Sallie Krawcheck: The looming retirement crisis is a women’s crisis

Sallie Krawcheck: The looming retirement crisis is a women’s crisis
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For years, Sallie Krawcheck was one of the most powerful women on Wall Street. Today, the former Citigroup and Bank of America executive is pushing a new way of doing business. A self-declared advocate of “inclusive capitalism,” Krawcheck envisions a US economy in which women and other marginalized groups have far more power and influence. As co-founder and CEO of Ellevest, an investment service targeted at women, she’s now trying to help bring about that future. 

“Capitalism broke, and I had a front seat,” Krawcheck told Newsweek in 2014, explaining how the 2008 financial crisis convinced her that the country needed a different economic model. She believes that there’s a direct correlation between the lack of diversity in finance and the troubling groupthink that led to the industry’s nosedive.

Krawcheck has also been outspoken about how sexism has affected her own career trajectory. She says that gender played a role in her sudden ousting as Citigroup’s head of wealth management in 2008, telling the audience at the New Yorker’s TechFest in 2016, “I was fired because I was a woman.”

In an interview with Quartz, Krawcheck reflected upon how women can gain greater equality in the workplace and the high-school guidance counselor whose advice changed the course of her career.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

I have two related ideas. The first is that the retirement-savings crisis is a women’s crisis, because we live longer than men by several years and retire with two-thirds the money. The means to closing the retirement-savings gap is therefore to get more money to women by closing the gender money gaps.

The second is that closing these gender money gaps not only helps solve this societal issue, but it is also key to women’s equality. In a capitalist society, money is power. And women won’t be fully equal with men until we are financially equal with men. Closing the gender money gaps gets us there.

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

I’m a Weeble. Remember Weebles? The toy whose tagline was “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down?” I’m resilient. Oh, and I work really hard.

3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

Mandated parental leave during which the person on leave (or their partner) could contribute to tax-deferred retirement savings plans.

4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

I wish I had known that I wouldn’t figure out what I wanted to do until I was almost 30 years old (a seemingly ancient age, at that time). And that my twenties would be about learning what I was good at, what I enjoyed doing, and what fit and didn’t fit for me. But that once I figured it out, I began to really love my work, as well as be successful at it. I wish I had known that that process of figuring out what you’re good at, what you want to do, and where you want to have an impact is not a one-time exercise, but an ongoing one. Instead, I bought into success being an endpoint, rather than a constant process.

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

My low point was after being reorganized out of running Merrill Lynch. That dismissal deeply contradicted my sense of fairness, since at the time my team and I had done what we were brought in to do: We had turned Merrill Lynch around from the depths of the financial crisis. In other words, we were doing everything right from a business-results perspective, but the job was given to someone else. I was of the belief that delivering strong results, and doing so in the right way, would always result in success. But that’s not always the case.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

I make it a priority to keep in touch with people with whom I’ve worked in the past. And I’m fortunate, because I’ve worked with some terrific folks. I don’t really have a system; I’ll simply reach out to people whenever I think of them, run across an article or piece of research that I think might interest them, or meet someone I think they should know. I actively look for opportunities to help them.

7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

It was from my high-school guidance counselor. I was firmly on the cheerleader/date-the-quarterback track; she pulled me aside one day in high school, waved some of my test scores at me, and told me I could do a lot more. As a girl growing up in the traditional South, it was a revelation for me delivered through a swift kick in the pants. She told me I could determine how far I go in life (even though there would be ups and downs), and I’ve operated with that belief ever since.

8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…

Money is women’s number one source of stress, and research indicates that women lose up to two weeks a year in productivity worrying about it. So getting more money to women can help. That involves companies analyzing gender pay differences and closing them. It can also mean providing financial education and financial offerings in the workplace. (And for those who might say that companies are not in the business of financial wellness, they definitely already are, with 401(k)s.)

Bonus Questions:

The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that vodka is the secret to a great pie crust.

I wish people would stop telling me… that “women are not a large enough market for Ellevest to be successful.” They seriously tell me that.

Everyone should own… a pet. They’re great companions and have been shown to reduce stress. I’m partial to cats; I don’t get it, but I understand some people like dogs.

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.