When muni bond scion Alexandra Lebenthal was a little girl, her father would take her to visit her grandmother at her office in Lower Manhattan.
“The Statue of Liberty was right outside of her window, so to see my Grandmother running a company with the Statue of Liberty outside the window was a pretty powerful image for a young girl!” Alexandra told Business Insider.
Her grandmother, Sayra Lebenthal, ran municipal bond firm Lebenthal & Company until she was 93. Sayra, who graduated with a law degree from Syracuse, cofounded the company with her husband, Louis Lebenthal, in 1925. She took over after he became ill and subsequently passed away in 1950.
Alexandra got her start on Wall Street in 1987 at Kidder, Peabody & Co. A year later, she joined Lebenthal. In 1995, at age 31, she succeeded her father, James Lebenthal, as the CEO.
Today, Alexandra runs the storied Wall Street family business from behind the same cherrywood desk that her grandmother used.
Alexandra Lebenthal is considered to be one of the most powerful women on Wall Street.
She launched a quarterly magazine last year called SAYRA, after her grandmother, that caters to female financial advisors. The magazine is distributed to 90,000 female FAs who collectively run more than $US3 trillion in assets.
Business Insider recently caught up with her to talk about her grandmother, how Wall Street has changed for women and what it takes to succeed.
Business Insider: Can you tell us why you decided to launch a magazine tailored for female financial advisors? Was there something missing from traditional financial media?
Alexandra Lebenthal: We started Sayra Magazine because there was no publication for female financial advisors and traditional financial media doesn’t address this group. We wanted to be creative in our approach, so the magazine is informative and inspirational, more like a woman’s magazine, rather than a traditional financial magazine. Readers will not find information on financial products or investment strategies, but rather articles on how to build their business, deal with specific client groups, interviews with CEOs. We even expect to have some fashion stories in the future, although they will have a business twist to them. In short, I like to think Sayra is the Vogue for female financial advisors.
You named the magazine “Sayra” after your grandmother. She must have been a remarkable woman. Can you tell us a little about her?
Indeed she was! She graduated from Syracuse University in 1920 with a Law degree and then went on to cofound Lebenthal & Company with her husband Louis in 1925 at the age of 27. Her husband had to stop working in 1945 due to illness and he subsequently passed away in 1950. She continued running the firm on her own and worked until she was 93. She really didn’t let anyone or anything get in her way.
Can you discuss the impact she had on your life and career?
My grandmother had a huge impact on me, probably somewhat subconsciously as a little girl. I am still affected by her even today, almost 22 years after her death. When I was very little my Dad used to take my sister and I down to the office on occasion. The Statue of Liberty was right outside of her window, so to see my Grandmother running a company with the Statue of Liberty outside the window was a pretty powerful image for a young girl! Today, I sit behind the same desk that she used, which is a large half circle, cherry wood desk, so I think of her every day.
Can you tell us a lesson that she taught you?
Well, for one thing she taught me how to properly endorse a check! “For deposit only”. I still do that to this day. But, more importantly, she taught me how important it is to take care of clients. That’s the most meaningful value we have in our company.
How has being a woman on Wall Street changed over the years?
I think a woman can be more comfortable and confident with her own power. I was just laughing with another woman about the suits with bow ties and panty hose that we used to wear. Today we can be ourselves. I am encouraged by some of the women that hold very senior positions on the Street- we will be profiling two of them in the next issue. In fact, they are the cover story. Of course, we are all still waiting for that one woman to grab the brass ring and become CEO, and I don’t know when that will come.
Wall Street is still a male-dominated industry. What does it take for a woman to be successful on Wall Street?
It’s a combination of a lot of things, but believe it or not, I think a sense of humour is incredibly important. It can deflect the tendency for women to be viewed as too aggressive. I hate to use the “B” word. It also shows the guys that you can be part of the group. Obviously, it also takes grit and determination as well as being smart and confident.
What’s the single biggest mistake women can make in their career?
Oftentimes women think that just as they did in school, that the teacher will say: “Well, I know Alexandra is the smartest one and knows the answer,” and single her out for the prize or promotion. It doesn’t happen that way. You have to be out front and promote yourself.
Do you think we will see a woman become CEO of one of the major banks?
I do. Just don’t ask me when.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give to a woman who’s just starting out in this business today?
Learn how to ask for things. It’s not in our nature. There’s a fear of being turned down. That’s rarely the case.