Warren Buffett's Career Tips to Young Women

Buffett at the May 4 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in Omaha Photograph by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

A relaxed Warren Buffett sat down on May 7 with Levo League co-founder Caroline Ghosn to share his advice on how to build a rewarding career. Along with the usual counsel to follow one’s passion and work hard, Buffett credited the Dale Carnegie course with having changed his life and said he expects to be impressed by Chelsea Clinton when they meet in a few days.

In many ways, watching Buffett dispense wisdom to the twentysomething women who make up much of Levo’s base is to witness him at his best: the decency, optimism, wisdom, and wit that have made him such a revered investor. But several of his statements also show why the Sage of Omaha is oblivious to some of the challenges these women face, from negotiating pay to finding a job that will reward the soul and support a family—or at least pay down their college debt.

Buffett was at his best when sharing personal stories, such as having signed up for the Dale Carnegie course after college to combat his terror of public speaking. As if that weren’t hard enough, he then applied to teach at the University of Omaha because, as he told Ghosn in the live-streamed chat, ”I was very worried I would lapse back.” The Berkshire Hathaway chairman and chief executive officer also spoke fondly of his friend and former Washington Post chief, the late Katharine Graham, and recommended her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography as a must-read for young women. Graham’s continued lack of confidence in the face of her notable achievements still perplexes Buffett. It’s one reason he supports the “lean in” philosophy of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, herself an investor in Levo League, and why he’s now trying to help young women get opportunities that his generation never had.

That said, Buffett also unwittingly demonstrated the uniqueness of being Warren Buffett. It’s not just that he hangs out with presidents, or that his online bridge partner is former world champion Sharon Osberg. Few of his viewers could hope to work with the same business partner for 54 years, as Buffett has with Charlie Munger. Most won’t have read every investment book in their local library by the age of 11, or continue to enthusiastically work full-time at the age of 82. By the time they make their first $1 billion, most titans would have moved out of the stucco house they bought back in the 1950s. Not Warren Buffett. When he says he could “easily” live on $100,000 a year, you believe him. His simple lifestyle is part of the appeal.

Amid Buffett’s nuggets of wisdom, though, were some life lessons best seen as relics of the last century. Take, for example, his anecdote about accepting a job before knowing what it would pay. In fact, he said he learned the salary only after he got his first paycheck. Maybe Buffett can move his family across the country without bothering to hammer out such details—or having his partner demand a bit more information—but that’s not a winning strategy for the rest of us. When study after study shows that women’s discomfort with negotiating raises leads to lower paychecks, having Warren Buffett dismiss its importance hardly helps. And while bringing your boss corn and tomatoes may impress him when his name is Warren Buffett, no women needs to hear the path to the C-suite is paved with snacks.

Young women have plenty to learn from Buffett. There’s much to admire in his passion, discipline, and decades of performance. That said, there’s much they can learn from Caroline Ghosn, too. As the daughter of Nissan/Renault chief Carlos Ghosn, she could have the kind of comforts that Buffett now enjoys. Instead, after studying economics and international relations at Stanford University, she went to McKinsey & Co. for a few years before starting Levo League with a co-worker named Amanda Pouchot. Together, they’ve built a fast-growing network to help Gen Y women like themselves get the kind of jobs, skills, and support that have long proven effective for men.

Buffett is right to suggest that every young woman (and man) should read Kay Graham’s poignant 1998 biography, Personal History. Its value is not so much in being a career guide–most Millennial women won’t get thrust into a CEO’s job after a husband’s suicide, or be able to separate the years of being a mother from years of being at work. But they’ll learn a lot about the attitudes, external and internal, that helped to shape the destinies of the women in Buffett’s generation. Hopefully, they’ll learn from that history and recognize its limits in trying to navigate a new era.

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