Grubstakers and Moneymakers: Sarah Lawrence Women in Finance

written by Scott Shindell · illustrations by nancy zink white

Who said you need to get your start in business school or wear a power tie to succeed on Wall Street? Here we give you seven women—graduates from the class of '42 to the class of '98—who went from the dance studios, writing workshops, and round-table seminars of Sarah Lawrence into the bottom-line world of modern finance. Some sit in the corner office, a few have retired, and others grind it out among the number crunchers. How did they break in, and why did they try? What do they do all day, and how high have they climbed? And finally, how's the view from the top, from middle management, and the customer service desk? Pretty good, it seems, if you have the right perspective.

Home Schooled: Diana Schubart Heller '42

“So, what did the market do today, dear?" Thus began the financial education of Diana Schubart Heller '42, one of the industry's pioneers. Her classroom was the family dinner table, her father served as tutor, and the lesson plan was always the same. Heller's father, William Howard Schubart, was a world-renowned financial expert at the old Bank of Manhattan, so whenever her parents would talk about his day, little Diana would listen. "I learned how to invest the same way that I ate cereal every morning," said Heller. "I was brought up on it."

Even though Heller would go on to a long and successful career in investments, she didn't study economics or finance at Sarah Lawrence. Instead she studied dance with a number of modern dance legends, including Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham.

"I danced so much," she recalled, "I'd have to walk down the stairs backward to keep my calf muscles from stiffening."

After graduating and serving in the Navy during World War II, Heller worked as a dance instructor at the Donald Sawyer Dance Studio in New York. She also continued her studies in ballet and tap, and intended to keep dancing and teaching, but a divorce from her husband—leaving her with two teenage boys to support—forced her to accept a more lucrative position when one suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

“My mother,” said Heller, “had an account at the investment firm of Kuhn, Loeb and Co., and she wanted to meet with them and see if her account could provide a little more income. But my mother didn’t know two from four, so she asked me to come with her and explain things to her. So I did, and the meeting was very nice, no problems.”

Heller’s explanations, however, must have been something special, because the next day she got a call from Kuhn, Loeb and Co.: “How would you like to work for us?” She accepted, and this professional dancer started to manage investments. Her father must have been a good tutor.

Heller did well at Kuhn Loeb, but when it was bought by Lehman Brothers, “they wanted me like they wanted two heads,” she recalled. Such firms were then almost exclusively male, and “they didn’t know what do with me. They put me at a desk behind the secretaries. Finally they gave me an office overlooking the Statue of Liberty. I had a couple of very prestigious clients. I did all right.”

When asked what it was like to be one of the few women in the industry, she responded, “I’d attend meetings and it was all men sitting around the table. I think it knocked out their cigars.” Fortunately, she had a boss who supported her. “He once gave me a great piece of advice: ‘Never pick up a coffee cup.’ ”

Heller also knew her strengths and weaknesses. Since she had no formal financial education, her investment approach was unorthodox. “I never did anything standardized,” she said. “I’d go by my gut. It’s called ‘common sense.’ Does it make sense or doesn’t it?”

Years later, Heller joined the Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. as a vice president, where she managed the investments of a number of high-profile accounts. In 1991 she left Morgan but continued, until just recently, to manage accounts from her home.

Today, she is fully retired but still keeps a close eye on the markets, and always has an answer for anyone who asks, “So, what did the market do today, dear?”

The Calculator: Courtney McKenna '91

Courtney McKenna ’91 wanted to break into the financial services industry, and her job interview was going well—until the fellow on the other side of the desk asked where she went to college.

“Sarah Lawrence,” she answered.

“Sarah Lawrence!” he blurted. “Do you even know how to use a calculator?”

McKenna did indeed know how, having fine-tuned this skill (and many others) while studying economics with Charlotte Price. She was well prepared for Wall Street and got the job.

Today, McKenna still uses her calculator, but now she’s a vice president and head of program trading at Iridian Asset Management, a subsidiary of the Bank of Ireland. Program trading is a sophisticated investment technique that uses computers and mathematical algorithms to manage the risks associated with the sale and purchase of large quantities of equities (usually stocks). McKenna specializes in the health care and financial services industries. “I monitor news and trends in my sectors,” she explained, looking for “situations where opportunity exists due to a change in the company or industry.”

When she identifies an opportunity for one of her clients, she never pounces on it. Nor does she dawdle. “It’s not okay to freeze like a deer in the headlights when faced with a million-share order,” she said. “Instead, I have to form a plan of action and methodically and confidently execute that plan. Markets move, and I can’t be afraid of the trade. If I do my homework, act professionally, and use the wide array of tools at my disposal, I make a successful trade.”

“My job has a wonderful sense of urgency,” she continued. “There is a winner and a loser on each trade, and the idea is to come out on top. It is by no means a game, but there is a definite sense of victory when I beat the market and save my client money.”

Looking back on her time at Sarah Lawrence with Charlotte Price, McKenna realized that it was “a great backdrop to working on Wall Street. To this day I apply theories that she taught me to current economic events that I need to interpret.”

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