Powerful Women in Finance Roundtable Shows Diverse Paths to Success


Three highly accomplished women demonstrated Thursday at The College of New Rochelle that while there are a multitude of paths to and definitions of success, it always requires passion and drive.

Math skills also help, at least when it comes to the world of finance, according to Suni P. Harford, Peyton Patterson, and Carla Harris. The three took part in the Powerful Women in Finance roundtable discussion at Maura Hall, moderated by Elizabeth Bracken-Thompson.

"How did you all do in math?" was Bracken-Thompson's first question at the packed event.

Harford, Managing Director and Regional Head of Markets for North America Citigroup Inc., said she had enjoyed the subject from the beginning. "I don't know why," she said. "I also loved physics in high school," and she's glad her daughter is taking advanced phyics now, considering the importance of science and technology careers and the need for more women in those fields.

Patterson, president and CEO of Bankwell Financial Group and the force behind the largest banking IPO in U.S. history, recalled that her economics professor at Kenyon "told me I wasn't doing particularly well."

But that's all in the past, as her passion as a CEO is the numbers. "They tell stories," she said. "It may have taken 22 years to get a handle on the numbers ... it was a slow start but I caught up."

Harris, Vice Chairman, Wealth Management Senior Client Advisor, Managing Director at Morgan Stanley, said math was her favorite subject as a child, a skill that came in handy. At age 13, Harris was keeping the books for her grandmother, who was an "entrepreneur extraordinaire," whose success also allowed her to make loans to others in the community.

President Judith Huntington, who worked for the accounting firm KPMG for 15 years before joining the College as Vice President for Financial Affairs, introduced the three panelists. "I'm thrilled to cover a topic near and dear to my heart," she said.

Asked about "game-changing moments" in their careers, the three shed insight into issues that in some ways can be unique to women.

Harford recalled the time her name didn't appear on a list of promotions at her Wall Street firm. "I was furious," she said -- so mad that she called her boss into his office. "I can't believe you didn't promote me," she said.

"His jaw dropped, literally," Harford said. "And he said, 'I had no idea you wanted to be promoted.'"

It's sometimes true that women expect to be noticed, Harford said, but she learned the importance of speaking up.

Harris' "aha" moment came when a colleague told her, "I don't think you're tough enough for this business."

"The last thing you want to be thought of as a woman on Wall Street is not tough," Harris said. The comment made her realize that even though she was tough, it wasn't being communicated to the people around her.

Bracken-Thompson tried to ascertain whether family roles had any correlation with success, and asked whether the three panelists were the oldest or youngest among their siblings.

Harris said she did put some stock into the notion that only children like her, as well as eldest children, tend to be more Type A personalities, as there's more direct information transfer from parent to child.

Patterson was also an only child, raised by a single mother who traveled the world working for the U.S. State Department, she said this did help her learn to fend for herself.

Her mother encouraged her in other ways, even later in life. Once, her she told Patterson, "I want you to know that you really should be president of a bank someday." Patterson, then an executive vice president, protested that she was already pretty succesful and asked why she needed to become a bank president.

Her mother replied, "I've been telling my friends for two years that you are one."

Harford couldn't make it three-for-three, as she was the fourth out of five children. But having three older brothers may have helped her learned to stand up for herself, she said. Harford also mentioned that her father saw great things in her future, telling everyone that she'd be president of the United States.

The three also differed on a question that has been asked a lot as of late: can a woman have it all?

"It depends on your definition of 'it,'" Harford said. "There's no such thing as work-life balance." Her success has required a few compromises -- "I've missed a lot of birthdays. I'm the mom who shows up at the bake sale with bought goods."

But Harford says she's happy, and her three kids are happy. "You have to pick what's most important to you."

Patterson said she does believe in work-life balance -- she's very disciplined about the amount of time she spends on work.

Harris agreed, in a way, with both her co-panelists. "I do believe you can have it all," she said, "but you have to define what 'all' is for you. Understand what happiness looks like for you."

Harris, whose passions outside of finance include gospel singing, said that balancing life and work "will help you fire on all cylinders."

(Photo: Carla Harris, right, answers a question as Suni P. Harford and Peyton Patterson look on.)