alexa is now turning her talents to investing in other founders through Inspired Capital, a fund co-founded with Penny Pritzker that was launched in 2019. Am I an investor with Inspired? Heck yes. I believe Inspired is the largest first time VC fund started by women. Alexa continues to be a trail blazer and a role model, along with being a mother of three under the age of five.

Of course, I know that not everyone has the financial resources to be an angel investor in the way I described above, but there are so many other ways to support entrepreneurs, and specifically women entrepreneurs. I will be outlining many of these in future posts.

The Big Reveal!

I chose to launch this newsletter today because it marks the announcement of my involvement, as well as my biggest angel investment yet, in a new company that I hope will be as successful as LearnVest. This new company is called SmartPurse, and it is a coaching and learning start-up that is aimed at making financial education both affordable and accessible to all women. Although SmartPurse is based in Europe, its goal is to reach and financially empower women at a global scale. The two founders, Olga Miler and Jude Kelly, had me at hello because of who they are and what they stand for. Olga is the former managing director and global program architect of UBS Wealth Management women’s programme, and Jude is the founder of WOW – the Women of the World Festival. They are both incredible champions for gender equity, and they bring enormous value and expertise to their mission of helping women build financial independence. Click HERE for the press release.

As Olga explains regarding SmartPurse, “We have created a model which makes accessing financial education as simple and as affordable as possible, understanding that all women have different goals, experiences and expectations. We believe that now more than ever, employers should recognize the importance of female-specific financial education as the workplace and associated benefits evolve with the external climate.”

Tools like SmartPurse are even more urgently needed now with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Jude says, “The long-term effects of the pandemic are still unknown, but what we can be certain about is that it will be women who feel its impact most. The disproportionate weight of job losses, childcare and home-schooling over the last six months risks widening this gulf even further. So far, this crisis affecting half of our population has been ignored by the government’s response to the pandemic. Women must now take control of their own future, with the first step being managing their money. SmartPurse is designed to help women do just that.”

I chose to make such a large investment in SmartPurse for the same reason why I invested in LearnVest over a decade ago. I want to help women, at scale, take charge of their financial lives. Yes, there are lots of books, websites, and experts on this topic, but data shows that nearly half of all women in relationships still delegate long term financial planning to their partners. As Olga notes, “Most [women] are time-poor, and don’t have the luxury to spend hours searching through tonnes of information that isn’t understandable or tailored enough for their personal and unique situations.” With the current COVID-19 pandemic hitting women disproportionately harder than men financially, there has never been more vital time for women to have the right tools and resources to understand and take control of their finances, no matter what their financial situation. Investing in SmartPurse is one way that I can help to make those resources available on a global scale, and I will continue to do all that I can to help women on their money journeys.

There are countless ways we can use our financial resources in alignment with our values in the buckets of spending, giving, and investing. The goal of this newsletter is to help you do just that, but with a particular emphasis on investing. By sharing my stories, as well as those of other experts alongside their resources and ideas, you can expect to not only learn, but do. I am a woman, and I try to apply a gender lens in all that I do. Therefore, you can expect my editorial choices to reflect this bias. I hope you will think that is a good thing!

So welcome to She Invests, a financial newsletter with a gender-lens. I am glad you are here.

Have thoughts on topics you would like me to write about? Feel free to post in the comments below.

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