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Women in PE: Don’t mistake kindness and humility for weakness

I stumbled upon the PE HUB Podcast and was delighted to be introduced to Bronwyn Bailey in conversation about women in private equity in Episode 5. I am a woman, now 46, who grew up in finance through a circuitous route: law school, healthcare investment banking, McKesson corporate development (in-house transactions and PE), LBOs for my own account (sponsorless-fund w/one partner) and most recently, managing alternative investment portfolio, personal investments and board roles for a family office.

I love finance. Yet I have not found the traditional PE firm culture to be in resonance with my own approach to my work. Because of my love for navigating and structuring deals, inspiring management teams, and working closely with CEOs to optimize value, I am always on the lookout for a like-minded group of people who invest in private companies, and who are innovative, open and collaborative in their thinking, committed to being good teammates.

I was astonished to hear the low single digit percentage of women in investment roles – and lower still, in senior investment roles, at private equity firms. I’m afraid if we consider daycares on site as innovative, or gender as a box checked for diversity, we are not going to get there. There are two issues to solve: accepting flexibility in work schedules; and welcoming diversity in range of approaches, ways of listening, assimilating and thinking.

Our commitment to excellence as a rule is high, and I’ve found most women have a grand ability to be creative about getting things done (even if not resident at their desk, on Outlook or physically present during traditionally expected working hours).

But perhaps the biggest impediment to women’s staying at firms or being hired in the first place is the pervasive confusion that mistakes kindness and humility for weakness. As women, we recognize that it is the fearless heart who dares to be kind, to take risks, to not need to boast our worth, but to manifest greatness through deep and productive relationships. The rote process, no matter how culturally supported, is myopic and limiting. Acting with contextually optimal skillful means, whatever its form, is Wisdom.

Some of us recognize that women are champs at getting things done: well, insightfully, and thoughtfully. As mothers, we understand nurturing – not only our families, but our partner relationships, our work, our clients. Nurturing requires keen and subtle understanding of potential, nuances and what it takes to manifest greatness. Leaning in fearlessly and brazenly at times, sitting back intentionally to let things ripen at others. Wisdom is knowing the difference.

Firms who welcome women, and welcome them at higher levels in their partnership, who don’t mistake women’s openness as weakness, and who let those women structure their own time and work (held to the same results as their partners), will be able to attract and retain younger women. Millennials are less bound to structure as a rule and more accountable as well. Those firms will benefit from the depth in relationships that women foster, that inevitably transform into lucrative relationships for all.

If you need something done, #askabusywomantodoit.

Suzanne Passalacqua is co-founder and managing director at 5Lights, LLC.

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Passalacqua