Breaking Barriers with Sallie Krawcheck

As part of the Ladies Get Paid Book Tour, sponsored by Comcast NBC/Universal, Claire Wasserman, founder and author of Ladies Get Paid, in conversation with Sallie Krawcheck, Founder & CEO of Ellevest, discuss building a successful career on Wall Street, co-founding Ellevest, and why it’s important to get more money into the hands of women. 


Claire Wasserman: I want to start with a quote that you gave in an interview. At its core, we all know that money is power, and that if we don’t have as much money as the guys do, we’re not going to be fully equal with them.” Were you always this person?


Sallie Krawcheck: No gosh no. I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. I was a cheerleader. I had the choice of playing soccer but the cheerleader felt cuter and more dateable. I got married at the age of 22, literally less than a year out of college. I had certain expectations in my life that if you’d asked me if I was a feminist I would have said absolutely not. This has been a significant progression over my life having spent my career on Wall Street and my background as a CFO of Citigroup.


I ran Merrill Lynch, the wealth management business over there in Smith Barney, and really bought into it for years. It really was pretty late in my career when I said, “You know what? The deck has really stacked against us for a whole bunch of reasons.” One, we’re taught that we’re not good with money or math.


Just at the same time, they’re telling us not to go into technology and engineering, we’re learning we’re not good at math or money. We receive different messages from our parents about money than our brothers do. They’re told to make money, go for it, we’re told to budget, be careful. 


The stuff that we get from the mainstream women’s media is about how hard money is, how scary it is, or it’s patronizing, don’t buy the shoes, don’t drink the latte. For men, when you say the word money for them, you say what comes to mind, they say power, strength, independence and for women, it’s loneliness, isolation, and uncertainty. As a result, we don’t ask for the raise perhaps because we’re not talking about it and we don’t know how much to ask for.


We don’t invest because we’ve been brought up that it’s hard to do and we’re not very good at it or it has to be bitcoin trading. When I came to the realization a handful of years ago that in many ways the deck is stacked against us, the industry is not built for us. Maybe there’s a way to found a company that’s for women, by women without being, “Oh we’re so cute drinking our glass of chardonnay and talking about stocks while we knit.” 


Claire:  I read that as a senior executive on Wall Street you were once told that “My work ethic, it was too strong and it was intimidating and off-putting to the other folks on the leadership team and the second was that my profile was too high.” There seems to be a tightrope here, where you work really hard, you do the best you can, oh wait but now you’re receiving negative feedback. How did you walk that tightrope?


Sallie: Women are expected to be nurturing and kind but as business people, we’re expected to be risk absorbing and hard-charging. Bringing the two of those together is difficult. what I’ve found over my career is I am who I am. I love my children and weep when I see ads with puppies and kittens in them but I don’t beat around the bush a whole lot. I have been in the top levels of Wall Street and I have been fired on the front page of the Wall Street Journal twice.


I didn’t change my personality and my business results didn’t change, how I was perceived changed. The research says when women are seen to be looking for power, people are like, “Oh yes.” Men, they’re like, “Boys will be boys.” That feedback hurt badly. By the way, when I came back to my boss and said, “Well the only reason the profile’s high is because the business is doing so well so we’ve turned it around people who are writing about it.” He’s like, “Yes, I don’t care. You can’t get more attention than your other compatriots at the same business level.” I’m like, “I haven’t done an interview in years without permission.” He’s like, “Too bad.”


There’s something freeing about finally saying, “You know what? Todd, my boss seems like the nicest guy in the world and he’s actually never going to promote me. He’s promoted Steve, he’s promoted Joe, he’s promoted Ted, he’s promoted John but at some point just saying, “Look, this just isn’t my fault that I can’t get through his embedded biases that exist and I’ve got to find another way.” Not fair but having that freedom of sometimes it is literally not your fault.


Claire: As you were rising up the ranks, did you wait to be promoted or did you make your case proactively? 


Sallie: I was pretty aggressive. There was some serendipity. I went from running Sanford Bernstein which had 386 people on a Thursday to running Smith Barney which had 45,000 people on a Friday. I didn’t call up the CEO of Citigroup and say, “You need to put me in that job.” 


Claire: How did you develop relationships with people? 


Sallie: Networking is the number one unwritten rule of success in business. Men understand that the work that you do, doesn’t always have to be an A+ level, sometimes it can be a B+. Then you spend the other time engaging with other people whereas we, women seem to come into the workforce with that school mentality of, my project will be perfect. 


I didn’t go on the golf course, but I’d send an email, “Hey I was working on a project and this interesting thing came up or talking to so-and-so in this startup who should be really interesting for you to look at it. “ Be one of those people who’s out there giving and engaging. Then over time, you plant those little seeds and it comes back to you. People remember it and want to do things for you because you’ve been doing things for them.


Claire: Being in corporate America and, working for somebody else, to now running a startup. Did you want to work for yourself?


Sallie: Women don’t have as much money as men do. 85% of financial advisors are men. 99% of investment dollars are to companies owned by White men. Money 8% of mutual fund dollars are managed by men. I kept hearing from the industry that women don’t invest as much as men do because they’re risk-averse.


But maybe men built the industry for themselves. What if someone were to build a business for women and just go into the deep research on what engages women in investing or engaging with their debt? 


I was with the CEO of one of the largest banks in the world having breakfast and I said to him this is a business opportunity to change lives. He looks at me and he’s like, but Sally don’t their husbands manage money for them?” Yes, but I just told you, 80% of women die, single 90% of us manage our money on our own. He couldn’t even hear me. Then I thought, someone needs to build this. They’re going to have to have a deep finance background, be able to build a tech team, be able to raise venture money, be dumb enough to put their whole life into it. 


Claire: I read a mantra that you have, which is “weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.”


Sallie: I would never have been as successful if I hadn’t taken the risks that also got me fired. You’re not allowed to say I don’t want the risk, I just want the good stuff. You’ve got to be taking on the risk and in order to get it. 


If I get knocked down, it’s my responsibility to get back up.


Watch the entire  conversation with Sallie Krawcheck here. A big thank you to Comcast/NBCUniversal for sponsoring this series.


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