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Mar 4, 2021
Suzanne Shank is used to being the first, only, and different — not only as a Black woman in corporate America but also as one of the most powerful women on Wall Street. Growing up as an only child in the Deep South in Savannah, Georgia, Shank was no stranger to racism and discrimination from a young age. "I saw a lot of racial and gender discrimination firsthand, either through my parents or people making remarks to me directly," said Shank, who is the CEO and president of the women- and minority-owned investment bank Siebert Williams Shank. Rather than be deterred, Shank was fueled to work hard to prove both her value and the value of those who looked like her. Her experiences with discrimination instilled a "desire to buck the trend and responsibility that anything I did was representative of my race — so I could show people, 'Hey, I should be doing this,'" Shank told Insider. Under Shank's leadership, SWS has established itself as a formidable force in corporate and municipal finance. SWS has managed over $1 trillion in municipal bonds and been involved in high-profile initial public offerings for companies like Airbnb and Oscar Health. It's also one of most diverse firms on Wall Street, with a majority owned by people of color (92%) and women (61%). Shank has not only earned her seat at the Wall Street table but also used her place to elevate the voices of diverse professionals in boardrooms and create positive effects in diverse communities. As one of the few Black women running a Wall Street firm, Shank described raising the topic of race in meetings before 2020 — when discussions on discrimination became more frequent in corporate America. "I won't say everyone looked at me like I had three heads, but sometimes I felt like I was really an outsider trying to give voice to what I thought were basic premises of American society and things we should be concerned about," she said. With conversations about racial equality taking place more readily after the killing of George Floyd, Shank is encouraged that the shift in behavior is not just a moment in time, but here to stay. "My opinions are being sought after much more than before," she added. Shank has partnered with Microsoft, Apple, and HBCUs to invest in positive change for communities of color In August, SWS launched the Clear Vision Impact Fund in partnership with Microsoft. The $250 million social-impact fund invests in diverse small and medium-size businesses, preferably in underrepresented areas. "Many companies were looking for ways to be more active in the social-justice space but didn't really know how," Shank said. "The additional capital will provide funds for successful businesses to become more successful, to perhaps take advantage of opportunities that banks just won't lend the funds to do," she added. Microsoft, which initially pledged $25 million to the fund, was a key collaborator in bringing other companies on board. Tim Cook recently announced a $25 million investment in the Clear Vision Impact Fund as part of Apple's $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative. With the success of the fund's first close on the horizon, Shank's firm is already setting its sights on a second close and additional raises. "We're looking to drive outcomes for communities. We want educational systems in these communities to be enhanced. We want poverty levels to decline," Shank said. Shank is also focused on providing support for young Black students. SWS launched its eponymous foundation at the end of last year and started 2021 with a $200,000 donation to support Spelman College and Howard University, both historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). She highlighted the HBCU alumni Vice President Kamala Harris, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, John Lewis, and Rosalind Brewer — one of only two Black women leading a Fortune 500 company — as examples of the pioneers and trailblazers who are a product of the schools. "It is important for the general public to understand — when you look at some of our country's greatest leaders many of them attended HBCUs," she said. "Investing there makes a lot of sense because you're really getting to support our future leaders," Shank added. SWS began with a vision of diversity — an investment bank with women and minority leadership The origins of SWS date to 1996, with the creation of the firm coming as somewhat of a surprise to Shank. Shank and Napoleon Brandford, a senior banker and colleague at Grigsby Brandford & Co., were approached by Muriel Siebert — an equity trader leading her own firm, Muriel Siebert & Co., at the time — with a vision of building a firm wholly owned by women and minorities. Shank and Siebert shared an inclination for breaking the mold. "She, too, had a spirit of not letting obstacles or the fact that things hadn't been done a certain way in the past predict what would happen in the future," Shank said. While Shank had no aspirations of becoming a CEO, the youngest of the pack was chosen over dinner to lead the way. At 35, Shank became the CEO of the startup investment bank, which at the time was known as Siebert Brandford Shank. After it grew steadily from its start, the success of Siebert Brandford Shank was propelled by Shank's strategic decision-making during the 2008 financial crisis. With no exposure to the mortgage market, Shank's firm not only stayed afloat during the crisis but also made a calculated play to grow the business by hiring talent displaced by other Wall Street firms looking to cut costs. That led Siebert Brandford Shank to double in size. Henry Cisneros, the vice chairman of Siebert Williams Shank; Shank; and Christopher Williams, the chairman of the board of directors of the bank. Sierbert Williams Shank The firm was renamed Siebert Cisneros Shank in 2016 before merging with Williams Capital Group in 2019, which led to the creation of Siebert Williams Shank. Today, SWS is dually headquartered in New York and Oakland, California, with 120 employees in 19 offices across the US. Recent IPOs that SWS worked on include Oscar Health, Airbnb, and Root Insurance. The firm has also gotten involved in the SPAC frenzy , serving as a colead on the billionaire Bill Ackman's $4 billion Pershing Square Tontine Holdings special-purpose acquisition company. In municipal finance, SWS has managed over $1.4 trillion in bonds on more than 5,000 transactions across education, housing, and health services. Notably, the firm was the lead underwriter for Verizon Communications' $1 billion green-bond offering in September. Shank's engineering background gave her an edge within Wall Street and helped her overcome systemic barriers faced by diverse professionals While Shank has risen through the ranks to become one of the most powerful Black women in finance, her professional career did not start in financial services. It began in engineering. As is often the case with many minority professionals, Shank's early professional choices were dictated by a desire for economic security. "I decided to become an engineer because I knew I could get a job," she said. After she secured a civil-engineering degree from Georgia Tech, Shank began her career at General Dynamics, one of the largest defense contractors. What shifted Shank's career trajectory was another experience often faced by Black professionals — challenges with upward mobility. As she looked for avenues to ensure career advancement, Shank decided to pursue an MBA and enrolled at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Before attending Wharton, Shank said she didn't know finance was a viable career option for her. The lack of exposure to professional pathways is common among youth in the Black community, Shank said. "We need many good stories that will prompt our young people to see there's a path to the top, which they don't often see or have exposure to as well," she said, speaking on the importance of representation of Black professional voices in the business world. In choosing to pursue finance at Wharton, Shank said she knew she was selecting "an area where not so many Black women we're going in mass" but faced the challenge head-on. Shank went on to secure employment at a boutique firm in New York specializing in public finance. Ultimately, it was Shank's engineering degree that gave her an edge. "Engineering training prepares you to be not only analytical but innovative to figure out if there's a better way to do something — to not just accept what's right in front of you," Shank said. "In a sense, what we do in the firm is a bit of financial engineering," she added. Shank advocates for improvements in the recruiting and hiring process Shank has been a champion for diversity within her firm, while serving on the board of several nonprofit organizations. Oftentimes, those efforts start with making adjustments to recruiting and hiring. No firm is above biases in hiring practices — not even diverse firms like Shank's, where minorities make up 60% of the workforce. She recalled one instance a few years ago when a young Black professional was overlooked for an entry-level position at her firm despite being overqualified because of what she said she believed was subjective feedback. "It was, 'Well, this one seems a little more analytical, and this one is a little more technical.' But it was never anything that you could quantify," Shank said. She called for a second round of interviews, this time opting to sit in on the process. "I just could not believe that this young, charismatic Hampton grad — smart, had experience, personable — had not immediately risen to the top of the list," she said. The candidate was not only hired by the firm but also excelled and later secured admission to Wharton with Shank's recommendation. After the experience, Shank said the firm began sensitivity training. "Even within my firm, if these things are happening, something is wrong," she added. Along with an increased focus on racial equity, the presence of implicit-bias training in the corporate landscape has increased over the past few years. But despite the increase in education, some experts have suggested the trainings can be ineffective as a result of not addressing the larger structural or systemic issues. Sponsorship programs are also key Shank also uses her influence to advocate for necessary change outside her firm. As she sits on the board of several nonprofit organizations, she often raises questions on the diversity of teams and diverse ownership when deliberating on partnerships. "Those are the questions that I think everyone has to ask to make sure that everyone has an opportunity for a seat at the table," Shank said. She also said she believed the challenge with retaining diverse professionals stemmed from too few having access to sponsorship. Those efforts can go a long way in helping young professionals navigate the corporate world. "While it certainly has not been easy as a Black professional on Wall Street, I have always had someone I felt would be a sounding board or an advocate to ensure that I was being treated fairly and rewarded for hard work," Shank said. As a result, firms need to be cognizant of not only hiring diverse candidates but also supporting them once they have arrived. When Shank gets calls from people committing to hiring more people of color, she reminds them of just that, she said. "You have to do much more than hire them. You've got to sponsor them. You've got to be attentive to their needs," she said. "You have to be inclusive in every aspect of what having a capable employee be within your organization. Because that's where we've really fallen short as an industry." This profile is part of Insider's "Black Excellence on Wall Street" series, which profiles Black leaders, highlighting their impact on the financial-services industry. 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