Jacki Zehner: one wonder woman, moving millions
The visionary CEO of Women Moving Millions shares the inspirational story of how she went from finance to philanthropy.
Back in the 1970s, Wonder Woman was one of the few female heroines that girls could look up to. And for Zehner, the world of superheroes had a powerful allure.
“There’s just something about a superhero kind of story. You know, it’s about changing the world, it’s about your ego (except in the case of Iron Man, of course),” she said in an interview with the Vancouver Observer.
“It was just about hiding your true identity and just using everything you could—tapping into your powers, whatever they might uniquely be—to make the world a better place.”
That superhero mentality has stuck with Zehner throughout her career. The 47-year-old mother of two was the first female trader to be made partner at Wall Street investment firm Goldman Sachs in 1996, and she has since become one of North America’s most passionate advocates for corporate diversity and women in the workplace.
Today, she pursues these issues as the CEO of Women Moving Millions, a network of powerful female philanthropists who have each handed over million-dollar gifts to groups supporting the advancement of women and girls.
From finance to philanthropy
Zehner traces her career path back to her undergraduate studies at the University of British Columbia, where she was one of the first to be accepted into the groundbreaking Portfolio Management Program at the Sauder School of Business.
“It was a program which involved internships and students acting as real-life money managers,” she recalled. “I was just really fortunate to get into that program at the beginning.”
As soon as she graduated in 1988, Zehner landed an exciting new job as an analyst at Goldman Sachs in New York. The work was difficult, she said, but her colleagues were inspiring and generally supportive. By 1996, she had become a trader and a partner at the firm—a remarkable feat for a woman at that time.
But despite Zehner’s own success, it was getting increasingly difficult to ignore the lack of estrogen around the office.
“Because there were so few women in finance, and especially very few in trading, I got very involved in the firm’s recruiting initiatives and diversity initiatives in general,” she explained.
“This was sort of ‘way back when’, before most organizations even had formal diversity programs associated with their HR functions.”
As the company’s so-called “poster child” for gender diversity in a male-dominated field, Zehner said she felt compelled to question the status quo and to help support other female colleagues.
“Obviously, I had a good experience because I ended up a partner at a very young age. But I also very much witnessed that what was true for me was not necessarily true for everyone. And therefore, I really cared about using my position and my leadership to try to make it more of a meritocracy for everybody,” she said.
“And then since leaving Goldman, it’s just become my life’s work, so to speak.”
Zehner’s stint at the firm ended in 2002, in the midst of what she describes as an “obsession” with women’s rights and leadership. At the time, she was raising two young kids with her husband, so a shift away from the long hours and corporate pressures was a welcome change. (Zehner also jokes on her blog that she really left Goldman Sachs to work on a screenplay for the feature film version of Wonder Woman)
Moving on, she became a founding partner of Circle Financial Group—a private wealth-management organization built by market-savvy women.
“[Circle Financial Group] really was just sort of a home base, from which I started my philanthropic journey—serving on boards of organizations, and making grants and giving money in the nonprofit space to programs and organizations that work for women’s advancement,” Zehner explained.
Now, ten years later, working for women’s advancement has essentially become her full-time job. As the president of the Jacquelyn and Gregory Zehner Foundation, she has consistently focused her giving on this particular area. And while Zehner admits there has been some progress, she says the statistics around women in corporate North America are still quite disconcerting.
Women still lagging in income and corporate positions
According to the Center for Women’s Business Research, women own about 40 per cent of businesses in the United States—and those rapidly growing businesses generate trillions of dollars per year in sales. However, only three per cent of women-owned firms earn revenues of $1 million or more compared to six per cent of those owned by men.
As of 2009, women made up 48 per cent of the work force, but at this point progress seems to have been stalled for a number of years. And when it comes to corporate boardrooms, women still account for only about 15 per cent of board member positions at Fortune 500 companies.
“I think we’re kind of living in this space of contradiction, at the moment, which is one of my sources of frustration and activation,” said Zehner.
“The frustrating part is that you still have all the statistics around women making 70 cents on the male dollar, women being only three per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs, women being somewhere between 15 and 17 per cent in Congress in the U.S. or in leadership positions at all. Women are multiple times more likely to experience violence. I mean, all the bad stuff, you have that side of the equation.”
“And then you have the other side, which is all about women’s power. We are half the work force. We’re starting small businesses at an increasing and higher rate. So you go, well, what’s wrong with that picture? You have so much power and potential on one end, and still so much missed opportunity and lack of opportunity on the other hand,” she continued.
Women Moving Millions
This dilemma is part of the reason why Zehner was so drawn in by the work of Women Moving Millions (WMM). Established in 2007 by sisters Swanee and Helen LaKelly Hunt, the group is focused on “raising the bar” for women’s giving. The first phase of the initiative was launched in collaboration with the Women’s Funding Network, and sparked over $182 million in donations to groups supporting women and girls.
“When I heard about the Women Moving Millions campaign, I was inspired to make a million-dollar commitment to the Women’s Funding Network and other foundations, granting a million dollars over four years,” Zehner recalled.
After donating her million, the former trader became one of the WMM community’s most active and dedicated members, which eventually led to her new role as CEO. Now she says the group is trying to strategize new ways of engaging would-be female philanthropists, before launching its next phase as a registered charity this coming September.
While this new gig with the organization may seem like a dream job for someone with Zehner’s skills and passion, she says the inherent difficulties involved have made it both a blessing and a curse.
“I would say it’s been the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, these past few months,” she explained.
“I was joking with a friend that it used to be really easy when I would go into work. Not that it wouldn’t be stressful and hard in some ways, but your job was to go in every day and make as much money for the firm. You didn’t have to change the world for the better, you didn’t have to rewrite the banking regulations, you didn’t have to ponder a global economic crisis. You just kind of went in every day, and you tried to do your job and do it well.”
These days Zehner’s job still involves making financial deals…but these deals aren’t just for the benefit of clients or businesspeople. Instead, she and her colleagues are making a difference in the lives of thousands of women and girls around the globe. It may not be an easy task, but it’s one that comes with incalculable rewards.
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”
Zehner describes giving, particularly at one’s capacity, as not only a generous act, but also a powerful one. It’s a lesson she says she learned early in life, from her family in Kelowna. Her father managed a grocery store and her mother—who worked primarily in insurance—was always doing as much as she could to help out those in need. Whether that meant delivering pies to elderly neighbours or spending time with people who had nobody else, there was always a way to provide support for others less fortunate.
With caring parents who nurtured such values, it comes as no surprise that Zehner’s favourite quote is one from Theodore Roosevelt, who once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”.
The quote is apparently plastered all over her home in Park City, Utah, where she now lives with her family. And those same wise words, she says, are key to the efforts of Women Moving Millions.
“The work that I do is really trying to encourage and support women using their power, and primarily their economic power in terms of starting businesses, in terms of their giving dollars, in terms of their investment dollars and their consumer choices,” said Zehner, emphasizing that not all economic power comes in the form of a million-dollar cheque.
“We’re calling everyone to be a superhero. We’re calling everyone to be Wonder Woman, which to me means using all the resources that you have at your disposal to try to make the world a better place,” she added.
“It’s about just using everything you can use. We are all blessed with different types of resources, different talents. So whatever it is for you, it’s just putting it in service of something bigger than yourself.”