Even though the institutional money management firm that she runs is in New York, Michelle Clayman clings to her roots at Stanford GSB. To hear her tell it, the recipient of the school's 2008 Excellence in Leadership Award brings up her alma mater possibly a little too often in discussions with her four partners at New Amsterdam Partners LLC.
"I'm forever blathering on about Stanford to the point where their eyes roll back in their heads, and they fall over in catatonic stupors," the 1979 MBA joked with the audience gathered in New York's Rainbow Room April 2 to honor her with the award, presented by the Business School. "And they mock me for talking about us as higher life forms. When we came in from cocktails, they were razzing me because they said there weren't a lot of halos in the room."
The first woman to receive the award, Clayman has strongly supported women's issues around Stanford. She has particularly championed the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, now renamed the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research.
But the opportunity for her to even go to college, much less get an MBA, might not have happened if it weren't for World War II. Her father had left school at age 14 to go to work, but her mother ended up being evacuated from the United Kingdom to the United States during the war, and had the chance to go to college. When she returned and they began raising their children, Mom made sure the kids had the same opportunity.
For Clayman that meant attending Oxford University in England where she received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics. When she graduated, however, she was told that women in banking faced less sexual discrimination in the United States than in Britain, so she headed to America.
After Clayman worked awhile at Bank of America, a colleague started talking about business school. Two vice presidents at the California bank also encouraged her, saying they would recommend her.
"As far as they were concerned," she recalled, "there was only one business school in the world."
At Stanford, Clayman met two of the great loves of her life: computers and modern financial theory. "And they, unlike some of my loves, have stayed with me."
As it was the '70s, though, there was more than just geek-hood involved. "There are photos of me dressed as Liza Minelli," she told the audience, mentioning that along with intellectual stimulation, there were disco dances and togas and hot tubs and margaritas, as well as once dressing up as a giant artichoke. "And there are other photos—of which the less said, the better."
Clayman started working at Salomon, where in early 1980 she was asked to work in a quantitative equity research group. "A lot of my job was talking to money managers around the U.S. and in Europe about how to use quantitative methods to design investment processes," she said. "At some point the light bulb went on: Why am I showing other people how to do it? Why don't I try doing it myself?"
In 1986 she founded New Amsterdam Partners in New York, where she remains as managing partner and chief investment officer, as well as being a frequent commentator for CNBC, Bloomberg, and other financial media.
And her connection with Stanford remains strong, especially the lessons in how to approach situations. "There isn't a week that goes by that I don't use something that I learned from my MBA."
Clayman has been particularly energized from her work with the Women's Initiative Network, formed to help female students and alumnae.
"It's made me feel as if I'm 25 again," Clayman joked with her New York audience. "It almost makes me want to put on that giant artichoke costume."
By Dave Murphy