As someone who graduated with honors and a degree in finance, started her career in investment banking and had longstanding dreams of a corner office in a Manhattan high rise, I probably would have laughed if you would have told me I’d be running my own business one day. Truth be told, after seeing my own father stay up late at night worrying about cash flow, staying in cheap hotels to save a few bucks, and working weekends in the early days of building his own company, entrepreneurship was never something I glamorized.
But, like my father, I was frustrated by the dynamics of the corporate work environment. As an analyst at JPMorgan’s investment bank at a time when a position on Wall Street was among the most sought-after jobs in the world, I was convinced that I would build a career there. I was starting my path to that corner office, and nothing was going to get in my way.
I worked hard, wrapping my entire life into that job. My closest friends were the two women who worked in our group of almost-entirely men. We ate dinner five nights a week at the office, and my social life consisted of the occasional group happy hour. Even my parents commented one Thanksgiving that I had become “boring,” talking about nothing outside of work. I had my eye on the prize, misdirected as it was.
After securing two meetings with CFOs at large companies, I was told the only reason they had agreed to meet was because they probably didn’t have the heart to reject a girl.
In spite of my mental commitment, and the hours I poured into “the Bank,” as we called it, because in our minds it was the only one, I found my career stagnate. I was told in an annual review that I needed more “swagger.” When I raised my hand to be included in more senior level meetings, I was challenged to set some up and then I’d be invited to attend. After securing two meetings with CFOs at large public companies, I was told the only reason they had agreed to meet was because they probably didn’t have the heart to reject a girl. When my female colleague and I would talk about anything unrelated to work, we’d be asked to move our sorority meeting elsewhere. Never mind that the men poured through every sports stat on a daily basis in that very space. There were countless lunches, dinners, and even strip club outings where every single man in our group would get up and leave together, unannounced, while I’d stay behind with the admins because there were no other women around. I could go on an on, but you get the gist.
And so, recognizing that this was a work environment that was more about who you bonded with than what you accomplished, I decided to quit. I secured a job at Goldman Sachs, and informed my managing directors of my plans to leave. I was immediately called by our national team lead, who personally asked me to stay. I let him know that I was up for promotion next year and had no guaranteed commitment from the Bank, and that Goldman was offering me a long-term position, not to mention a higher salary. He told me that while he couldn’t guarantee anything in writing (insert red flag here), he could beat the pay offered at Goldman and “barring any f*ck up,” I would be promoted in nine months.
For the first time at that job, I felt truly valued. I had been given a raise, asked to stay by people at the most senior levels, and appreciated. I accepted the offer and respectfully declined the job at Goldman.
Nine months later, I sat in my car in the parking garage, sobbing. You can guess how that promotion offer went…
In hindsight, I should have seen the writing on the wall much earlier. Our culture was one that was built in strip clubs and golf carts, not through collaboration on projects and celebrations of deals closed or shared disappointment in deals lost. I was never meant for that corner office.
That complete and utter rejection, betrayal, and disappointment quickly converted into action, and I made the decision to start my own company. Never again would I put my fate into the hands of others, because try as we might to reduce workplace bias and implement corporate mentorship programs, either a culture of inclusion exists at the top, or it doesn’t.
I learned a lot from that experience. I learned that friends in the workplace are different than advocates in the workplace. I was friends with my entire team at JPMorgan. We attended each others weddings, had drinks together and shared countless ridiculous memories. I’m still friends with many of them today, thirteen years later. I wouldn’t rely on a single one of them to help push my career forward.
I learned that friends in the workplace are different than advocates in the workplace.
I learned that a shared vision is paramount in a workplace. If a team isn’t aligned on a group goal, the culture will be toxic. We all knew our goal was to close deals, but there was never discussion around adding real value to our clients. We threw around words like being a “trusted adviser” all the time, but as an analyst I had no idea what that actually meant. I simply knew that my job was to run discounted cash flow models and determine whether an acquisition would be accretive or dilutive. When there isn’t alignment on a common goal (and shared reward for achieving that goal), it becomes every man and woman for themselves.
I learned that a smile and a handshake mean nothing. If someone is committed to an agreement, they’ll be comfortable enough to put it in writing. When there is friction around forming a contract, walk away.
I learned that no employee should be underestimated, no matter how senior or junior they may be. From the parking attendant to the CEO, every single employee plays a role in building a supportive work environment. Everyone provides insight into making the company better, and that insight should be heard.
I believe change will happen. I’m an eternal optimist, as I’ve been told countless times, both as a compliment and critique. I am encouraged by the work of Melinda Gates, who used her stage at SXSW to talk about ways to create more inclusive work environments. I’m encouraged by Jamie Dimon, who publicly addressed diversity issues at JPMorgan and made a commitment to improve the numbers. But mostly, I’m encouraged by the thousands of entrepreneurs we get to support through HelloAlice, who have left outdated, exclusive work environments to build a new model of inclusivity. Instead of working their way to the top, they are starting at the top and hiring teams that look, and think, like the diverse world that we live in.
Innovation and disruption are the catalyst for startup growth around the world, and there’s no reason why that change shouldn’t include a shift in the workplace itself. We’ve pulled together some of our favorite resources on Alice to support this change toward inclusivity and diversity, and encourage you to share your own in the comments below. Let’s quit trying to level the playing field and build our own.