Vista’s Smith: Women need to “lean in” to private equity

Robert Smith, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, said the biggest error women make in their private equity careers is opting out.

Smith, who spoke Monday evening at Columbia Business School, said women who want PE careers need to “lean in, lean in.”

Smith told peHUB he understood to “some degree” why some women opt out. Private equity, he said, is a “phenomenal career and a phenomenal opportunity …There are ways to make it work for your career. If you want to have children there are ways to make that work for you. But if you get out too soon you won’t have that chance.”

[contextly_sidebar id=”3dfdGaznmXMW5JK6996HiJYxBjr78ijL”]His comments came on the sidelines of the Columbia event, “A New Model for Private Equity: Build & Lead, not Slash & Burn: How Private Equity Companies Can Sustainably Add Value Through Effective Management, Workforce Diversity, and Job Creation.” The panel also featured Kristin Nimsger, CEO of MicroEdge (a former Vista portfolio company) and Angela Lee, Founder of 37 Angels.

Vista Equity, a technology-focused PE firm, receives roughly 500,000 applications each year from candidates who want to work at the firm’s portfolio companies, Smith said. Vista tests fewer than 200,000 of those and roughly 10,000 get hired, he said.

“I’m in the intellectual property business,” Smith said during the panel. “I don’t care what you look like. If you get in that top quartile … those are people I want to hire.”

While Smith believes women need to stay in PE, he also emphasized that private equity is a “hard” business that is highly competitive. “Understand this is not a place necessarily where work life balance is going to be rolling off of everybody’s tongue. It isn’t. Understand that’s the market. If you want to move in that business that’s what your life will be for a long time,” he said.

Smith also mentioned that “every now and then” a senior Vista executive will have a personal issue. “We try to solve it, we try to do what we can,” he said. “Sometimes they have to opt out. That’s the nature of this business.”

Smith said he is “sensitive” to disparities in the industry and makes Vista a meritocracy. He noted that Betty Hung, who worked with him at Goldman Sachs, was recently promoted to principal at Vista.

“You improve your rank in Vista by getting work done,” he said.

When asked what was the biggest error applicants to Vista make, Smith, who graduated from Columbia Business School in 1994, said it was not doing their homework. He said he understands when candidates who have backgrounds in engineering or are English majors do not have a grasp of Vista’s focus. “But for B-school students who haven’t done their homework in understanding how Vista is different from Blackstone, KKR or TPG and the way we approach the market, that is the biggest error.”

A degree from business school also isn’t required to work at Vista, Smith said. Brian Sheth, Vista’s co-founder and president, has a bachelor’s degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Jamie Ford, Vista COO, also has a bachelor’s from Amherst College. “A bunch of my team never went to B-School,” Smith said.

Photo courtesy of Luisa Beltran