Inspirational Woman of the Week: Nicole Pullen-Ross

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the Drexel Women in Business – May Tea featuring keynote speaker Nicole Pullen-Ross. The event brought together women from a variety of backgrounds and majors to discuss how to be successful in business. The group shared some similar concerns including how to find an effective work life balance, how to be taken seriously and how to move up the corporate ladder.

After earning an undergrad degree in accounting from Hampton University, Nicole Pullen-Ross started her career at JPMorgan doing financial reporting and analysis. She later went on to receive an MBA at Columbia University and is currently the Managing Director at Goldman Sachs. She leads their Private Wealth Management team for the entire Mid-Atlantic Region, a team responsible for managing over $20 billion dollars in assets. Nicole’s story should serve as great inspiration for young women who are hoping to start a successful career in business.

Pullen-Ross shared a quote that inspires her and she believes to be relevant for young women in business. Dianna Nyad, a long-distance swimmer famous for her extremely long open water swims, is quoted as saying,

I am willing to put myself through anything; temporary pain or discomfort means nothing to me as long as I can see that the experience will take me to a new level. I am interested in the unknown, and the only path to the unknown is through breaking barriers, an often-painful process.

Although Nicole’s challenges are a little different, she has been breaking down equally difficult barriers since the beginning of her career. Not only is she a successful business women in the male dominated field of investment banking, but she is the first African-American to hold the position of Managing Director at Goldman Sachs. She stresses the importance of changing the corporate world to suit women’s needs, not the other way around. Women need to ‘redefine the game’ – a game that has been largely defined by men in the past.

Nicole pointed out that Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean in’ movement and The Atlantic’s articles discussing women’s ability to “have it all” are elevating the conversation about women’s role in the professional world. These conversations are reinventing and rethinking the way we approach women’s issues in the workplace, and she thinks this emphasis is a great sign for the future business world. Firms are changing their ways to be more female-friendly, but they are only changing because women are demanding it, and we need to continue doing so.

Pullen-Ross believes that Goldman Sachs is one of the best firms in the world for women, but there is still an enormous amount of progress to be made. At a ‘fireside chat’ in New York City, Goldman execs met with women to discuss their issues, an event that demonstrates the firm’s focus on retaining women. However, this group of women quickly realized that there is a surprising lack of women in middle management. It seems that the firm is having a difficult time retaining women long term and only a small portion is making it to the top of the corporate ladder, leaving a gap in the middle. I imagine this problem exists at many other companies in the industry and is something the next generation of women will have to work on improving.

Pullen-Ross shared a personal story about her own children that demonstrates the importance of inspiring women. At a volunteer event, a coordinator asked her children, a boy and a girl, if they were able to teach the other children how to make friendship bracelets. Her son immediately raised his hand and said “I can do it! But what’s a friendship bracelet?” Her daughter, on the other hand, said she’s made bracelets before but they never come out perfect. Even though her daughter was better suited for this job than her brother, she sold herself short and underestimated her abilities. Nicole stressed that we need to talk to young girls about “the unlimited nature of what they can accomplish“to build self-confidence in young girls. Only with confidence can girls fulfill their full potential and progress in their careers.

Working in a male dominated industry, Nicole is no stranger to discrimination. A student asked her how she copes with the pressure when she walks into a meeting as the only woman in the room. Nicole responded, “You mean like every day?” She said that this is part of working in her industry and that she doesn’t notice it at this point in her career. She urged women to take a seat at the table and make thoughtful additions to the conversation. She said you can see the surprise on some men’s faces when they realize that she is able to contribute to the group. She joked about men constantly walking past her when looking for the Managing Director, only to realize that they walked right past the woman in charge.

These challenges can make the business world a difficult place for women to navigate, so she advised women to build a support system early on in your career. This support system is like your own personal “board of directors” and this board should be made up of sponsors and mentors who are willing to help you be strategic about your career. She said that her own support system is a mixture of her peers and her superiors, all people who are willing to give her constructive criticism and take her call when she needs advice.

Read more about Nicole Pullen-Ross at The Glass Hammer.

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