Michelle Clayman, MBA '79, founded a New York asset management firm that now invests $6 billion. Not bad for a girl whose grandmother said her education would be wasted, that it would make her "eyeballs spin around in her head," Clayman recalled.
Later, after Clayman graduated from Oxford University, her father marveled that she, a girl, had found a job. When she quit that job to attend the Stanford Graduate School of Business, he warned against it, cautioning that she might never get another position.
Today such antiquated attitudes are almost funny, and Clayman's wry keynote speech at this year's Women in Management banquet May 3 at the Stanford Graduate School of Business suggests she doesn't take them very seriously. And yet they have left their mark.
When Clayman received an email inviting her to headline the Women in Management banquet, she demurred, replying, "Oh my gosh. Am I interesting enough?"
She hit the send key and immediately regretted it. As a frequent guest on CNBC and Bloomberg, Clayman has proven herself to be interesting. She is a pioneer in the male-dominated field of quantitative analysis in finance. In her 30s she helped found New Amsterdam Partners, the money management firm where today she is managing partner and CEO. She led a Girl Scout troupe for 17 years and is active on many boards, including Harvard Divinity School's leadership council.
But she still succumbs to moments of "girlie" modesty, she said. She gave in to similar feelings last year, when she donated $3 million to Stanford's Institute for Research on Women and Gender — now the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research. The think tank's funding had followed an unsteady pattern of "fundraising by bake sale," and Clayman saw an opportunity to help it become a formidable and permanent institution.
Then she found out the Institute's leaders wanted to put her name on it. Oh no, she told them. You can have the money, but please "don't name it for little old me."
Professors at the Institute set her straight. Putting someone's name on a think tank is about more than vanity-named institutes are more permanent and lend prestige to the professors associated with them, they told her. Furthermore, they wanted a "self-made, independent woman" to put her mark on a campus full of facilities named for men, Clayman recounted.
She relented, but it wasn't a comfortable thing to do.
"I was very concerned the Almighty would strike me down for my … pride," Clayman said.
Clayman sprinkled her speech with advice for the predominantly female audience. Don't be afraid to go against the grain, she said. Don't judge other women. Have the courage to make hard choices, and if it's not working out, have the courage to change your mind. Lead by example, and help young people coming up.
Above all, "make sure you're not being an ass," she said to the delight of the banquet hall. "It's very easy to get self righteous."
Clayman also asked the audience to remember the bravery of women who came before them. She suspects she owes her first finance job at Bank of America in London to a group of female employees that sued the company back in San Francisco.
"You have to look back through history," she said. "There are plenty of people that did do something for you."
Christiana Shi was the first woman to make partner at McKinsey & Co. while working part time for 10 years. It sounds impressive, but "it felt like I was making it up as I went," she said. "I was one bad decision away from being unemployed."
Shi, who earned her BA at Stanford in 1981, was the only woman in the office when she started at McKinsey in 1988. She was assigned to retailers and found she loved helping them take their companies to the next level.
"I had found my people," she said.
Shi soon got pregnant and went on maternity leave, and after about six weeks McKinsey started calling, asking her to return. She hadn't been back long when she saw a newspaper article about women sharing jobs at Hewlett Packard. She took it to her boss, and eventually sent her request to work part time to senior management in New York. Eventually the company said okay — she could work part time for six months.
"Six months went by and no one said anything," she said.
So she kept on working four days a week, and "honestly, I think everyone forgot I was part time," she said.
The road wasn't easy. It was a lot of saying no and setting boundaries in an "on-call, client-comes-first, service-oriented profession," she said. Now several women have made partner after working part time, but she worries about the future. As soon as the company thinks it has done enough to make life easier for women, "We see the women in our pipeline narrow down again," she said.
Shi told her story during a panel discussion on Women Paving the Way during the business school's 2007 Women in Management Banquet. She was joined by Mary Cranston, BA '69, Stanford Law '75, and senior partner at Pillsbury Madison Shaw Pittman; Beth Cross, MBA '88, and cofounder and CEO of Ariat, an equestrian footwear company; and Colleen Stone, BA '77, MBA '89, and founder and CEO of InSpa Corp., a spa chain with eight locations in Washington and California. Professor of Education Myra Strober moderated the panel.
Cranston said her family was better off for her high-powered legal career, which eventually led her to become chair of her law firm.
"If [my children had] been my major project, they would have been micromanaged into insanity," she said.
For Cranston, her career was less about defining a professional destination and more about figuring out what she liked to do. Which experiences and feelings did she enjoy? She found she loved being in charge of trials. She loved helping turn her San Francisco firm into an international force.
One of the most important things women can do for themselves is speak up, she said, whether it's in defense of women or simply participating in discussion.
"It's fundamentally disempowering to not speak up when you think you should," Cranston said.
Stone, who is hoping InSpa will become the Starbucks-of-the-day spa business, shared a few regrets with the audience. One is that she took so long to get over her desire to please other people. The other is that she never had children.
"I was always sure there would be time later," she said.
But the timing was never perfect, and soon it was too late. Young women should know that having a family is not "a choice that can be made at any time," she said.
Women at Stanford GSB and Beyond
The banquet honored retiring Professors Joanne Martin and Myra Strober, who had some parting advice for the Graduate School of Business and the world at large.
Martin, Fred H. Merrill Professor of Organizational Behavior, whose academic field is organizational culture and gender equity, became an emerita in February.
Strober, a professor of economics and a professor in the School of Education, is a labor economist and expert on women and the workplace. She made a request of the audience: Speak up when a sexist incident occurs.
"You can go quietly to the faculty member's office [but] don't let these incidents go by," she said. If you do "then they happen year after year after year."
Take a man with you, she said. Many men are allies against chauvinism.
Strober also asked the women in the audience to think hard before leaving the workforce to raise families. And if you do decide to leave, strategize your comeback before you go, she advised. Above all, don't judge women who decide to be stay-at-home moms. Instead, work to change your workplace to make it the kind of environment that encourages women to stay, she said.