Editor’s note: This commentary is by Missy Kraus, who is chair of the Vermont Women’s Fund Council.
“If you tell your story, you will never work on Wall Street again!”
These words were spoken to me by a female human resources lawyer from a financial institution in the 1980s. I was in a phone booth in Grand Central Station, looking up at the magnificent ceiling painted with constellations.
This is the very short version of the story I was not supposed to tell. I suffered through the indignities of harassment. My hard work was discredited. Then I was threatened with retaliation.
I chose to stay silent and continue to work on Wall Street. I was fascinated with financial markets and economics (and still am) and this was my dream career. Morning and night, I walked through Grand Central Station on my daily commute, under the stars, feeling angry and frustrated.
Clearly, a Wall Street career was going to be a tough path for me as a woman. It required a certain steeliness I was not sure I possessed. At that time, there were no female role models in my field. And, I was haunted by the notion that the results of my hard work could be snatched away so easily.
Bound by silence, I slipped further and further into despair. A friend gave me Gail Sheehy’s book “Pathfinders: Overcoming the Crises of Adult Life and Finding Your Own Path to Well-Being.” Sheehy catalogued hundreds of stories from people who found a positive way to move forward after a significant setback.
I devoured this book. I wanted to be one of these stories. Some way. Somehow.
My big idea was to move to Vermont. Vermont represented an ideal I desperately needed to believe in, though I understood how extreme moving away from New York might seem to the outside world. I knew one person in the state (my college roommate), and everyone whose professional opinion I respected advised me such a move was akin to career suicide.
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It was scary to start over. A wise woman told me the success of my transition would likely depend on my ability to focus on where I aimed to go rather than what I was leaving behind. And during times of self-doubt, my older brother reminded me of a plaque in his office – “All good things come to he who waits, if he works like hell while he waits.” These two pieces of advice kept me focused as I navigated life in Vermont.
What a twist of fate that 23 years later, the Wall Street firms I worked for (a hedge fund, a powerhouse advisory firm, and the investment bank that created the junk bond market) no longer exist. After 10 years of working in the investment field in Vermont, I started my own firm in 1996 now located on Shelburne Road. I can tap dance to work, as Warren Buffett likes to do, knowing my investment skills, values and personal style are appreciated.
My career in Vermont is tremendously rewarding. However, challenges remain for many women, especially in my chosen profession. A March 2018 Vanity Fair article by Bethany Mclean titled “We All Wear All Black Every Day: Inside Wall Street’s complex, shameful and often confidential battle with #MeToo” chronicles non-disclosure agreements, the blackballing of women who speak out, and the isolation which prevents women from helping other women. It also acknowledges the glass ceiling women face in the financial industry, citing a December 2017 Government Accountability Office report that concluded women had “made no progress – none – in increasing their ranks in management in the financial industry from 2007 to 2015,” remaining just shy of 30% of senior-level management.
Articles like this trigger strong memories of my early career days, the unfairness of it all, struggling to overcome obstacles and wondering which way to turn.
Experience reminds me that crises can lead to something wonderful, we all need help along the way, and inspiration can come from many places. For me, it started with a friend, a book, and my brother. These became building blocks towards reclaiming my life, a vibrant career, family, motherhood and new friends.
Now, when I return to NYC and walk through Grand Central Station, I look up and thank my lucky stars for the help I received along the way and the perseverance to stay focused on my passion.
I believe it is incumbent on those of us who make it through to turn around and encourage others along their path. One way I do this is by serving on the Vermont Women’s Fund, an organization that supports programs to address women’s economic needs and advance gender equity. Among our primary initiatives is Change The Story, a multi-year strategy in collaboration with Vermont Works for Women and the Vermont Commission on Women to fast-track women’s economic status statewide.
I am tremendously proud that the Women’s Fund is hosting Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey as our guest speakers for our 25th anniversary event this year on Oct. 16 in Burlington. These journalists broke the Harvey Weinstein story in 2017, winning a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting. More importantly, their work triggered a worldwide reckoning about sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, something I was all too familiar with in my early career. For more information about the event and the work of the Women’s Fund, go to www.vermontwomensfund.org.