How to REALLY Support Women in Business

I’m talking about action-driven, hard-earned, money-where-your-mouth-is support. The kind that comes from women investing in women.
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Sallie Krawcheck
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I’m talking about action-driven, hard-earned, money-where-your-mouth-is support. The kind that comes from women investing in women.

If you’re a woman in need of a good laugh, try re-watching Working Girl on Netflix tonight — and not just for Melanie Griffith’s hair. 

Here’s the gist (spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen it): In a classic boss-steals-your-great-idea story, an administrative assistant gets revenge by exploiting her (female) senior’s absence and Rolodex to lead a giant business deal. She also steals her boss’ boyfriend for good measure.

It’s an old parable, a la All About Eve, and probably dates back to the dawn of time: Women scheming, stealing, and ruthlessly stabbing each other in the back to get a scarce position at, or at least near, the top. Setting this film within the financial industry, which has historically been dominated by men, was no mistake on the filmmakers’ part — believe me, I lived it. In fact, one of the great surprises of my professional life was when a more senior woman offered to help me navigate a new job; but then I quickly heard through the grapevine that she was gossiping (yes, gossiping!) about me and vetoing my appearing at outside conferences. It stung.

But what does a story like this tell us about women in business? Put us together in a professional setting and we’ll make it a diabolical cage match where only one winner can emerge — the other gal is completely out of game, good as dead. Women are just naturally competitive and catty like that, right?

Wrong.

While a certain level of healthy competition in the workplace can be motivating for some personality types (healthy is the operative word here), women helping women at work, in their careers, among their networks, is ultimately better — for women, for business, for sanity and productivity in any office. So why was “Queen Bee” syndrome such a problem, and why does it still linger today?

Some part of it can be the result of a standard career trajectory. When you’re young and just starting to make your mark, you’re too focused on yourself, you may feel too insecure with too much to prove, and you may believe you’re ultimately powerless to help anyone else substantively, man or woman. The worst manifestation of this, as we’ve seen in real life and movies, is a tendency to view anyone else within a 10-mile radius of your job as a threat.

So when a woman — one who was “on the front lines” during the early years of women in corporate America — did get to the top, she was usually the only woman there. She implicitly knew there was room for one, maybe two, women at the big boy table, and research shows, it could actually harm her reputation to advocate for other women.

The good news is it’s 2016 now, and we’re in a better place than that. In fact, there’s never been a better time to be a professional woman. Smart companies know that there is way more room for women at the top.

Sure, we’re still not represented in staggering or even equal numbers as CEOs, but we’re no longer an anomaly. We are also starting our own businesses more than ever, and at a rate that outpaces men. And we’re finally in a place where we can truly support each other, without worrying about our reputations or seats at the table — we can thumb our noses at the status quo.

I don’t mean the soft kind of “help and support” that’s not really practical or actionable. I’m talking about action-driven, hard-earned, money-where-your-mouth-is support. The kind that comes from women investing in women.

It’s this type of actionable support I had in mind when I bought the Ellevate Network in 2013, which is a global professional women’s network whose members help each other — thousands of them — get raises, change careers, get coaching, and start their own businesses. We’ve found that not only are these women rejecting the idea that there are limited seats at the table for them, they’ve created businesses and opportunities for women, by women. As a result, they’ve ultimately changed the calculus of the business world as we know it by working together and supporting each other.

I followed that up by founding Ellevest, an online investing platform that aims to close the gender investing gap by making investing accessible for women. We set out with the aim to flip the traditional model on its head, which (let’s face it) was built by men, for men. Women tell me that the jargon-laden investing industry doesn’t work well for them. So we set out to first help women identify their life goals, like buying a home, starting a business or raising a family, and then provide them with highly customized investment portfolios to reach those goals. Oh, and this is very important: We also build in women’s unique salary curves — women’s salaries peak sooner than men’s unfortunately, for now. Women also live longer, which is incredibly important when you’re playing a long game. This is a dramatic departure from the status quo, which put the onus on women to contort the way they think and behave with their money in order to invest in capital markets.

But I didn't want to stop there either. My proudest moment as an entrepreneur was when we recently released a funding announcement for Ellevest that featured a fearsome group of high-powered, bossed-up, female investors, including Venus Williams, (yes, that Venus Williams) Mellody Hobson, Theresia Gouw, Sonja Perkins, and more. They’re joined by other female financial powerhouses like Karen Finerman and Andrea Jung, who were part of Ellevest’s first round of funding.

Chatting with Venus at LinkedIn.

Chatting with Venus at LinkedIn.

Even if you’re not an aspiring venture capitalist with millions of bucks to invest, you can still be part of this emerging wave of investing in other women. Any of us can give another woman a real leg up at work, whether it’s fighting for her to get the promotion, or telling her about the new job that’s open, or coaching her through her “ask for the raise” meeting. And we can literally invest in women-led startups and projects. The advent of sites like Kickstarter, GoFundMe, Portfolia, and Plum Alley have made raising capital more accessible than ever, whether we are looking to pitch a project or fund one.

When I look at this progress, I feel like we’ve almost-finally made it. I say “almost” because I’m intensely focused on the gender investing gap — it’s an “everywoman” problem that I want to help solve by giving women agency and entry into the world of personal investing. I believe the 4th Wave of Feminism is all about our finances, and getting them to the same levels as the guys’. We won’t be fully equal with the guys until we are financially equal with the guys. So we have more work to do.

History always has its dark spots, and the Queen Bee era was certainly one of them. But nothing makes me feel beyond that time more than seeing women invest their money in other women and, in this case, put their money into the mouths of other women. That’s what the Ellevest mission is. It’s powerful women literally investing in a woman-led, predominantly woman-staffed company, whose sole purpose is to help other women become investors on their own terms.

That makes vague offers of “support” feel a little weak in comparison, doesn’t it?