Goldman Sachs Alumnae: Power Moves Edition

pictured top row: Jacki Zehner, Deborah Jackson    bottom row: Janet Hanson, Sharon Meers

By Jessica M. Pasko

Wall Street has long had a reputation for being something of a boys’ club, but there are a few exceptions. Years ago, Goldman Sachs established its Goldman Sachs University program with the intent of helping its employees grow professionally, and it’s become something of a training ground for many powerful women.

In particular, powerful women who have built powerful organizations for other women who haven't done time on Wall Street. In fact, alumnae - or rather, refugees - of that firm are responsible for some big firsts and progress: an early professional women's network (85 Broads), the first women's e-commerce and crowdfunding site (Plum Alley), and an organization which has raised tens of millions of dollars for women's causes (Women Moving Millions).

Sharon Meer, who now works as head of Magento Enterprise Strategy at eBay, calls working at Goldman Sachs "a phenomenal bootcamp."

"I was privileged to have experienced, smart, well-intentioned people who have faith that given the right incentives, people will do the right thing,” said Meer, co-author of the book "Getting to 50/50: How Working Couples Can Have It All by Sharing It All." Her how-to had the honor of being mentioned in Sheryl Sandberg's best-selling "Lean In." Meer says, "A good thing about women who have been in a highly male environment – we know how to work with men, we’ve lived in the company of men, and we have strong views that men can be allies as we saw that in our success."

When Jacki Zehner was invited into the partnership at Goldman Sachs, she was the youngest woman and the first female trader to do so. She first joined the firm in 1988, and spent the bulk of her career there in mortgage-backed trading before leaving in 2002 to become a founding partner of Circle Financial Group, a private wealth management operation. Zehner later formed her own consulting practice in Park City, Utah, and serves on a variety of boards, including The Sundance Institute and the Thirty Percent Coalition. Currently, she serves as CEO of Women Moving Millions, a non-profit organization dedicated to mobilizing big zero resources for women and girls.

"[Goldman Sachs] was an incredible place to be trained," said Zehner.  "A lot of it is who you work for, and at Goldman Sachs, there was an incredible overall commitment to your professional development."

A number of other powerful women who have worked their way up through the ranks at Goldman Sachs have reached high standing within the company and in the investment banking field overall. Three women from Goldman Sachs were named on "Business Insider"’s first-ever list of the 25 Most Powerful Women on Wall Street in 2013. That included Abby Joseph Cohen, senior U.S. investment strategist for the firm, who joined in 1990 after starting her career as an economist with the Federal Reserve Board. It also included Edith Cooper, executive vice president and global head of human capital management for the firm, a position she’s held since 2008. Rounding out the Business Insider list for Goldman Sachs was the firm’s CIO, Sharmin Mossavar-Rhamini, who joined the firm as a partner in 1993. "American Banker" has also lauded the women of Goldman Sachs, including Isabelle Ealet, the firm’s co-head of securities and number seven on the publication’s list of the 25 most powerful women in banking.

For Deborah Jackson, who spent the decade of 1980 to 1990 at Goldman Sachs, the idea of making sure you work with the best and the brightest is a lesson she learned at the firm that’s stuck with her. She’s used that and the concept of cultivating business principles – and sticking with them – in her subsequent work, she said. Currently, Jackson is founder and CEO of Plum Alley, an e-commerce and crowdsourcing organization for women.

Though she says Goldman Sachs was very different in 1980 than it is today, Jackson said she learned a lot there from the "strong culture of teamwork."

Back then, investment banking was in a period of rapid growth, and Wall Street was a hot spot for new business school graduates.

At Goldman Sachs, "it was about hitting the ground running," she said. "You learned on the job – there was no official training program – it was a pretty great ride."  

Janet Hanson spent 14 years as a GS executive before founding 85 Broads, a professional women’s networking organization named after the address of Goldman Sachs’ former headquarters. That organization was  actually bought by fellow banking veteran Sallie Krawcheck. Hanson said in an email to VITAMIN W, " It was a very entrepreneurial culture which is about as good as it gets!".

Still, the firm has been criticized in the past by some who argued the atmosphere was akin to a "fraternity on steroids," according to a 2012 "Atlantic" article.

Three female former employees sued the firm in 2010, alleging gender discrimination. In the complaint, the three women – two of whom had been executives – claimed that Goldman intentionally paid its male employees more than their female counterparts, promoted men more frequently, and engaged in a persistent pattern of bias that resulted in women being underrepresented in the firm’s management ranks. It also included claims of being subjected to sexual harassment from male employees that went unchecked. The suit is still in arbitration in federal court, with briefings scheduled for this year.

Still, that experience seems to be the exception, not the rule.

Janet Hanson spent 14 years as a GS executive before founding 85 Broads, a professional women’s networking organization named after the address of Goldman Sachs’ former headquarters. She told the "New York Times" that the lawsuit isn’t indicative of most Goldman women professionals.

"For every woman at Goldman Sachs who feels she has been treated unfairly, I will find a thousand who don’t feel that way," Hanson told the Times in 2010. "Unfortunately, the people muzzled in a situation like this are the women who work there but can’t talk to the press, but if you asked them if they loved their jobs and are treated equally, the vast, vast majority would say yes."

Jessica M. Pasko is a journalist based in the San Francisco Bay area who has previously written for the Troy Record, the New York Post, ArtNews magazine, the Santa Cruz Sentinel and numerous other publications. She spent more than four years working for the Associated Press in New York state, where she helped cover such stories as the resignation of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer amid a prostitution scandal and a mass shooting that occurred in Binghamton. She later earned a master's degree in media strategy and leadership from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Politics, crime and legal issues have been the backbone of her journalism career, but she is also an amateur foodie and an avid dog lover with perpetual wanderlust. She's also a social media maven . Follow her @jmpasko96.