How Female Investors Are Steering Start-Ups and Changing Wall Street’s Culture

Female leaders in the world of Wall Street and private investment firms have been few and far between for as long as stock tickers have been humming in lower Manhattan.

But female-led hedge fund launches and other prominent startup ventures during the past 18 months are making big waves across one of the oldest of old-boy networks. The rising stars of high finance are increasingly women who have paid their dues at established firms. Female-driven investment ventures are in high demand amid the national focus on gender equality issues and the ongoing parade of #MeToo revelations.

Prominent startups this year alone include activist investment vehicle Impactive Capital, headed by Lauren Taylor-Wolfe, an alum of the $3 billion Blue Harbour Group fund; Snowcat Capital, run by Rebecca Pacholder, late of Omega Advisors; and Martlet Asset Management, led by former Paamco Prisma co-CEO Jane Buchan. 

Erin Bellissimo, a 30-year financial industry veteran who is managing director of the Institute for Global Investing at the University of Notre Dame, says the momentum for female-led investment vehicles is strong, but the real test will be whether they command long-term institutional support from pillars of the financial world.

“They’re only going to be as successful as people are willing to invest in them,” Bellissimo says. “The endowments, the foundations, the venture capitalists, private equity — all of them are going to have to take a chance and understand that in the same way they want diversity in their portfolio in terms of asset classes, they need diversity in the points of view about investing. And I think women bring that to the table.” 

The spike in the number of women leading firms and rising to prominence at Wall Street giants is long overdue. In the U.S., women account for more than half, or 54.5%, of all those employed in the financial services and insurance sector, according to data for 2018 provided by Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization. But women account for only 18% of executive committee members at such firms and only 12.2% of chief financial officer roles at the largest global financial services firms.

Bellissimo notes that less than 10% of the world’s assets under private management are managed by women. Supporting female leadership in investing is not just the right thing to do from a social and cultural perspective; it’s also good business. Study after study has demonstrated that female-led funds tend to get higher and steadier returns because of a focus on long-term and value investing. 

“To the extent that women who are running these funds can raise large sums of money, it’ll be great for those organizations and the people that work for them, and it’ll be great for the marketplace to have a different perspective that is more long term and more patient,” she says.

These days, the surest sign of a significant trend on Wall Street is when it shows up on “Billions.” Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the showrunners behind the Wall Street-set series, are known for keeping close tabs on the pulse of movers and shakers in the global investment community. 

So it was fitting that the Showtime drama introduced a savvy female investor and entrepreneur character, Rebecca Cantu (played by Tony winner Nina Arianda), who was more than ready to hold her own against Damian Lewis’ hedge fund billionaire Bobby Axelrod in the hunt for deals. The two also had a romantic relationship, but the storyline made clear that Cantu was as tough and cunning as Axelrod when it came to business.

“We wanted someone who was verbally dexterous and powerful, with super energy and sparkling intelligence in the eyes,” Levien says of the character. “She is someone who is Axe’s equal in every way.”

Koppelman and Levien have made a point of meeting with powerful female investors to gain perspective on the world that their characters inhabit. Boldface personalities like Spanx investor Sara Blakely (who had a cameo on “Billions” last year) and serial entrepreneur Lori Greiner (now known as a judge for “Shark Tank”) have been of interest to the showrunners for some time.

Koppelman said women they’ve met with have not been shy about explaining why they often make better investment decisions than men.

“One woman told us that women are more intuitive than men because they’ve been forced to listen more when men are talking,” Koppelman says. “She told us flat-out that women are now using their natural abilities to usurp and arrive at positions of power.’” 

(Pictured: The rising profile of women investors and entrepreneurs is reflected in TV shows like “Billions,” starring Nina Arianda.)

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