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Harvard to Lehman to Queens: A Woman’s Guide to Balancing Banks

Sara Grillo
Sara Grillo, co-manager of hedge fund adviser Diamond Oak Capital Advisors LLC. Grillo graduated from Harvard and received her MBA from NYU in 2007. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Work in a bar. That was a friend’s suggestion for Harvard graduate Sara Grillo after she was laid off from Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in 2008. Two years later, the hedge-fund analyst is campaigning to get more women into top financial jobs.

Grillo, 32, who co-manages hedge fund advisor Diamond Oak Capital Advisors LLC, found herself among 225,000 unemployed finance workers that year as the subprime market collapsed. Dismayed by friends’ suggestions that she quit finance, Grillo vowed to help more women join the industry, setting a goal of raising the proportion of women Chartered Financial Analysts to 50 percent from the current 19 percent.

“If I were a tall, broad shouldered, gray-haired, 50-year-old man with the same credentials, nobody would have suggested I take a job for less than one eighth of my salary,” said Grillo in a telephone interview from her home in Queens, New York City. “I’m a CFA charterholder and I always look women right in the face and tell them that if I did it, they can do it as well.”

Of the some 90,000 CFA charter recipients worldwide, 19 percent are women, according to CFA Institute figures. In the Americas the percentage is 18 percent, while in Europe the proportion falls to 17 percent. Asia-Pacific has the highest ratio at 25 percent.

Stern and Harvard

Grillo’s efforts to balance the numbers include lobbying and giving motivational speeches. Her most personal approach, though, is to mentor 20 people, some from New York University’s Stern School of Business where she got her MBA in 2007, or Harvard University where she read English Literature, or the New York Society of Security Analysts, the local chapter of the CFA Institute.

“One of the women I met on the subway in Queens,” Grillo said. “She was having a really tough time with a guy giving her trouble and I looked at her and I said, ‘look, you don’t need this guy. You can do so much better than this. Now let me teach you about stocks.’”

Another is Nan Zhao, 25, whom Grillo met after offering an internship for Diamond Oak on LinkedIn’s website. Zhao, from Shi Jiazhuang City, Hebei Province in China, moved to the U.S. in 2007 to study.

“Looking for a job in finance after the financial crisis was already really difficult because of all the layoffs,” Zhao said in a telephone call from San Francisco, where she gained an MBA at San Francisco State University in December. “Because I don’t have any experience and because I’m also a foreigner here it was even harder. It was always deny, deny, deny.”

Index Building

Zhao, who passed the second level of the three-part CFA exam in June, is one of five interns working for Diamond Oak. She corresponds with Grillo via e-mail or telephone and is helping to build an index of hedge funds, she said.

“Sara is teaching me how to apply my knowledge, how to become a businesswoman and a professional,” Zhao said.

The CFA Institute, a not-for-profit association, traces its roots back to the establishment of the Financial Analysts Federation in 1947, according to its website. The first examinations were administered in 1963 to 278 men and 6 women. By 1985 the proportion of female CFA holders had grown to 11 percent, and by 1996, 18 percent, according to the Institute’s website.

John Rogers, president and chief executive officer of the Charlottesville, Virginia-based CFA Institute, declined to comment for this story, said Terry Lee, an Asia-Pacific spokesman based in Hong Kong.

Harvard Speech

To reach as many women as possible, Grillo gives inspirational speeches at NYSSA and may offer them at Harvard in the next semester, she said. She has been asked to teach a finance class for undergraduates at Marymount Manhattan College in September as an Adjunct Professor.

One challenge women face in the finance industry is that people often judge them by their looks, Grillo said.

“I’m athletic and I eat well and I don’t have any wrinkles or grey hair,” she said. “It’s a huge problem in finance because I go to these meetings and I really stand out. It’s difficult for me to get credibility and to build trust because I look like a teenage girl.”

Grillo’s business partner Eric Hansen established Diamond Oak in June 2009 to provide customized Fund of Funds analysis. Grillo joined in February. She had planned to start a microcap fund earlier this year, an ambition that had its roots seven years earlier in a jewelry shop.

Metal Choice

Grillo said she and her boyfriend were faced with a choice between a platinum, gold or silver engagement ring. He said he didn’t care which one she chose so long as it was the cheapest. Grillo did care, so she dumped him and invested the money for the wedding in Commercial Metals Co. a small-cap stock that made her as much as 300 percent in profit.

As her career in finance developed, she became determined to gain her CFA to gain credibility and recognition in the industry.

“I wanted those letters after my name so badly,” she said. “If it took me 80 years, it was going to say, ‘Sara Grillo, CFA’ on my tombstone.”

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