Sallie Krawcheck Wants You to Avoid Making Her Mistakes
The Wall Street executive-turned-entrepreneur on what she’s learned at her fintech startup, the diversity problems in both tech and finance, and when is the right time to just “go for it.”
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Sallie Krawcheck rarely minces words.
The former Wall Street executive-turned-entrepreneur has a professional reputation for funny, direct pronouncements. Once dubbed "the last honest analyst," Krawcheck rose to become one of the most powerful women in banking, holding roles as chief financial officer at Citigroup and CEO of Bank of America's Merrill Lynch. But after getting restructured out of her C-Suite jobs, Krawcheck got into entrepreneurship, buying a women's networking company now called Ellevate Network and founding a related robo-adviser for women. She's also a mentor for other female entrepreneurs, including Venus Williams.
Whether she's discussing the casual workplace harassment she faced during her early days on Wall Street (male coworkers "put Xerox copies of male nether regions on my desk everyday") or her policy expectations from the new presidential administration ("How the hell do we know?"), Krawcheck is blunt and incisive. And her new book, Own It: The Power of Women at Work, shares these characteristics.
In a conversation earlier this month, we discussed what Krawcheck has learned about running her own company, whether she's found more sexism in tech or finance, and what women can do to recover from the election's bruising referendum on gender equality. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Why this book, and why now?
This entire phase of my career has been about really trying to close the gender money gap. Getting more money to more women is good for women, it's good for their families, it's good for the economy, it's good for society, it's good for men -- it's just all around good. Through the book, I could show that women have more power than we know, and can share some personal anecdotes. If I save one women -- or man -- from making one of the mistakes I made, then it seems like it's time well spent.
So do you expect many male readers?
I feel like my dad is going to read it! But it is to a specific audience, and I thought about that a lot. It is not to everybody and it doesn't represent everybody's story as much as I might like. It's my story and my perspective; it is representative of and for professional women. It can't be everything to everybody.
Right. Which was also a critique some had for Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, that it was most relevant for wealthy, professional women. So how did you decide who your audience was going to be, and not be?
It's the women I'm talking to almost everyday through the Ellevate Network and through Ellevest. These tend to be professional women who are looking for guidance. There's so much advice out there that (boils down to), "Women should act like men. Negotiate this way. Ask for the raise this way." It struck me that part of the reason why I was successful was because I acted like me--I acted like a woman. And I believe the way business is going, that these characteristics that we bring will become even more successful.
This book was produced during a time that seemed full of promise for professional women -- and then the outcome of the presidential election seemed to be a pretty crushing blow for gender equality. What do we do now?
The election was a wake up call. For people who care about the advancement of women in business or in politics, we need to do something different tomorrow. That can be at a very individual level: "I'm going to mentor X number of women now that I'm at a certain level of seniority, or I'm going to call out men who interrupt women, or I'm going to actively pull other women up and not be the 'queen bee' who came before me, or I'm going to spend my money in a way that help women start ups." One courageous conversation doesn't make a difference. One person crowdfunding (another startup) doesn't make a difference. But when we have this massive power, we can make a big difference.
You obviously have experience with being one of the last senior women standing in the very male-dominated profession of finance. There's often the same problem in the tech and startup world. How do we go from a handful of senior women to multiple female role models at the highest ranks?
How long do we have? What happened in the financial services industry is a warning: the financial crisis was driven in some part by groupthink, which was driven in turn by homogeneity. The research is so clear about how gender diversity drives superior business results. There's a real business cost to not having diverse work forces and therefore not seeing the need of diverse customers and clients. I'm optimistic that maybe companies will now start to recognize this -- because there will be a penalty, I believe, from not recognizing it.
So which industry is more unfriendly to women these days -- finance or tech?
But if you look at tech, at least you've got Meg Whitman and Sheryl Sandberg and Ginni Rometty. We could put together a list of some number of senior women. Now you tell me who the women are in financial services. There are some, but ... even the fact that we only have so many that we can rattle off is not a positive development.
You write in the book that we are in the beginning of a great age of female entrepreneurship -- but some of the numbers are still pretty dismal.
Venture capitalists don't get it yet. And it's easy to get discouraged about how quickly they will get it, since there's not a great pipeline of females coming into their partnerships, to make them more open to funding different types of business. So it's hard to be optimistic about the venture capital business. What it is easy to be optimistic about it alternative forms of capital are emerging such as crowdfunding, where women-owned businesses tend to be more successful.
And then across the board, the cost of starting businesses is coming down. I couldn't have founded my business 10 years ago or even five years ago. Now there's an infrastructure that has been built up around startups: You go from servers to the cloud, you go from business travel to video conferences, from long-term leases to WeWorks. And particularly among younger women, there's this sense that if this isn't the culture that I want to be a part of, let's go start our own.
So what is your advice to younger women these days? Get experience at a traditional big company or go start your own?
Look, it all depends on the person. I actually have a young female relative of mine who's dying to be an entrepreneur, dying -- and I keep telling her not to. Because she has a misperception of what it's like; she thinks it's a lot easier than what it is. I often tell people, "If you're starting something on your own, you better have a passion around it, because this is hard work." So if you're not there, go work for a startup or a company whose values align with yours. What I'm telling my younger female relative is, try it on. Stay at your job and be an adviser to a startup. That's what I did: I started advising -- I tried the outfit on a little bit to see if it was something that fit before I did it. But if you have that passion around something, go, go. Do it. Get it crowdfunded. Bootstrap it. Go raise money from your friends. Go for it.