She Invests #5 – For The First Time EVER – A Woman Holds The Most Senior Financial Position in the United States of America

A photo of Janet Yellen standing in front of an American flag.

As published as She Invests newsletter #5 on LinkedIn Influencers.

It was almost a year ago, March 8th to be exact, that I published an article with the title Finance. The New Frontier of Feminism. It was International Women’s Day, and I had written yet another article about why women’s rights are human rights, and how tools of finance, or simply put, money, are the most underused resources we have in the quest for gender equality. This article also announced the release of the latest version of my Best Reports list. It featured 650 reports, organized into 21 different categories, and spanned nearly 175 pages, all in support of Gender Lens Giving, Investing, and Action. You can download that list HERE. Little did I know last March, but less than 12 months later, we would have the FIRST EVER female Treasury Secretary of the United States, Janet Yellen.

A photo of the cover page of Jacki Zehner's Top 650 Reports on Women and Girls.

At the time, that article was my declaration to myself, as well as the world at large, that my focus was shifting away from philanthropy. I was making a promise that I would use my time and talent to be a champion for Gender-Impact Investing. About a week later, the world changed completely with the realization that we were facing a once in a century global pandemic that would uproot and turn upside down every facet of our lives. And then the pandemic landed in my own house. I was COVID case number 60(ish) in Utah, and while my case was mild, the impact of this deadly virus has been anything but. We can all make endless lists of how things are different now because of COVID-19 and how things have changed. I, like so many of you, can share stories of the sadness and loss of the past 10 months. If you want to read a poem I wrote in the early days of the pandemic, please click here. Yes, a poem. Poetry is one of the many things that has kept me going this past year, and it helped me land where I am now, in such a place of HOPE! And for that more hopeful poem, click here.

Back to this week. We have a new President in the Oval Office, Joe Biden. Kamala Harris is the first ever woman and woman of color to be the Vice President of the United States. And Janet Yellen is the first ever female Treasury Secretary (pictured above). While I celebrate VP Harris to the hills and back, this is a newsletter about money, so Ms. Yellen is the focus.

For those of you who may not know what a Treasury Secretary (TS) does, the role is very important. The TS oversees the Department of the Treasury, and acts as the principle advisor to both the President and the Cabinet on most economic and financial issues. In short, the TS is the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for the Federal Government. Or otherwise put, the CFO for the American people! And so this is a very big deal.

It also has a very personal meaning for me given my background as a partner and managing director at Goldman Sachs, as well as being the first female trader to have that title. Treasury Secretary, in my view, is the most senior position in finance in the country, male or female, and for the very first time, just to say it again, that position is currently being held by a woman. As a former bond trader, I would hang on to every word that was uttered by the person in this role to look for direction as to the future of interest rates, and while this newsletter will not be a primer on why the rate at which the US borrows money matters so much, maybe a future one will be. For now, just trust me, it matters a lot. It could even be argued that it matters now more than ever, considering the current level of national debt related to support measures that have been provided during the pandemic.

So who is Janet Yellen? Her bio from The Balance reads, “Dr. Yellen graduated summa cum laude from Brown University with a degree in economics in 1967. She received her Ph.D. in economics from Yale University in 1971. She received the Wilbur Cross Medal from Yale in 1997, an honorary doctor of laws degree from Brown in 1998, and an honorary doctor of humane letters from Bard College in 2000. Dr. Yellen was an assistant professor at Harvard University from 1971 to 1976 and a staff economist for the Federal Reserve Board from 1977 to 1978. She was a faculty member at the London School of Economics and Political Science from 1978 to 1980. She was a Fed Board member between 1994 and 1997. President Bill Clinton appointed her as the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers between 1997 and 1999. She was the chair of the Economic Policy Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development at the same time. Dr. Yellen was the president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco between 2004 and 2010. She became vice-chair of the Fed Board of Governors between October 2010 and February 2014. This four-year term coincided with a 14-year term as a board member. From February 2014 to February 2018, Yellen was the Federal Reserve chair. She was the first woman to hold that position.” And by the way, she is 74.

Her accomplishments and knowledge base are beyond impressive. While we may know a lot about her leanings from a policy perspective, I can’t say I know much about her track record when it comes to championing gender equity and inclusion. A quick google search on the topic did not help me all that much, but that’s certainly not to say that she does not have one. Ms. Yellen likely has a good one, and I can only hope that not only will she do an amazing job as our CFO, but she will also utilize her platform to be a role model and change agent for so much more. Already, it looks like she will be making racial equity a priority, which is amazing.

I have written endlessly about the lack of women in decision making roles in the financial sector, and Ms. Yellen, as the most senior woman ever in finance, can do a lot to change that. In the famous words of Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Now, we will finally see a woman as the Treasury Secretary of the United States, and that is incredible. But if you are wondering what I’m referencing when it comes to the lack of women in finance, let me point you in the direction of my last newsletter, which was a bit of a rant about the lack of capital flowing to women fund managers and entrepreneurs. Please read it here. The Cheerios photo below is fully explained in that piece. I also wrote this piece, titled “Happy 150th Goldman Sachs and a Call to Collective Action”, and this one in 2016, called “Gender Equality in Finance? Nope. But Times Are Changing”. There’s also been about 100+ other pieces over the 10+ years that I have been writing on this topic. All can be found in my blog archive if you are looking for some late night reading. And of course, the 650 reports list, many of which are on this topic.

A photo of a pile of 100 Cheerios on a countertop, separated into piles for men, women, and people of colour.

Here is what I know for sure, and in particular, why this all matters so much.

Philanthropic capital will never be enough to solve the world’s problems, especially when fighting against traditional investment capital that continues to fund businesses that create and perpetuate the problems that non-profits and governments exist to solve. Financial tools and products have been created and used, bought and sold, without enough accountability for outcomes and impact. In a world increasingly defined by inequality more generally, and income and asset inequality specifically, we simply have to do better. Our very lives depend on it. 

But it’s not just Janet Yellen who brought me hope this week. President Biden’s Cabinet is the most racially diverse Cabinet in history, as well as the one with the most ever women. Obviously, it is far too early to know what will come of this, but it is a great start for President Biden’s administration. This quote by Abraham Lincoln from the Gettysburg Address has been on my mind all week: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” In my book, having a cabinet that more fully represents the people that it is designed to serve is a very good thing indeed.

That being said, while it is very true that policy decisions made in Washington matter a lot as it relates to our economic and financial well-being, so does what you and I do every day with our financial resources. Every time money moves from our bank accounts, our wallets, or our purses to either pay for something (good or service), give to someone, or invest in something, we are transferring our financial power. The more we see it this way, the more we can see ourselves as powerful economic and financial beings. And if you want to live in a more just and equitable world, using your money more intentionally is a surefire way to make a difference. This election cycle proved, maybe more so than ever before, that every vote matters. So does every financial decision we make. They all add up. The billionaires of the world are just that, billionaires, because people buy the products, the services, and/or the stocks of the companies that those very people started or run. Without us, they would be just like us. Sit on that one for a while.

So a year later let me repeat my mantra: Finance is indeed the new Frontier of Feminism*. Welcome Treasury Secretary Yellen, I look forward to meeting you. And by they way, I sure as heck hope you call yourself a feminist. You may have once said that you prefer to ‘quietly’ break gender roles, but now that you have busted through the biggest glass ceiling of them all in the world of finance, I hope you come to shout it from your rooftop. And for all of you who think feminism is an old, dated, and politically charged word that you choose not to use, I refer you to the actual definition. Feminism isdefinedin Merriam-Webster as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and as the “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” So might we stop hating on the words feminist and feminism, especially as women? It is time to reclaim the word for what it truly means. Because I promise you. When we more fully combine the beliefs of feminism with the power of finance, we will have a more just and equitable world for all.


Fun side note: This incredible video deserves to go viral. Please enjoy and share!

Interesting side note: the outgoing Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, was my direct manager at Goldman for a period of time. In fact, he threw an engagement party for me and my husband Greg when we got engaged, as we both worked for him in the mortgage department. I also worked for Hank Paulson, who served as the 74th Treasury Secretary while he was CEO of Goldman, and very distantly for Robert Rubin who was the 70th Treasury Secretary and also the CEO of Goldman. When I first started at GS in 1988, my cubicle was right outside his. #funfactsaboutjacki

* I once again credit Ruth Ann Harnisch for this term.

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