25-year-old Lauren Simmons, the youngest female trader at the New York Stock Exchange, interviews her idol, Suzanne Shank, a 30-year veteran of the finance industry and CEO of top financial services firm Siebert Williams Shank, to talk infiltrating a male-dominated industry and how they both overcame rampant discrimination.
Lauren Simmons: I’ve been fangirling about you for about a year now on the trading room floor.
Suzanne Shank: It’s funny, my daughter who’s now a junior in college texted me one day to ask if I’d heard about you. I texted her last night that we were speaking, and she was thrilled!
Lauren: I have so many questions for you. Can tell me a bit about your home life and how it prepared you for the work environment you’re in today?
Suzanne: I grew up in Savannah, Georgia. Only child. My parents were both very hardworking. I would say overachievers, but just overachievers to the point that they wanted to provide the best home life to move from a lower-middle-class to the upper-middle-class life they aspired to. My dad was the first black bus driver in Georgia. My mom was a schoolteacher who graduated from Spelman College in three years. They both worked really hard. I observed them going from these entry-level positions to my dad becoming the director of the local transportation authority and my mom becoming an administrator in the school system. For me to get straight A’s in school was no big deal, no big high-fives. It was just the expectation. It was an environment of a lot of love, but pushing to do your very best all the time. I think that’s what gave me the courage to really pursue, as you did, a couple of nontraditional career paths. First, engineering, and then the world of Wall Street.
Lauren: I come from Georgia as well, from a single parent’s home. My mom, despite the hardships that she had to face, was absolutely amazing and showed me what an incredible woman looks like.
Suzanne: One thing that I don’t talk about a lot, but should more, is the role that my father played. My mother was very active. She had me reading at age three, she was the academic in the household, but I always felt I had the unconditional support of my father to do whatever I wanted to do. When my mother was working really hard, he was there. He cooked, he’d clean up, he’d even help me do my hair if necessary. There were no boundaries. For that reason, I have expectations of all men to be the same way.
Lauren: Tell me a little bit more about your transition from engineering to finance.
Suzanne: I knew very little, if anything, about stocks and bonds. I don’t know why, I was just driven, probably the competitive spirit in me to try to get a job. Unlike my peers at Wharton, who had some connections on Wall Street, I really had to go to New York and knock on doors. I finally convinced a boutique firm that had no intention of hiring an intern that they had to hire me, and they did.
Lauren: I didn’t get my MBA, but my journey to Wall Street was exactly the same. I said, “I can do anything with numbers.” I didn’t know exactly what that looked like. I think when I first got the bug of Wall Street, I was thinking a financial analyst, but I didn’t specifically know and hadn’t talked to many people because I had zero connections. I remember putting the blame on my mom. “Why didn’t you do better? Why do we not have more connections? Why am I struggling so hard?”
But then, obviously, getting out of that victim mentality and just saying, “I’m going to figure it out.” I ended up meeting a guy who works for a big company on Wall Street who told me flat-out the company would not hire me, but he said he knew a colleague on the trading floor and would I be open to meeting with him. It was a very interesting moment of my life. I landed on the trading floor, and I really wanted to prove myself by taking the test, which has an 80 percent fail rate. A lot of the men on the floor were saying, “It’s okay if you don’t pass”—but if you don’t pass, you can’t be a trader. I wanted to ultimately prove it to my mom. I wanted to make her happy.
Suzanne: My mom was furious when I told her I was going back to business school. I had a great $28,000 job as an engineer working in Atlanta. But no one was more supportive, of course, as I was raising my kids, and she’d come to my rescue millions and millions of times. I knew that I was on my own, and still, you have to have the drive to keep going. Coming out of Wharton in 1987, one of the top business schools in the country, it was still really tough going. Your own background, in more recent times, was also tough going. The moral of all of that is we have to continue to be committed to reach out and pull someone else up so that their path will be a little easier than ours. That’s always my goal going forward, is how many people can I help get the introduction.
Lauren: Do you think the financial industry is evolving? Do you think you’re helping to change that in any way, as far as representation?
Suzanne: I sure am trying. This is a hot topic. Everybody is talking about diversity and inclusion in every sector of corporate America. I think it’s particularly acute, the lack of it in the financial services industry. My firm is about 60 percent women and minorities. I’m purely equal opportunity. I pick the best person for the best job, and we just happen to have women and minorities in all sectors of the firm. I think the financial services industry is doing a lot to bring in more people in entry-level positions, but I always question, “Are those front-office jobs, or are those back-office jobs?” Meaning, are they in the client-facing division? And then, what is being done to move people along the corporate ladder within these firms? What mentorship and sponsorship is happening? Because every opportunity I’ve had for advancement was a result of mentorship. No one can advance their own career, no matter how smart you are, unless you have someone who’s a mentor within that organization.
I don’t know if it’s just unconscious bias and people aren’t realizing that they’re not being more inclusive, but it’s really time for us to challenge our organizations. With the statistics saying that this country is going to be majority-minority by 2044, if we don’t begin to focus on this and the wealth gap that will persist, we’re going to hurt the U.S. economy. There should be economic reasons we’re all focused on being inclusive.
Lauren: It’s really interesting, because prior to me passing the exam, I would see men come onto the trading floor and offer other men, “What can I do to help? Let’s do dinner, let’s talk about your career.” It was almost immediate. But had I not advocated for myself, I think I would have been just another woman on the trading floor. Which is why I was really happy with the relationship that I have with Richard Rosenblatt of Rosenblatt Securities. I made it very apparent to be in his office once a week and have these conversations. He very much still mentors me. Do you think people are being vocal enough about their need for mentorship?
Suzanne: I think that incoming people are afraid to be … you’ve just graduated from college, you’ve come into the firm, you’re just trying to survive there, keep your head above water, working 80 hours a week—I don’t know if it’s your responsibility to even understand your need to have a mentor. I think the onus is on the organization to say, “This is a new hire. We need to make sure they understand how this works. We need to mentor them. We need to give them constant feedback, so they know what’s going well, what’s not going well, and how to change.”
The problem is when people are going out after work, if it’s all white men, they’re not going to naturally pull on a young black woman and say, “Do you want to go with us for a drink?” Unless someone thinks about that and is intentional about being inclusive, that’s never going to happen. Then they’re not going to know that young black woman as well as they know everybody else. When an opportunity for a promotion comes, who gets it?
Lauren: With the #MeToo movement, I know there are some people in managerial positions who now feel even more uncomfortable having one-on-ones with young women.
Suzanne: I talk to a lot of men about that—even the good men are worried now. Everybody’s worried when they used to do, in the business world, a peck on the cheek occasionally. People aren’t doing that anymore. I’ve been on Wall Street 32 years now. Of course, I’ve seen tons of things that I felt were inappropriate. I’m excited that we can call everything out. As a young investment banker, I felt uncomfortable several times—at one firm the senior bankers were taking clients out to strip clubs. That should never happen. But I think even though it may make some men a little more concerned, what I hope it doesn’t do is have them say, “I don’t want to have exposure to women,” because that would hurt if we had another reason to not give a woman an opportunity. That is definitely in my concern. Yes, there are definitely great men out there and not so great men. I don’t want that to be another reason of not being able to develop within the organization.
Lauren: You mentioned good men. Are these good men scared because they think women are going to accuse them of something they didn’t do? If they are good men, they should really have nothing to worry about.
Suzanne: Yes. I think they think someone’s going to make something up. I’m thinking about the ones that I know are 100 percent pure, who I’ve known forever and are big brother material, so to speak. But, the good men aren’t really going to hold back opportunities just because you’re a woman. I don’t think it affects big decisions. I think they are just a little more conscious of their personal actions and work.
Lauren: Which is not a bad thing at the end of the day.
Suzanne: Not at all.
Lauren: All of my sponsorships, all my mentorships have been men. I am yet to have a female mentor. It definitely is the responsibility of men, but I really have this belief that, at least in my case, that men have taken me a lot further than any woman, because I have yet to experience that.
Suzanne: I do feel that men hold the prize, and without their support, women are not going to advance. The wonderful thing about men now, though, is that a lot of them have daughters. Daughters of this generation are very vocal. I think there’s a lot going on at home with men who have daughters, because I’ve observed that firsthand. There are many good men who I deal with all the time, and the first thing they talk about is their daughters—even more than their sons. They’re so proud, and they’re looking forward to their advancement. I think that behavior trickles into the workforce. We can only be hopeful that will continue.
Lauren: How did you straddle motherhood in the early years of your career?
Suzanne: I think people are shocked when I tell them that when my kids were growing up (they’re now 20 and 24) that I tried to be home for every game, every big thing at school. I tried to cook and have a home-cooked meal every day. While managing this career, it was very important to me to be engaged. Not that Mommy wasn’t gone a lot to working, and I was deeply committed to my kids. I try to brag about it, after initially trying to hide my first pregnancy because I didn’t want that to affect my compensation or the accounts I was assigned. Eventually, I got really irritated when people would talk about what a great dad somebody was. So I made a big deal out of making sure everybody knew, “I’m going to my daughter’s game, and I’m going to all of her activities, and I’m not going to miss it, because that’s really important to me.”
Lauren: Was your compensation ever affected because of a pregnancy?
Suzanne: I don’t think it was. If it were, I would have said something about it, but I don’t think so. I was never passed over for a promotion because I was a mother or pregnant, because I think I was invaluable. I had key accounts that I covered that were all managed by me. I brought in a lot of revenue at that time, this is nine years before becoming an entrepreneur. I had clients, some of whom were female who we were very supportive. I think as long as I had revenue pouring in, I was good. It’s one reason when my bankers go off to have kids, I don’t make a big deal of when they’re coming back, how much time they’re taking, and how much pay they’re supposed to get. I just say, “We’ll keep paying you. We’ll call if we have a question, but you just let us know when you’re ready to come back.” I’ve got to tell you, every time that we’ve done that with our young women bankers, they are very committed; they come back in due time, they work as hard as ever, and they are extremely productive.
Lauren: Because they feel respected.
Lauren: My mom was an executive at a company and my brother was in and out of the hospital when we were younger, and one day her superior said to her, “You really have to put your job before your kid.” My mom quit on the spot. She showed me to value myself first, and if the company doesn’t align with that, you have just as much power to say, “This is not the right composite for me.” What are the biggest hurdles in your own career? Have you ever faced outright discrimination as a women of color in finance?
Suzanne: God, yes. Which is my perspective and probably yours too, since we grew up in the South. I assumed that I was going to face discrimination on a frequent basis, because that’s what I felt growing up. If I was in a big room with 50 people and I made a comment and it was ignored, and somebody else said it a few minutes later and it was embraced, that didn’t discourage me; it just made me more motivated to speak up, and brush the trim, and check the trend, and prove my worth.
I don’t know if I can even remember all the things that would have occurred in terms of discrimination. Sometimes I’ve had meetings with clients with my all-female team, and we’ll have a detailed book with all types of analysis that they’ve spent hours and hours putting together. Some of the clients don’t even—and this is rare, of course—but they don’t open the book. In other words: Women couldn’t have managed all these deals. You couldn’t have done an $800 million deal for New York City, or you couldn’t have done a billion dollar deal for Connecticut. You didn’t really do that, did you?
That still happens occasionally today despite all the accolades we’ve received, all the tombstones that we can show. I don’t know that there’s a week that passes that I don’t feel something is not quite right about the response.
Lauren: In my journey, it definitely has been more about me being a female, especially with my time on the trading floor. Right before I took my test, there were men on the floor openly betting if I was going to pass.
Suzanne: Oh, my goodness.
Lauren: And as much as it’s the boys club, they do gossip like women, so when I received the paper saying I passed, there was silence. You could literally only hear the machines and a pin drop. It was such a surreal moment. They just absolutely did not believe that someone other could come in and do it, let alone a black woman from Georgia who didn’t go to an Ivy League school and didn’t have connections on the trading floor.
It is unfortunate, but for those who have been shut out long enough, they will be like you, Suzanne, and build their own firm. They will be their own gatekeeper. They don’t need someone else to hold them back.
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