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Slideshow: Five Powerful Women In Private Equity

Imagine trying to start a meeting with an executive of a company you might invest in. Then you hear the executive say, in effect, not so fast, he’s waiting for your male partner to arrive.

That’s exactly what happened to Lauren Leichtman, co-founder and CEO of Levine Leichtman Capital Partners, the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based private equity shop. To be sure, the incident occurred years ago. But, based on our interviews with women at the upper echelons of the industry, it is not atypical of the dismissiveness, if not outright discrimination, that they faced, typically early on in their careers.

Just why women are such a rare commodity in this industry isn’t entirely clear, but that they are rare is undeniable, especially at the partner level. Based on a sampling of 10 private equity firms chosen at random, only about 10 percent of the investment professionals in the buyout industry are women, a figure that is far lower than that in the workforce at large.

The good news for women is that it’s never been a better time to break into the asset class. Conferences like the Women’s Alternative Investment Summit are making it easier to find mentors, to learn the trade, and to build networks. Firms like the The Carlyle Group, which says 12 percent of its managing directors are women, seem intent on bringing more women into the firm and grooming them for executive positions. And more than one of the women interviewed to for this article said that their gender helps them stand out and make an impact.

Buyouts recently profiled five of the most powerful women in private equity, to show how they got there, and how they plan to stay at the top of their games. Below are snippets of the profiles, presented in alphabetical order. To read the full story, which includes an extensive table of other women rising in private equity, go here

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[slide title=”Sandra Horbach, Managing Director, The Carlyle Group”]

Horbach began her career in private equity as the sixth investment professional hired at Forstmann Little & Co. in 1987, which she joined after earning an MBA from Stanford University. Before Stanford, she had been an analyst at Morgan Stanley. “I was very intrigued because I’d worked in M&A and thought it would be much more interesting to be on the principal side,” she told Buyouts.

Today she leads the consumer and retail group at Carlyle Group, which she launched in 2005; the group has nine investment professionals and has completed five investments. Horbach’s advice to women interested in private equity is to choose a firm devoted to developing and maintain a diverse pool of talent. “I wouldn’t be discouraged by what you see,” she said. “The world is increasingly diverse and global, and any firm that doesn’t keep up with that will not be as competitive.”

[slide title=”Lauren Leichtman, CEO, Levine Leichtman Capital Partners”]

Leichtman, who oversees deal origination at her firm, which manages more than $5 billion, believes woman can sometimes bring a cooler approach to contentious situations in private equity. “Sometimes I think women—and this has been said many times—have a less heads-on confrontational way to resolve things,” she said. “Sometimes that’s better, sometimes it’s not.”

Generally speaking, though, Leichtman thinks women have plenty of opportunity to get into private equity today. “It shouldn’t matter at this point in time, in terms of getting started,” she said. And don’t expect any preferential treatment from her if you are a woman. “I hire the best people available,” she said, when asked if she tries to hire women.

[slide title=”Raquel Palmer, Partner, KPS Capital Partners”]

As a woman in private equity, Palmer said one challenge has been finding the common ground that men often find so easily via sports. “I can’t walk into a meeting and talk sports like my colleagues can,” she said. Conversely, though, she said it can be easier to gain people’s trust as a woman at the bargaining table.

She said private equity is also a good career for women raising a family. “You’re controlling the checkbook, you’re not working at someone else’s whim,” said Palmer, who has three children. “If I say I need to be at my daughter’s dance recital at 7, so let’s get on the phone at 9, everyone’s getting on the phone at 9.”

[slide title=”Julie Richardson, Managing Director, Providence Equity Partners LLC”]

Richardson couldn’t recall any instances in her career in which her gender wasn’t anything but an advantage. For that she credits supportive mentors, such as Jimmy Lee, the legendary investment banker at J.P. Morgan and Jonathan Nelson, the CEO of Providence Equity. “CEOs meet so many male private equity professionals,” she said. “It’s easier for them to remember you and for you to make an impression.”

In 2003, Nelson asked Richardson, who was an investment banker, to establish a New York-office for the firm. Today, the office has 19 investment professionals. Richardson has helped lead high-profile investments including the $11 billion consortium buyout of SunGard Data Systems, in 2005; the $1.4 billion buyout of Open Solutions Inc., in 2007; the $1.5 billion buyout of Altegrity, in 2008; and the $1.8 billion buyout of SRA International, in July.

[slide title=”Carrie Wheeler, Partner, TPG Capital”]

“Being the only woman can be an advantage. No one ever forgets your name,” Wheeler told Buyouts. “When you’re the only women on a board of 15 men, often times what you say gets noticed more.”

Wheeler was an analyst in Goldman Sachs’s private equity group when she got the call from Texas Pacific Group in 1996: would she join the firm’s San Francisco office? Fifteen years later, Wheeler is now the head of TPG Capital’s retail and consumer group, which she helped build out. As such, she’s led some of the Fort Worth, Texas-based firm’s most well known buyouts, including the $1.7 billion buyout of PETCO, in 2006; the $5 billion buyout of Neiman Marcus Inc., in 2005; and the $3 billion take-private of J. Crew earlier this year.

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