Photo: Courtesy of Ida John on www.futureofbusinessandtech.com
When you think about Wall Street, do you envision men and women of all ages, sizes, ethnicities, sexual orientations? The majority of people would say no. Just like the stock market, which continues to do well despite the pandemic and civil unrest, Wall Street, too, remains out of touch with reality.
“A market is not a democracy, reflecting worldly concerns about inequality or race. It is a dollar-weighted counting machine, where investors’ views are weighted by how much money they have to invest,” Aswath Damodaran, a professor of finance at NYU’s Stern School of Business, said in a recent Bloomberg article. And, as the world works, most people with pockets deep enough to invest are white — making the stock market unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, immune to the pandemic and the racially-charged protests. While the picture of the financial sector remains that of Leonardo di Caprio saying, “There is no nobility in poverty” while standing in a room full of men in suits who look just like him, that picture is slowly starting to change. Currently leading the charge is Lauren Simmons, dubbed the Wolfette of Wallstreet.
At the age of 22, Simmons became the youngest trader and only full-time woman at the New York Stock Exchange, as well as only the second African American woman to hold that position in its 228-year history (Forbes). Simmons did not have a background in finance. In fact, she had a degree in genetics and a minor in statistics from Kennesaw State University. But like many young people with dreams of making it big and changing the world, Simmons wanted to live in New York and start fresh on a completely different career path. Through rigorous networking, she was offered a job at Rosenblatt Securities. But the job wouldn’t be hers until she took the Series 19 Exam, which has an 80 percent fail rate.
“Right before I took my test, there were men on the floor openly betting if I was going to pass,” Simmons said in an interview with Harper Bazaar. Although people told her she could just skim headlines to pass, she spent a month as a recluse studying the book cover to cover. When she got the paper that said she had passed, there was pin-drop silence: “It was such a surreal moment,” she said in the Harper interview. “They just absolutely did not believe that someone ‘other’ could come in and do it, let alone a Black woman from Georgia who didn’t go to an Ivy League school and didn’t have connections on the trading floor.”
On the topic of diversity and inclusion, Simmons believes the financial sector is far behind other industries. While she saw many men networking with each other, older white men taking their mentees out to lunch or drinks to talk about their career, Simmons would not have had the same opportunities if she did not advocate for herself. While men and women make up about equal parts of the entry-level workforce, a 2018 McKinsey & Co. report found that only 19 percent of C-suite roles in the financial services industry are taken up by women. Women of color make up only about 20 percent of employees at the entry-level, and have almost no representation at the executive level.
“I think honestly, it goes beyond just having strategic plans and saying, ‘This is what we plan on doing,’” Simmons told CNBC Make It. “It’s not a conversation on what we plan on doing. It’s 2020, what are you doing? Period.” She suggests that companies need to start looking outside their own networks and start recruiting outside of Ivy League schools.
Simmons is currently working on her book, giving tours across the country (likely postponed due to COVID-19), and, perhaps most exciting — she signed a deal with AGC studios in 2018 to turn her story into a movie. According to CNBC, she is also making a TV series where she gives personal finance lessons to people who have bad spending habits.
The financial services industry has a long way to go before the trading floors, brokerage companies, asset management firms and everything else stops looking like Wolf of Wall Street. But pretty soon, in about a year, you will begin to see some representation of the youngest Black woman shattering another glass ceiling. And hopefully, that will inspire some more Wolfettes of Wall Street to start challenging the norm in the finance world.
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