Sallie Krawcheck and the Value of Women’s Networks

Krawcheck, former president of the wealth management division of Bank of America, speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in New York on Oct. 9, 2012 Photograph by Peter Foley/Bloomberg

When Gloria Steinem visited Bloomberg’s Manhattan headquarters about 18 months ago, she offered a theory on why young women rarely call themselves feminists or want to be associated with women’s issues. Youth is when a woman is at the height of her power, Steinem argued, because it’s when she’s most attractive and least threatening to men. Young women may have plenty of female friends, but their goal is rarely to help each other win; if anything, they’re competing for the same prize.

Only later, Steinem suggested, after talent, ambition, and hard work have failed to yield the same results as they do for men, do women start to feel a sense of solidarity. They see the common issues in juggling family responsibilities or fighting to get on a board, and realize the solution is in working together.

I was reminded of Steinem’s comments on May 15, after Sallie Krawcheck announced she had bought 85 Broads from founder Janet Hanson. At 48, a woman who rarely talked about gender as she rose to become one of the world’s most powerful bankers is now embracing it as a business opportunity. Krawcheck says she’s intrigued by not just the networking power of the group’s 30,000-plus members, but its investing power, too. “I’ve been struck by the opportunities to invest more in women,” she says. “Capital is the ultimate form of sponsorship.” Whether that means creating a crowdfunding platform or new venture tools will be decided in collaboration with members. (The group makes money from membership fees, partnerships, and events.)

It’s quite a departure from the path she took to become chief executive officer of Sanford C. Bernstein, chief financial officer of Citigroup, and the leader of Bank of America’s $17 billion-a-year wealth management business before being ousted in a 2011 shakeup. She’s since built something of a media brand around herself through writing, speaking, and making guest appearances on such topics as financial reform and women’s challenges in business. While Krawcheck may have downplayed gender, she felt the scrutiny of being a woman leader on Wall Street, from the discomfort of some peers to the media chronicling her wardrobe. She also came to appreciate the power that men wield through their networks, from promoting young bucks and sharing ideas to tossing business to each other.

It’s the kind of support Hanson craved when she started 85 Broads in 1997, while she was in her mid-forties. Like Krawcheck, Hanson was a star on Wall Street, becoming the first woman at Goldman Sachs to be promoted to sales management. “It was like playing for the Yankees,” she says. After taking a break to care for young children, Hanson returned to limited opportunities at Goldman and left to start her own investment firm. 85 Broads—named after the address of Goldman’s headquarters—morphed from a place to connect with fellow alumni into a network for women worldwide.

Most members are between 30 and 49, with about one-fifth in their twenties. But that may say less about Gen Y women wanting to connect with other women than 85 Broads’ focus on issues like managing teams or building new businesses. If anything, the generation raised on Facebook and LinkedIn is acutely aware of the power of networks.

Much has happened in the 18 months since Steinem spoke of a generational divide. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has launched a movement to empower young women through networks inspired by her bestseller Lean In. There’s Levo League, started by Caroline Ghosn and Amanda Pouchot to help fellow Gen Y women learn from high-powered mentors and each other. “It’s a mind-set shift,” says Ghosn, who notes that hearing Warren Buffett talk about his sisters’ limited prospects during their recent Levo Web chat drove home the novelty of these issues. “Women have had these opportunities such a short time,” says Ghosn. While women need to get better at helping other women, she adds, “we’re learning what successful practices look like.”

In some ways, Krawcheck’s move suggests the biggest change isn’t in Gen Y but in the generation above them. Krawcheck could have run another firm or taken on a lucrative advisory role. Her name was floated as a contender to run the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Meanwhile, she has built the kind of following and reputation that could morph into a lucrative content business. Instead, having succeeded by mastering the rules of a male-dominated industry, Krawcheck is now using her resources, influence, and experience to help change the game. And her goal is to not just make progress for women, but to make a profit.

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