VIDEO: Wall Street pioneer Margo Alexander on thriving against the odds

As one of the first female leaders in the global financial services sector, Margo Alexander, BS 68, spent four decades achieving exceptional success on Wall Street in the face of pervasive sexism. Now, she’s using what she learned as a financial powerbroker to cultivate entrepreneurs who serve the world’s poorest people.

“The social problems of the country are not just for the government to solve. And corporations have the levers…they can make that decision to improve [society],” says Alexander, who spoke candidly about her experiences with Interim Dean Laura Tyson in the final installment of the 2018 Dean’s Speaker Series this month.

Alexander retired in 2003 after 30 years at UBS/Paine Webber, in equity research, sales, trading and asset management, serving as chairman and CEO of UBS Global Asset Management 1995 to 2000 and chairman from 1999 to 2001.  She then spent almost a decade as board chair of Acumen—a nonprofit committed to changing the way the world tackles poverty—where she continues to serve as chair emeritus.

She’s focused on helping entrepreneurs doing business in impoverished regions of Africa and South Asia—applying many of the same tactics she used to spot talent in the corporate financial sector. “I think being an entrepreneur is hard work anywhere. But imagine in a place where there’s no electricity, the water is intermittent, the workforce is uneducated…all of the resources that you would pull together as an entrepreneur to build an organization are somewhat rickety to start with,” she said.

“What we have found about our successes over time is the most important variable is the character of the entrepreneur. They’re operating in very difficult circumstances; there’s an enormous amount of corruption; and, if these people don’t stand up in an honest, ethical way, we’ll [withdraw our support].”

Alexander, who was recently honored with a Haas Lifetime Achievement Award, exemplifies the Defining Leadership Principle Question the Status Quo. Each time she entered into a new assignment and wanted to make changes, she took care to communicate to employees what would be in it for them. She would start by saying, “Here’s what I’ve learned about our group. Here’s what we need to do better. And here’s how we’re going to do it.” Then came the benefit: “It will improve our bonus pool.”

Her strategy was to link “the broader goals with the individual performance and what that would do in terms of the firm, the team, the individual.”

Alexander was one of just 27 women in a class of 800 to graduate from Harvard Business School in 1970. It took her two years to get her first job in finance. In her last semester, she signed up for several interviews. “You’d go in, and, frequently, they would say, ‘oh, I’m sorry, we don’t hire women.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ So, then you leave. I’ve had women say to me, ‘What did you say to them?’ Nothing. I mean, it was just how things were.”

Alexander persevered through years of gender discrimination, and she believes strongly that women bring tremendous assets to corporate finance. “I actually think women can have an advantage in dealing with people. I think women are generally more open, more inclusive, and warmer.”

She had lots of advice when asked how to attract and retain top talent, especially entrepreneurs. First, she advocates for offering robust training programs and fellowships.

“When you get involved in hiring people, you’re not always right, but you get a feeling for what is it that motivates this person. Do they have ethical standards?,” she said. “I would say we do not have a magic box. But, when you find out you were wrong, we don’t sit around. We’re done.”

Watch Alexander’s full talk:

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