Beata Kirr is a senior vice president and senior portfolio manager at Bernstein Global Wealth Management, which she joined in 2007. Prior to that she was director of investor relations for Aurora Investment Management. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania-The Wharton School in 1996 with a B.S. in economics, she joined Goldman Sachs, working first in New York City and then in London. She attended Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, graduating with an M.B.A. in finance and marketing in 2002. She returned to Goldman Sachs in Chicago for two years before joining Aurora in 2004.
Your résumé makes your career sound very straight, very plotted and focused on finance. Am I right in guessing that it hasn’t been that straight?
Sure. It has been more circuitous than it may seem. I’ve ended up in a good place, but how I got here has certainly been a reflection of where I’ve been, which has been several different roles in very different environments. From Wharton I joined Goldman Sachs in 1996, I first worked in investment banking and then I was on their New York trading floor, in equity capital markets—which is the group that takes companies public.
I moved with Goldman to London [in 1998] and there’s where I made a transition to private clients, which was a very different experience from banking or capital markets. Post business school [in 2002], I came back to Goldman, but in Chicago on their local trading floor. It doesn’t resemble the New York floor in its scale but it does resemble it culturally it many ways. The reason I comment on this is because I think being exposed to different roles taught me to look within myself and find which environment would be most conducive to my abilities and personality. It took a long time to figure that out actually!
The environment I’m in today is not a trading floor, although it’s certainly competitive and fast-paced—and results are measured daily in terms of investment performance.
Did you want a competitive situation?
I certainly don’t mind competition. And I thrive in a busy environment that’s constantly moving. That was one of the positives of the trading floor. When I went to business school I dabbled in another role: product management for a technology company. Ultimately, while I thought I would make a big career transition in business school, I didn’t. I came back [to finance] because I missed the pace and the excitement of the market. So I learned that I wanted to be tied to the market. I didn’t want to be stuck behind a computer; I thrive when I’m connecting with people, clients. It took me over a decade to figure out that I found working with individual clients can be more personally rewarding, although more challenging, than working with institutional clients.
And I learned that the environment where I could be successful was one where your contributions stand on their own, not because you screamed about them the loudest.
When you graduated from high school did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to be doing in, say, 20 years?
I had no idea. The role I’m in today is truly a combination of analytical abilities and communication abilities. One reason I’ve been valued in the role is that it’s hard to find people who use both sides of their brain; who like to communicate and like to be analytical. People usually tend to be particularly stronger in one than the other.
But it took me a long time to understand that this role existed. Coming out of Wharton, I thought that the best path I could take was investment banking. But you’re asking why, in high school, did I decide to go to Wharton, and why did I major in finance undergrad? This is more of a cultural response than you might have expected.
I was born in Latvia, in the former Soviet Union. I’m an only child and we emigrated when I was 5. Both my parents were scientists: M.D.s, PhD.s in molecular biology and organic chemistry. So I had two scientists in the family. Both worked very hard to prove themselves again upon our emigration.
I saw that struggle and it taught me drive, but I also learned that science didn’t interest me. But I come from a world where my parents literally didn’t understand the idea of a liberal arts degree. It didn’t exist in the Soviet Union. They said, “You must get the best degree possible. We have no connections, no network to help you. Do the best you can academically and do something practical.” Practical to me meant that if I wasn’t going to be in science, I’d be in finance. What other degree can you get where you’ve stacked the odds in your favor in terms of getting a good job post graduation? By good job, that meant a job where I could I could pay off my loans.
And it was understandable to your parents, right?
Exactly. Understandable to them. So I only applied to undergraduate business schools and Wharton was the best one I got into. I went to school at Wharton with a lot of people who had been raised in an environment where their family was in finance. Their parents were on Wall Street or investment bankers. They read the Wall Street Journal when they were young. That was not my story.
Did you feel at a disadvantage, or that others had a leg up?
No. I didn’t feel like that at all. I’ve always felt that if I work hard and can prove myself I can be as successful as the others. But it’s also a matter of knowing where your talents lie. I was one of the few at Wharton who also went abroad to study art history. I think my whole career has been this story of two sides; the right brain and the left brain, the creative and the practical, finance and marketing.
I majored in finance but I really struggled because I thought maybe I should major in marketing. I found marketing to be more fun but finance seemed more practical. So here I am now for eight years at Bernstein in a role that really combines both skills. But in high school I certainly didn’t know this role existed.
Have you ever had second thoughts and wished you’d explored marketing?
I acted on the second thought in business school. At Kellogg I did an internship over the summer at Intuit, the firm that makes TurboTax and QuickBooks. That was an opportunity to test out marketing in a technology role, but I missed the pace of the market.
I’m sure that, long term, product management would be a very interesting job. It’s just that it didn’t appeal to me during that three-month internship so I decided to go back to what I knew.
But is there another job I feel I should be pursuing? I’ve never given that much thought.
What’s the energy of the market that appeals to you most?
I’ve always liked reading the news so I’ve always been well read and on top of current events. Understanding the issues of the day is a requirement for a job like mine [at Bernstein]. Those issues are wide and varied, from politics to economic data to company-specific data.
But I’m also interested in the things companies are making. It’s fun to understand them and identify what [competitive] edge they might have. Of course in the market, in my current role, the best part is translating all that complexity into something that individuals can understand, and ultimately help them achieve their personal financial goals.
That also comes from my family. I’m very close with my parents and they had a pretty bad investing experience during the tech bubble. I really wasn’t schooled in investing at that point. I knew investment banking and capital markets, but that didn’t apply to personal investing. But I saw the very negative experience they had and thought there had to be a better way [to invest]. That sparked a long-term interest that I eventually circled back to.
You can be in the market and work with institutional investors. You could be a product manager. You could be in marketing. But here I am in this role where I’m responsible for asset-allocation advice for individuals, locally here in Chicago, but I’m also responsible for communicating our views on the economy, markets and our portfolio positioning. Communication is a large aspect. You have to find the right role.
It would be easy for your job to be all consuming, I’m sure. Have you had to find ways to create balance between work and home?
I think I’ve had to set some limits along the way. And I think they’ve been tough to set because that’s not my natural instinct. I started at Goldman, and it’s one of the best training grounds for detail-orientation, and a good work ethic. I was essentially on call 24/7 in that job. It’s difficult. Because it was my first job, though, that’s what I thought was normal. The pace that Goldman demands is not what everyone demands, but Bernstein is a very demanding place as well. The cultures are similar.
To get ahead, you have to be responsive. But I believe Bernstein has also been responsive to individual balance. The firm does a lot to support people in how they want to work. I’m full-time, and I travel frequently, but there are people who pursue alternate arrangements.
When was it most difficult to find balance?
In 2008. It was a notable year with the market decline. I found myself [at Bernstein] in the most senior job in my career at the toughest time for individual investors since the Great Depression. My manager moved to an outside opportunity in the middle of the year. Oh, and I was just back from maternity leave. My daughter was born in the fall of 2007 just as a great storm was brewing. It was a really tough time.
That being said, I believe some great opportunities were born out of that turmoil. But that was a time when I didn’t have a lot of balance. Different periods in your life require different degrees of balance. So whatever limits you try to apply, I think you have to be flexible and understand where you are in your business and your career.
In building your career have you had mentors?
Absolutely. They’ve been varied along the way but some great ones have certainly been women. I’ve been fortunate to work for some terrific people, and I keep in touch with many people from prior roles/organizations. At Bernstein, there’s no formal mentoring, but I have been sponsored—Sheryl Sandberg says that’s critical and I completely agree—by both men and women. Some of my greatest advocates have been men; men who have actually acknowledged the extra work that a working mom tends to put in, and, as a result, have a great deal of respect for women in senior roles because they know they are juggling a lot at home and have to be even better at their jobs as a result. I found that comment in particular so refreshing!
How have you found sponsors?
I don’t think you can go to someone and ask them to be your sponsor. I think it’s a function of the value you bring to the business and of being sure you identify that value. Sheryl Sandberg is completely right when she says this is an area women must work on. We’re scared to advocate for ourselves. You don’t want to be showy or pushy, but you have to stand up for yourself. If you have accomplishments, nobody knows them better than you. Reaching out to senior leaders to make sure they’re aware of those accomplishments in an objective and balanced way is important.
They’re probably aware. But it can’t hurt to help with the details. That’s something I’ve learned.
Sheryl Sandberg also speaks about women “getting a seat at the table.” When you’re in a meeting room, where do the women sit and where do the men sit? My position here dictates that I sit in front. I’ve never doubted that. But from Lean In discussions internally, I know younger women find [taking a seat at the table] an issue. They view it as intimidating. They feel they need to be invited. And it is intimidating when the table can seat 40 and the overwhelming majority of the chairs are filled with men. You have to just get over that and get in the mix.
I’ve been passionate about work and outcomes. If you deliver on outcomes, people will notice.
Have you always received the respect you earned? And if not, do you think gender was a reason?
I feel fortunate to have been respected in my various roles. Have there been times where my opinions have differed from those of senior leadership? Of course. Has that led to occasional conflict? Yes. But as you go through your career, you find there are a variety of ways to think about important strategic decisions. You’re surrounded by very smart and dedicated people, and there is more than one “right” way.
I had to get more comfortable with the lack of a bright line.
I know you asked about respect, but I think being right is related. And I can’t think of a time when I felt disrespected. And as for being a woman, I don’t think I’ve really seen blatant discrimination. But I did figure out that the trading floor is not for me. No one said, “You can’t be here.” But I did feel that the networks of people who were most successful tended to be people who culturally fit in together.
So is there a glass ceiling for women in finance?
Well, first of all, there’s a lot of luck [in any career]. If you don’t acknowledge that, you’re giving yourself way too much credit. Second, the people you work with drive the environment and drive the opportunities. It’s too hard to say it’s an industry or a company or a job [that has a glass ceiling for women]. All I know is that my eight years at Bernstein have been the best combination of people, environment and skillset for me that I’ve had in my career.