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Podcast: Janet Cowell, CEO of Girls Who Invest

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Janet Cowell

Janet Cowell

In many industries, the challenge of bringing more women into leadership roles – creating the opportunities to start and grow careers – remains. Financial services – alternative investments, in particular – is no exception.

That’s the problem Girls Who Invest is built to address.

The non-profit was founded in 2015 to inspire and empower young women to pursue asset management careers. Their goals: To see 30% of the world’s investable capital managed by women by 2030.

How do they do this? As you’ll hear from Girls Who Invest CEO Janet Cowell: They’re building a brand new pipeline – connecting leading firms, education and mentoring to create a new network of talent and opportunity.

About Janet Cowell: She’s got a fascinating and perfect background. She held publicly elected offices in North Carolina for 15 years and was the first woman elected State Treasurer there, managing over $100 billion in assets, and health and retirement benefits, for over 900,000 members.

But before her public service, Janet held positions in the private sector in the U.S. and abroad, including as a securities analyst for Lehman Brothers and HSBC in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. She’s seen financial services from all sides.


Chris Riback: Janet, thanks for your time. I appreciate you joining me.

Janet Cowell: Thanks for having me.

Chris Riback: So what is Girls Who Invest and what’s a former state treasurer like you doing in a job like this?

Janet Cowell: Girls Who Invest is a nonprofit that aspires to get more women into asset management. And one of our goals is to have 30% of world assets managed by women by 2030.

Chris Riback: Why is it needed?

Janet Cowell: Well, I think, you’ve mentioned, so I was the state treasurer for the North Carolina and when you sit in those seats, I was managing 90 billion and looking at all sorts of money managers coming to the table. You see that it’s a very male dominated industry and yet you also see that there’s a lot of really bright young women out there who are quantitative and are interested in math and would be really good investors. But somehow either don’t have exposure to this industry or have a negative opinion of the industry or try to get in and somehow the culture and other obstacles prevent them from succeeding. So Girls Who Invest is looking to one, give exposure to young women who are in college, freshman and sophomore
who are in college in the United States to this industry. Give them the technical training that they can succeed in it and then connect them with some of the leading asset management firms so that they can get those first job experiences and succeed.

Chris Riback: You’re talking about something that’s unfortunately obviously not new and that a lot of folks have made various efforts addressing and not just in this industry. I mean we could run through essentially every industry under the sun I would think have made efforts. And you really identified I think that the two aspects, I guess if you maybe thinking about it, the output and the input. Once one is in the industry there you just, you’re talking about cultural issues, whatever kind of historical blocks there may be or challenges there. But also on the input side, getting the women and girls at that stage, ’cause I think you deal even at the high school level. Getting them interested, do you see more need on one side versus the other? Do you see more ability to make impact on one side versus the other? Do you find yourself going back and forth from inside the asset management firms to the women in the funnel going into the industry? Where do you see your best opportunities?

Janet Cowell: I think for us it’s the pipeline and that front end and getting the young women trained. Connecting them with the job experiences and mentoring them. I think one of the big roles we play is trying to slow down and give some oxygen to the whole recruitment environment, in undergraduate space. I mean a lot of these young women as they do get exposure to the industry, it’s coming at them fast and furious. And so we’re trying to get them to think about what are your skills? Where do you think you might fit and be thoughtful about the type firm you go forward? Don’t just respond to the biggest name or a marquee out there or whoever asked you first. So the mentoring is huge and we do mentor these young women as they come into our program after they have their internship. And through their entire undergraduate career as they’re navigating their interviews and recruiting in the industry.

Chris Riback: How do you do the outreach? How do you connect with the women in the first place?

Janet Cowell: We target around 100 colleges and universities in the United States and we look at universities that have good quantitative programs, finance. These women can be from any major, but we are looking for people who have innate abilities in quantitative skill sets that would be good at asset management or have an interest even if that’s not their major. we’re also looking at diversity. So we’re looking at colleges and universities with large historically underrepresented minority populations. So those are, and in public universities. We’ve had a lot of success with private schools taking advantage of our program and young women there who, the word of mouth maybe they have more resources to know about the program. The publics have not, they’ve only been about 15% of our class size. So we’re making an extra effort this year to make sure that the public universities know about our program

Chris Riback: How do the asset management firms react? To an outsider like me, it would feel potentially double edged on the one hand really terrific, very positive and they would want to be supportive and increase the pipeline and increase representation and meet that 30% goal. At the same time on some level it requires admitting [clause 00:07:10] I publicly that things aren’t currently where they might like them to be. So how do the asset management firms feel about GWI?

Janet Cowell: I will say we’re in year three and we were oversubscribed last year and I came onboard in January and we really have just had a lot of inbound interest and could well be oversubscribed again this year. And just to give you a sense, we had 100 young women on our on campus program last year. So we’re still fairly small. Next summer will be between 100 and 250. But that said it’s nice to see so many firms with inbound calls of interest. And the other thing I’m seeing is firms are starting to hire undergraduate interns who may not have had undergraduate interns before. Some of them are formalizing internship programs from friends and family to becoming more strategic formal programs. Others are aligning big global financial firms who’ve had maybe five or six different programs that are more individually driven and looking at it more strategically. So I’m definitely seeing some very positive and constructive engagement around the internship and that early stage entry level jobs in the asset management industry.

Chris Riback: Is Asset Management as an industry maybe less formalized in the internship and in that undergrad first job pipeline in this. By this I mean both for women and men as compared to say investment banking or management consulting or maybe even tech firms where these really rigorous, well organized historical processes that really are underway right now at many of the undergraduate schools. Has asset management as an industry historically been less formal about that process?

Janet Cowell: I believe the answer is yes. You think about what it takes to become a doctor or a lawyer and it’s pretty clear. Becoming an asset manager, it’s not so clear. And a number of asset management firms do rely on the investment banking industry, which you mentioned, right? As a training ground for those young people to then come into the asset management, private equity real estate firms. A lot of them recruit out of investment banking. So it’s not clear, does one need to do investment banking? Can you go straight into asset management? But I think a lot of the asset management firms are realizing that when they hire out of investment banking, the numbers of women and minorities already have fallen off dramatically even in the two years of the investment banking.

So if they wait, then they’re not going to get the kind of diversity of candidates that they’re looking for. So some of them are thinking about, well let’s start earlier with the internship, think about maybe doing our own training programs. Think about programs to advertise asset management within investment banking so people know there’s a bridge back over. I mean there’s all sorts of conversations going on.

Chris Riback: You are a quote and I put it in quote Girls Who Invest obviously a woman. I’m just playing off the name actually, do you ever get the name Girls Who Invest, it’s a playful name obviously. Do any of the women involved ever say, could we, should we call it women who invest or everyone’s fine and it’s kind of a it’s a playful name, Girls who invest.

Janet Cowell: Yeah it’s a bit of a challenge. The founder, Seema Hingorani originally this was all modeled after Girls Who Code.

Chris Riback: Yes, of course. Really well known.

Janet Cowell: Which is obviously a very successful organization, very well known and I think the “Girls Who” moniker has a lot of power and as you said, sort of energy behind it. We decided ultimately that the easiest entry point was freshman and sophomore in colleges. So you’re right, I mean we’re talking about young women for the most part. We do not have formal high school programs so then of course we get interest from young women and high school students who are interested in not yet able to be part of the formal program. And so we’ve had debates about that. I think right now we think there’s enough of like you said, energy and power behind the name that we’ve stuck with it.

Chris Riback: There is. I just found myself self consciousness as I was thinking of the question today, because I didn’t want to be insulting in the term. So fine. Since we’ve established that we’re using the energy of the name and I’m in no way intending to be insulting. You are a “Girl Who Invests.”

Janet Cowell: Yes.

Chris Riback: What brought you into the field.

Janet Cowell: I was in politics for 15 years and one of the lessons I’ve learned is that if you’re going to work on an issue, work on one that has momentum and energy behind it. Because it’s hard to move the needle on anything that’s broad, multifaceted issues like women and diversity and an asset management industry. And this issue of combining women and finance and education hits, I think three areas that are very powerful when combined. I mean there’s all sorts of studies right, globally that if you can get more money in the hands of women that you solve all sorts of problems. It’s not just the immediate woman who’s got the money, but her family does better. The community does better. There’s more peace, more health, more wellness. So I think that’s true internationally, but I think it’s also true domestically. So I really appreciated the mission of education, women and finance.

Chris Riback: I want to follow up on that, but it’s occurring to me that I didn’t really ask you, explain the program if you would. So you get, you’ve talked about a class of 100, maybe class of 150 and a program. Literally, what does that look like? What happens? Where do they go? What does that program look like?

Janet Cowell: Girls Who Invest right now is a US domestic program and we recruit from all. So like I said, about 100 universities and colleges nationwide that specifically targeted, they can come from any number. We are looking at sophomores primarily for an on campus program. So rising juniors, they’re sophomore summer, they come to one of two campuses, Penn and now we have Notre Dame that we just expanded to. Those two campuses have these young women from all over the country for four weeks and professors at their business schools teach. We also have partner firms come in, so they get inspired by leaders in the industry, start to see the material come alive. They do an equity case study on like the summer we did McDonald’s in Chicago, got to go meet the senior leadership at McDonald’s and evaluate their stock. After the four weeks are over, all these young women disperse across the country to internships at some of the top asset management firms.

So some of them may be in Dallas with Vista Equity. They could be in San Francisco with Farallon or in New York with one of our firms there, Carlyle. After that we keep coaching and mentoring them. We have a jobs board where all of our partner firms can post jobs. All these young women can be on there from the different classes and cohorts. We also have online programs, so we have offered for freshman in university, CFA Investment Foundations. We partner with the CFA Institute, Chartered Financial Analyst and offer them sort of another exposure that’s kind of a pipeline program into our summer program. And then we also have a partnership with Wharton, Wharton Business and financial modeling curriculum. Which is a certificate program for young women who may not be able to participate in the on campus but clearly have aptitude and possibilities have been in the industry.

Chris Riback: What a network. So they really by getting into this program after sophomore year, I guess just immediately they have a network of 100 or so colleagues or like minded, like aged women all thinking about the same area. But then understanding what you’re doing, they then get the placement into an internship and all of the mentoring opportunities that come after that. It’s really good. That’s a pretty powerful opportunity, isn’t it?

Janet Cowell: Yes. And we are trying to stretch them and we have a lot of young women who are from top schools and they’re successful and they could be successful without the program. But I think the mentoring and that sort of slowing it down and the coaching really helps. But we do have around 25% of our students are socioeconomically disadvantaged and we have about 20% historically underrepresented minorities. I think we can even improve on those numbers next year and still keep it really high quality program ’cause obviously one of the factors of success is do our internship firms feel good about the young women’s work? And did they contribute to the teams and do they want to hire him back? And I think so far the answer to that has been yes. We’ve had about 80 percent of these young women stay in the finance industry broadly. Some of those are going to investment in banking, but over half are staying on the asset management by side. And we’ve had really good retention of all of our financial partners.

Chris Riback: Those are really strong and important metrics in addition to the 30% of world assets becoming under management by women that you identified at the beginning of the conversation. So you personally, you have gone from a role where your actions impacted 10 million North Carolinians every day I guess, to one where you’re really dealing with I guess maybe 100, 150 at a time but really at the individual level. One at a time person by person trying to change their lives and as a result I’m sure I’m change an industry. How do you think about the differences in scale around your impact?

Janet Cowell: It’s kind of ironic because when I was managing $100 billion many times people don’t understand what treasures do at all. And so there’s not much attention and yet with Girls Who Invest just the name can evoke lots of different interests, and so you can get as much press or power in the marketplace in some ways, and running a small organization as you can with the responsibility and accountability of running a large one. So I think the timing of being in the space with all the different national dialogues going on makes it a very dynamic space to be working in. And then just the network of being in New York and the connection with the firms on these issues. So I think it goes beyond just 100 and 150 students in the class in any given year to just the influence of the dialogue and influencing these large firms in a bigger way.

Chris Riback: You talk about the national dialogue and obviously there’s tremendous national dialogue around the Me Too movement. And that has hit a number of industries, I guess probably every industry as well as we were talking about in a different faction earlier. Does that come up to, do the women talk about that? The young women do they talk about that? Do they ask about it? Do they worry? Do they wonder whether business in general, not just asset management but media, Hollywood, all the different areas that have been here, do they ask you at all about have things improved? Is this something they still need to worry about? How has the #MeToo discussion impacted anything about what you do?

Janet Cowell: I would say since the beginning of this program, we’ve had conversations with young women about managing your career and dealing with HR and all the components that go with that. So it’s not just sort of the behavioral issues around how do you deal with it if someone invites you out for dinner and you’re not comfortable with that? Can you suggest a lunch meeting instead? I mean simple things like that to how do you negotiate salary package? What should you be anticipating? So there is a lot of discussion, around the workplace and all the different elements of it that you might encounter. And we do have coaching and social skills and training around the host of those. I think most of these young women are very positive and excited about the future. And so that’s not as much front and foremost in their mind. I mean they’re more worried about do they have the right skill set? And did they learn their modeling well enough to succeed? I think some of those things, the awareness of it comes with time.

Chris Riback: How did politics prepare you for what you do today?

Janet Cowell: Of course these issues are very broad multifaceted challenges. Just diversity and inclusion and industries and jobs, women’s empowerment. All of those are issues I cared deeply about as treasurer and started working on many of those there with emerging manager programs or women on corporate boards and shareholder petitions to have more disclosure. So it’s certainly schooled me in the policy and actions that it takes to get movement on these. I mean, it’s very rewarding to have a tangible program, because there’s a lot … Politics there’s a lot of talk, there’s a lot of posturing, but many times there’s not the tangible results to show. I think Girls Who Invest it is very tangible. It’s very inspiring to be with these young women who are very excited and have so much talent and can go out and change the world. And so I feel good about the time I spend here.

Chris Riback: Yes, I’m sure you do. It’s a remarkable opportunity to clearly get to impact not only these individual women but the industry as well as you’re describing. Janet, to close out at least on my side, what’s next? What would you I guess we’re now, the summer is over, the internships have ended. I guess maybe now you’re at the stage, where are you finding out now whether women will be accepting or taking jobs? I know this is kind of the season, the next month or two where undergrads are getting various offers in different industries. What stage are you at right now in the cycle and what do you kind of hope? What’s your vision? What’s next for Girls Who Invest?

Janet Cowell: We’ve opened our application for this year’s program, so if you go to our website,, the application is on there and young women can apply. Again, we’re looking at sophomores in college applying for the summer program and if that doesn’t fit that we do have the online program which is out there as well. And so that’s all live and hope that many people will apply this year. And in the future growth absolutely I have a sense that we’ve had 100, 150 young women. There are hundreds of young women out there in the United States with this sort of interest and energy to go into asset management and so we can certainly expand. I think we’re looking at a West Coast expansion, summer after next. We’ve talked to a university that I think will come in.

And then the other big opportunity, and this is a global industry, is international. About half of our applications are from really talented international students and we aren’t able to accommodate the vast majority of those because of the work visa situation, either they only have an H4 and not an H4 EAD, or they can’t get a green card at all. So I think that does peg the question of what happens to all those super bright young women who applied? Do they get jobs anyway? Do they go back to their home countries and get jobs there? Do they just never get into the industry? But there’s a lot of talent left on the table and I think that’s another question that Girls Who Invest through partnership or maybe other organizations, there’s definitely an opportunity there.

Chris Riback: That all sounds outstanding and with only marginal bias if you are looking at a West Coast university as a Cal grad, I only hope that you’re looking at the north side of the bay. I’ve heard a rumor there’s another school to the South, but it’s on a farm and you really want to focus North Bay. So I’m not going to press you, but I really hope that’s where your focus is, Janet.

Janet Cowell: Yes, well, California’s an amazing state so wherever we are there we will be happy, happy.

Chris Riback: So you have not left politics, have you? Janet? Thank you. Thank you very much for your time and for the work that you’re doing. Really impressive and exciting group. Wish you the best of luck.

Janet Cowell: Thank you so much, Chris.