Op-Ed: To Thrive in the World of Money Management, Women May Need to Go It Alone

I never wanted or expected to run an investment management business. 

What I wanted was to manage my equity income strategy in the way that I knew it should be managed – employing a diligent research process to generate significant, dependable dividend income and to control for risk by investing in a diversified portfolio of cash-flow oriented stocks.

I also wanted my work to reflect my belief that clients deserve the opportunity to define their own objectives, to understand their investments, and to know their portfolio manager. 

Whether they have a question or just want to talk, they can pick up the phone and reach me.

To me, this is just a matter of basic respect.

From my perspective, this is the best model for income-oriented investors. Of course, not everyone agrees. 

This model is difficult to sustain at large firms, where scale and "assets under management" often take center stage.

When I couldn't find a firm that would let me manage money the way I knew it should be managed, I was essentially forced to build a practice to match my vision.  

Building a foundation

Jenny Harrington

The foundation for my current professional life was laid much earlier. To a large degree, my investment career is the direct result of my undergraduate education at Hollins University, a women's college in Virginia.

Hollins encouraged me to pursue internships with the likes of Keefe Managers and Dietche & Field Advisers. These experiences unlocked the door to Goldman Sachs, which I joined as a financial analyst in 1997. 

Following four years at Hollins, where all the leadership positions were held by women, and where every classroom question was asked and answered by a woman, I expected nothing less than total gender equality.

Indeed, my boss at Goldman was a woman and many of the most accomplished people in the division were women. The new associates in my "pod" were women fresh out of Harvard and Columbia business schools.

For me, living in a seemingly flat world, ignorance was bliss.

An industry's problem

What I didn't know until later was that, just a year earlier in 1996, 26 women had sued Smith Barney, then an industry titan, for sexual harassment and discrimination. Many other large Wall Street firms were also being served at that time with sexual harassment lawsuits.

Ultimately, my extreme naiveté with respect to gender discrimination helped and hurt me.

In retrospect, a bit more savviness would have helped me identify where managers' words and actions diverged. I could have identified earlier when I bumped into gender bias and called it out for what it was.

But the naiveté also helped me in that it didn't occur to me that there was a glass ceiling.

Maybe it's because I grew up with a bombastic father and three outrageous brothers. Maybe it's because I have a supportive partner in my husband who I have been with since I was 19 years old.

It didn't occur to me that my gender might introduce barriers into my career path. 

Creating and managing a strategy

Jenny Harrington

In 2001, I left Goldman Sachs and moved to Neuberger Berman so that I could focus on the portfolio management side of the business. At Neuberger, I created the equity income strategy that I still manage today at Gilman Hill.

As satisfying as that was, it became clear that my investment vision could never be achieved as part of this team.

At that point, eight years into my career, I began to see how gender bias could be wielded in the investment industry.

With a clear knowledge of how I wanted to apply my skills, I tried to switch teams, only to be told by management that they didn't want the headache of me moving.

When I interviewed outside the firm, I was told that I seemed too social to be a portfolio manager and that I should consider working in sales.

I was 30, and I was about to be pregnant, and no, it never occurred to me that it would slow me down – nor did it.

Leading under your own terms

Jenny Harrington, CEO, Gilman Hill 
Scott Mlyn | CNBC
Jenny Harrington, CEO, Gilman Hill 

I didn't come to Gilman Hill Asset Management to break barriers or to create a woman-led firm.

I'm here because they let me manage the equity income strategy the way I wanted to manage it. I left a good salary at Neuberger Berman to go to Gilman Hill, where I would have zero salary. 

As scary as that was, I was confident in my strategy and its ability to meet the financial and emotional needs of many investors.

This confidence was reinvigorated by two years at Columbia Business School, where I had the privilege of studying under investing legend Bruce Greenwald. The experience solidified my belief that I was worthy of managing other people's money and that I was great at my job. 

After three years at Gilman Hill, I was responsible for most of the assets and much of the growth at the firm. It made sense to buy my partners out and take over management of the business.

I didn't make this leap because I was a visionary. Rather, it was the only viable path forward if I wanted to continue to serve my clients well. This step was made possible by the support and encouragement of my business partner, Whitney Merrill, who stood behind me the whole way.

On the home front, my husband was also supportive and encouraging. His stable salary gave us a safety net to take what was a very significant risk. As Warren Buffett reminds us, the most important decision you make in life is choosing a life partner.  

I'm a firm believer that things work out in the end. I also believe, however, that the world often makes it much harder for that happen than should be the case. Progress means removing those barriers.

I acknowledge that adversity often builds character, because if they hadn't put my back against the wall, I might still be a cog in a wheel, rather than where I am today.

Copyright CNBC
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