Muriel Siebert: The first woman to trade on the floor of the NYSE

The world of finance is notoriously male-dominated, and has a reputation for being unwelcoming (at best) and hostile (at worst) to women. In finance, women make up more than half the workforce but only 2% are CEOs in S&P 500’s financial services firms. Of all mutual funds managed in the United States, just 2% are run by a woman or team of women. (Not sure what a mutual fund is? I’ve got you - here’s an overview.)

Why is this particularly problematic? Because the world of finance is both fascinating and well-paying. Many women may not even consider a career in finance because of the gender imbalance, or may write off money and personal finance as too complex because so much money talk is gendered (written for men, by men).

These bleak statistics make the story of Muriel “Mickie” Siebert even more fascinating. In 1967, she became the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

Born in Ohio, Siebert visited the NYSE for the first time as a teenager, and she was immediately intrigued by the scene on the trading floor. The energy, constant dealmaking, and controlled chaos struck a chord in her, and she remarked to her friends that she would like to work there one day.

Siebert returned to Ohio and studied at Case Western Reserve University from 1949 to 1952, but never earned her degree. During her time in college, she enjoyed her business classes, recalling, “I could look at a page of numbers, and they would light up like a Broadway marquee.” Sadly, her father fell ill and Siebert left college early. She never returned to finish her degree, but was awarded over 20 honorary doctorates throughout her life.

Two years later, in 1954, she made her way back to New York City and pursued roles in the world of finance - starting first in research, where her analytical eye and attention to the numbers propelled her success. Her first job in finance was for Wall Street firm Basche & Company and earned her $65 weekly. Over the course of several years, her income grew rapidly. By 1965, she had made partner at Brimberg and Co, earning “several hundred thousand dollars a year.”

Despite all of her rapid success, Siebert faced a wage gap, taking home only 60% of what men in similar roles earned. Frustrated by the inequality, she sought a firm that would pay her equally. Another Wall Street titan advised her to pave her own way, and Siebert decided to take her financial future into her own hands by pursuing a seat on the NYSE and eventually, opening her own brokerage.

In 1967, thirteen years after she relocated to New York, Siebert fought relentlessly to secure her seat on the exchange. In the 175 year history of the NYSE, every seat had previously been held by a man. Up until Siebert’s request, no woman had asked to purchase a seat.

Her quest to secure the seat - which would allow her to trade on the floor of the stock market, and therefore have very direct control over the flow of assets - was challenging. (A seat is an important component to owning a brokerage, allowing Siebert to buy and sell securities on behalf of her future clients.) First, she needed a sponsor. She asked nine men - who refused - finally securing a sponsor when she approached the tenth.

After confirming a sponsor, Siebert had to fund the seat. She reports getting caught in a Catch-22, where the NYSE required her to secure a loan for $300,000 of the $445,000 seat price...which banks were reluctant to lend her until she had secured the seat. Notably, this financing arrangement was a requirement that had not been demanded of other (male) applicants.

On December 28, 1967, Siebert was elected to the NYSE, after several years of effort to align sponsorship and financing. Notably, she was the only woman (among 1,365 men) for the next decade. Shortly thereafter, she opened her own brokerage firm, Muriel Siebert & Company - the first woman owned-and-operated firm of its kind. Today, the company continues to uphold the values Muriel followed when creating the firm, including a respect for other people’s money.

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Siebert had a unique vantage point on women and money, and she observed differences between the men and women she traded with, noting: “[Women] do hold their stocks longer - they are not in and out, I think women are more patient, where men have a little for the quick profit. And [men will] often make the dime but they’ll leave a quarter behind.”

Like many successful women, Siebert is a powerful example of paying it forward. Later in life, she would donate time and money to supporting other women in business and finance. She is quoted as saying, “Women are coming in to Wall Street in large numbers, and they are still not making partner and are not getting into the positions that lead to the executive suites. There’s still an old-boy network. You just have to keep fighting.”

She also railed against mens-only clubs, fighting to get access for women, and lobbying the NYSE to install a women’s restroom near the luncheon club she frequented on the seventh floor. As a woman of Jewish faith, she regularly experienced anti-Semitism.

Her relentless fight for equality was also grounded in business outcomes. She was quoted as saying, "American business will find that women executives can be a strong competitive weapon against...other countries that still limit their executive talent pool to the male 50 percent of their population.”

Siebert remarked that, “men at the top of industry and government should be more willing to risk sharing leadership with women and minority members who are not merely clones of their white male buddies. In these fast-changing times we need the different viewpoints and experiences, we need the enlarged talent bank. The real risk lies in continuing to do things the way they've always been done.”

Later in life, her advocacy continued. Among many efforts, Siebert launched the Siebert Entrepreneurial Philanthropy Plan, which directed a share of her firm’s profits to support charitable efforts. She was also key to developing programs that supported financial literacy among women, in partnership with the New York Women’s Agenda. Her foundation also developed the Siebert Personal Finance Program, aimed at improving financial literacy, targeted at middle and high school students but offered to adults as well.

Siebert passed away in 2013, and three years later, the NYSE unveiled Siebert Hall. Dedicated in her honor and featuring memorabilia from Siebert’s life, the room represents the first time a space in the Exchange was named for an individual. At the dedication, Tom Farley (NYSE Group President at the time) remarked, “When Mickie became the first female member of the NYSE in 1967, she shattered a glass ceiling on Wall Street. So, when it came time to dedicate our newly-renovated meeting hall - a contemporary counterpart to our more traditional Boardroom - the progressive and ground-breaking Mickie was the obvious choice.”

Siebert’s impressive personal story, and the impact she had on the community, serves as a reminder that we can achieve amazing things. Her success is not accidental, but the result of a smart, driven woman fighting for what she believes is right, and doing well (for herself and others) along the way.

xoxo, Ms. Financier

Learn more about Muriel “Mickie” Siebert:

Changing the Rules: Adventures of a Wall Street Maverick by Muriel Siebert

Book Review: A Wall Street Women Who Cleared a Path by William J. Holstein via The New York Times

Muriel Siebert, a Determined Trailblazer for Women on Wall Street, Dies at 84 by Enid Nemy via The New York Times

Muriel Siebert, the first woman trader on the New York Stock Exchange by Joann Weiner via The Washington Post

The Woman Who Kicked Down Wall Street’s Doors by Joanna Scutts via Time

Makers Profile: First Lady of Wall Street (includes video interviews with Siebert!)

Wikipedia Page

Zhou Qunfei: The world’s wealthiest self-made woman

Zhou Qunfei is the world’s wealthiest self-made woman and the richest in China. Unlike other business titans, hers is not a household name. Her business, Lens Technology, isn’t particularly glamorous, but has a reputation for high quality and employs over 80,000 people. I hope you find as much inspiration in her life as I did.

Qunfei was born into poverty and grew up in China’s Hunan province. Like many children in rural families, she contributed to her family from a very young age. Qunfei was a passionate student, but other responsibilities (including tending to livestock) required her time and attention. Her father, who was partially blinded in an accident, raised Qunfei and her two siblings. Living with her father’s disability heightened her attention to detail, a trait that would serve her well in business. She had to be hyper-aware of her surroundings and where items were placed, to avoid confusing him. Her mother passed away only 5 years after Qunfei’s birth.

At sixteen, Qunfei dropped out of primary school to pursue full-time work and contribute to her family financially. She was quoted saying, “In the village where I grew up, a lot of girls didn’t have a choice of whether to go to middle school. They would get engaged or married and spend their entire life in that village. I chose to be in business, and I don’t regret it.”

Qunfei left her village and moved in with family members in Guangdong province, seeking work near Shenzhen University. She sent part of her earnings to her father, saved, and invested in herself. Her proximity to the University allowed her to continue her education and she explored a range of topics including computers and accounting; she even secured her commercial driving credentials!

At one point, Qunfei was working in a factory that manufactured watch parts. Her responsibilities included shaping the glass, which gave her a unique opportunity to understand lenses. The conditions in the factory were poor, and she made the decision to resign. Qunfei wrote a letter of resignation that included her appreciation for the job opportunity, but clearly laid out the reasons for her departure. The letter made its way to the factory chief, who offered her a promotion after her letter crossed his desk. Qunfei said, “Maybe it was because my resignation letter was well written and this attracted the attention of the factory supervisor. They kept me on and gave me a promotion to head up my own newly created department.”

In the intervening years, Qunfei worked (and saved) diligently. The watch factory went out of business when she was 22, putting her out of a job. Because of her consistent saving, Qunfei had a nest egg of $3,000. Empowered by her savings, she made the decision to launch her own business creating lenses with support from her family. She prioritized product quality and was extremely hands-on, focusing on the manufacturing details. Over time, she expanded beyond watches and began serving electronics companies.

Ten years after the launch of her own business, Motorola requested Qunfei’s help to create a screen for their new Razr V3 phone. Seeing the potential in phone lenses, she founded Lens Technology, and began attracting customers like Samsung Electronics. When the Apple iPhone launched in 2007, it was with Lens Technology’s glass, which helped propel her company’s growth.

Qunfei’s focus on high-quality products and innovative, scratch-resistant screens, made her products unique. She has said in interviews that she would watch the rain falling on lotus leaves as a child – which inspired her to create Lens Technology's patented, scratch-resistant coating. “Droplets of water would roll around the surface of a lotus leaf and not leave any trace,” she said. “If it wasn't for my primary school teacher reminding me to be observant I may not have had the inspiration to think of my invention.”

The business Qunfei started has a massive workforce, went public in 2015, and had revenues of over 23.7 yuan in 2017. Qunfei is Chairman of the Board* and holds over 87% of the company’s shares; Forbes estimated her net worth at $8.7 billion. Her passion for the details of manufacturing and high-quality output propels her to this day. Qunfei refers to work as her hobby, alongside mountain climbing and ping pong, and cites her desire to learn as the secret to her success. Her cousin, Zhou Xinyi, said, “In the Hunan language, we call women like her ‘ba de man,’ which means a person who dares to do what others are afraid to do.”

I love Zhou Qunfei’s story for so many reasons. Her persistence, detail orientation, and the fact that she created her own business using her nest egg as seed money are similar to other entrepreneurs. What struck a chord with you? I’m curious to hear your thoughts!

xoxo, Ms. Financier

*Yes, that is her official title, irrespective of the fact that she’s a woman. We need to gender-neutralize these titles, people! She should be Chair of the Board, period.

Learn more about Zhou Qunfei:

How a Chinese Billionaire Built Her Fortune, by David Barboza via The New York Times (This profile is absolutely superb!)

How A Former Factory Girl Became A Billionaire: Zhou Qunfei, The Richest Woman in China, by Dr. Amarendra Bhushan Dhiraj via CEOWORLD Magazine

From Rags to Riches, by Elaine O’Flynn and Edward Chow via Daily Mail

Asia Power Women 2016 Profile in Forbes

Wikipedia Page

Madam CJ Walker: America's first millionairess

This post is the first in an ongoing series featuring inspiring, passionate, amazing women throughout history.

How is it that many schoolchildren are familiar with John D. Rockefeller, but few have heard of America’s first self-made millionairess*, Madam C.J. Walker? Let’s change this by sharing her amazingly inspiring story.

Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana plantation over 100 years ago, in 1867. Her parents, Owen and Minerva, spent much of their lives enslaved prior to the Civil War. Sarah was their first free-born child; her four older siblings were born into slavery. Sadly, her parents passed away when she was only seven years old.

In her early years, Walker worked household and domestic jobs, and faced mistreatment and abuse. She married at age 14, gave birth to her daughter A’Leila shortly thereafter, and endured the passing of her husband only two years later.

Imagine experiencing all of this in your teens! Despite these external challenges, Walker was focused on creating a better life for her daughter (and herself). She sent A’Leila to public school in St. Louis while simultaneously working and furthering her own education. During this period, she met her future husband, Charles J. Walker.

In her early twenties, Walker began to lose her hair. She was suffering from a scalp disorder, fairly common at the time, when regular bathing was still a luxury. Walker turned to both homemade and store-bought solutions, and began to develop her own remedies. As she became more familiar with the beauty market, Walker relocated to Denver to serve as a sales professional for another entrepreneur in black haircare, Annie Malone.

At that time, Walker began marketing Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, one of her first products. Walker is credited as saying, “I got my start by giving myself a start,” and her business-savvy is undeniable. By 1907, she was traveling throughout the southeastern United States to demonstrate her “Walker Method.” She revealed unbelievable hustle during this time: selling door to door, conducting live demonstrations, and partnering with churches promote her product. She was passionate about her creation and serving her customers - traits common in today's entrepreneurs.

Importantly, Walker also provided a path to financial stability for her (largely female) customers. She would offer commissions to those that sold on her behalf as “Walker Agents” - far before Mary Kay and Tupperware popularized this business model. She would convene her agents at events, celebrating both their business results and their community impact. This hand up and into financial dignity mirrors what I hear when I speak with female entrepreneurs today, who are motivated to serve their customers and provide employment opportunities to other women.

Following her whirlwind promotional tour, Walker invested in a factory, school, and salon in Indianapolis. She said, “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations….I have built my own factory on my own ground.” By 1913, she was traveling to the Caribbean and Central America to conduct business internationally, while her daughter was launching Walker Salon in Harlem.

Like many passionate entrepreneurs, Walker had strong social views. She moved to Harlem in 1916, and was heavily involved in the NAACP. In 1917, a white mob murdered more than three dozen black citizens in East St. Louis. Walker joined a group of leaders who visited the White House to support anti-lynching legislation.

The wonderful Madam C.J. Walker died at age 51. At the time of her passing she had accumulated a personal fortune worth approximately $600,000, with her business valued at over a million dollars. Her products and legacy live on, and her story is a powerful inspiration. The Madam CJ Walker Beauty Culture site shares: Tenacity and perseverance, faith in herself and in God, quality products and “honest business dealings” were the elements and strategies she prescribed for aspiring entrepreneurs who requested the secret to her rags-to-riches ascent. “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she once commented. “And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”

What a life she led! What is your element of Madam C.J. Walker’s inspirational journey resonates with you? And, who would you like to see profiled the future posts? #WomenAndMoney #WomenLeaders

xoxo, Ms. Financier

*I drafted this post in Google Docs, which read millionairess as a typo, and suggested millionaire. The patriarchy! And, Merriam-Webster, I prefer definition #1, TYVM. *kiss*

Learn more about Madam C.J. Walker:

Prologue to “On Her Own Ground: The LIfe and Times of Madam C.J. Walker,” by A’Leila Bundles (Walker’s great-great-granddaughter) via the New York Times Profile

Madam Walker, the First Black American Woman to Be a Self-Made Millionaire, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. via PBS

The Legacy of Madam C.J. Walker via Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture

Wikipedia Page

Madam Walker Theater