Achieving success through merit
Oaklins' female executives share their insights
In our "Ambition Tops Gender" interview series, our goal is to emphasize that despite being a male-dominated field, corporate finance and M&A advisory offers a highly rewarding career choice for women. We seek to accomplish this by showcasing the achievements and talents of our female professionals.
By doing so, we hope to create a more diverse and inclusive industry and attract more female candidates to join our team. We believe that a diverse team, with more women in senior positions, provides a better balance, well-rounded team skills, and superior service to clients. Ultimately, it's all about ambition and mindset, not being constrained by gender.
Oaklins is an excellent place for women to build a career due to its flat hierarchy, relatively small teams, and personal approach. By consistently delivering exceptional service, you can establish your work-life balance boundaries with confidence and support. In this article, executives Elaine Riddell, Joanna Stone Herman, Lillian Liu and Robin Warner from our New York office share their experiences, insights and advice on working in the M&A industry.
Can you tell us about your background and how you got into the field of M&A?
ELAINE: My career can be thought of in three chapters. I began my journey on the client side at Abbott Laboratories, where I gained valuable experience in marketing and sales operations. From there, I moved on to serve as vice president at a major subscription-based information services provider, IMS Health (now IQVIA), where I focused on developing new ‘big data’ information services and added-value services. In the third chapter of my career, I became CEO of mature data, analytics and insights firms.
Given my industry focus, it was a natural evolution to join forces with Oaklins DeSilva+Phillips. Now, as part of the M&A team, I use my composite of experience and associated results to quickly assess companies and position them for an optimized exit.
JOANNA: After graduating from Harvard Business School, I began my career in strategy consulting for Accenture's Media & Technology Group. My passion for M&A started when I got the chance to evaluate potential acquisition candidates while running strategy for Dow Jones. Following that role, I joined the Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters) where I was responsible for strategy and corporate development for Thomson Financial's Corporate Group. During this time, I closed an acquisition every other month and fell in love with mid-market M&A.
I then moved on to run global strategy for LexisNexis, but my interest in M&A persisted. Fortunately, I met Reed Phillips while serving on a non-profit board, and he recruited me to join Oaklins DeSilva+Phillips, where I now still work.
LILLIAN: I got into the field of mergers and acquisitions due to a combination of my tech background, cultural knowledge and curiosity for dealmaking.
As a female IT professional, I feel very fortunate to work for Oaklins DeSilva+Phillips, a company that values diversity and equality in the workforce, and which provided me with the opportunity to explore the M&A world beyond my IT job.LILLIAN LIU, MANAGING DIRECTOR, OAKLINS, NEW YORK
One of the aspects of M&A that I find particularly intriguing is the ability to bridge cultural differences, which is something that I've been able to bring to the table in cross-border transactions involving Chinese companies. I'm proud to have contributed to successful outcomes through these deals.
ROBIN: I started my career with the intention of becoming an elementary school teacher, but after graduating, I found that they were not placing teachers in NYC due to the high number of teachers. I had to find a job, and eventually became an Assistant in Book Publishing. I worked my way up to heading up the NY Office of Golden Books. After being at my last two companies for eight years each – Simon & Schuster and Golden Books – I was looking for a change. My first boss introduced me to the owner of an international M&A company to help me network. The owner decided to hire me even though I had no M&A experience. After many years at the M&A company where I closed tens of deals, the company was acquired. Although I could have stayed after the acquisition, the head of Oaklins DeSilva+Phillips heard about me and offered me a position. Now I head up the Book Publishing and EdTech sector deals at our firm.
The lesson I learned from my own career path is that being open to new experiences and taking risks can lead to unexpected opportunities and personal growth. I always tell younger employees that you must be prepared to pivot in your career and not to be concerned about taking a chance with an opportunity that seems good, and learning skills that will help you in your business career.ROBIN WARNER, MANAGING DIRECTOR, OAKLINS, NEW YORK
What challenges have you faced as a woman in the field of M&A?
ELAINE: Honestly, I haven't faced any gender-specific challenges in my career, as I see myself as a business executive focused on achieving goals. My success comes from delivering results and earning respect from colleagues, regardless of gender. I thrive on innovation and problem-solving, and I believe my abilities as an executive are what define my success, not my gender.
Are you often the only woman in the room? How do you deal with this and make your voice heard in a male-dominated environment?
For over 40 years, more than often I’ve been the only woman in the room. When that happens, I smile! Making your voice heard is about attitude — stop thinking about being different and focus on being an outstanding professional.ELAINE RIDDELL, MANAGING DIRECTOR, OAKLINS, NEW YORK
By prioritizing results and adopting a neutral attitude, I've consistently made my voice heard and my direction followed in male-dominated environments.
ROBIN: I've been in that situation many times, but I believe that if you speak your thoughts clearly and confidently, people will listen to you. Unfortunately, I have experienced situations where my ideas were hijacked by someone else in the room. In those cases, if there is an appropriate time during the meeting, I politely remind everyone that it was my idea. I also think it's important to be a good listener and show respect to others when they are speaking.
What skills do you need to succeed in corporate finance? And what different skills do women bring to the table?
JOANNA: In order to succeed in corporate finance, it's important to feel confident with financials. I hate when I hear women say they don’t like math or are just not good with numbers. I think it is an unacceptable cliché. I recently heard a lot of young girls in my daughters’ middle school starting to say this, and I told my daughters that they have to be good at math. Numbers are part of everyday life, and being comfortable with them is essential for managing finances and investments.
One skill that can help women in corporate finance is trusting their instincts and following their gut feelings. This can be especially important in deals where there may be complex or ambiguous situations that require quick decision-making.
Additionally, managing client and buyer emotions is a critical component of getting a deal across the finish line. Women tend to have more experience in this area.
Do you believe that a more diverse workforce in M&A would benefit the industry as a whole?
A more diverse workforce in M&A can bring a variety of perspectives, experiences and approaches to problem-solving, which leads to better and more creative solutions.JOANNA STONE HERMAN, PARTNER, OAKLINS, NEW YORK
With an increasing number of women entrepreneurs, having more women in the banking industry to match can help build better client relationships and increase trust with clients from different backgrounds and cultures. Additionally, diversity can help to attract a more diverse pool of candidates, which can ultimately lead to a stronger and more successful industry as a whole.
LILLIAN: Absolutely. I believe that a more diverse workforce in M&A brings together people with a wide range of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. As Joanna said, this diversity of thought can lead to a broader range of ideas and approaches to problem-solving, which is essential in an industry where deals are often complex and require creative solutions.
Furthermore, having a diverse workforce can also help to build better client relationships and increase trust with clients from different backgrounds and cultures. When clients see a team that reflects their diversity, they are more likely to feel understood and respected, which could then lead to stronger business relationships and better outcomes.
What are the misconceptions about a career in M&A for a woman?
Unfortunately, one of the main misconceptions about a career in M&A for women is that it isn’t compatible with having a family.JOANNA STONE HERMAN, PARTNER, OAKLINS, NEW YORK
However, this isn’t true. It is possible to have both a successful career in M&A and a fulfilling family life, as long as you find a supportive corporate environment, which I fortunately found in Oaklins DeSilva+Phillips.
How do you balance the demands of your career with your personal life and responsibilities?
JOANNA: Balancing the demands of my career with personal life and responsibilities is a constant challenge, but it's important to prioritize and find a balance that works for you. Sometimes the deal and client demands need priority, and I communicate this to my family. But the deal work ebbs and flows so when there is nothing urgent, I make sure to use this time to prioritize my personal life and spend time with family and friends.
The shift to remote work has also helped to make it easier to manage both work and personal responsibilities.
ROBIN: Balancing career demands with personal life and responsibilities is not an easy task. It's essential to set upfront boundaries for yourself, particularly after having children. It’s great if you want to work 24/7, travel a lot and make a huge salary but perhaps that’s not the best time to have children. It’s not fair for them. After having my children, I made it clear to my bosses that I had to leave by 17:30, but I ensured that I did an excellent job during working hours, so they were comfortable with my leaving at this time. When I was approached by larger firms in M&A, I declined, as I was not willing to work 24/7 and compromise my parenting responsibilities. I didn't want to keep making excuses for leaving at 17:30 or not taking calls on Saturdays at 19:00.
What motivates you to stay in M&A?
JOANNA: I absolutely love working in M&A. I find it intellectually challenging and I love the people I work with. Over one third of the team is female and we are fortunate to have many women in senior positions at our firm. It is inspiring to work in an environment where there is gender diversity and where everyone's skills are valued. What motivates me the most, though, is being able to help my clients find the best possible solution for their business. There's nothing more rewarding than knowing that you've helped a client achieve their goals.
What are a few simple things we can all do to empower the women around us?
ELAINE: As I’ve mentioned, in my opinion, the most important thing we can do is to forget about gender and focus on being exceptional M&A advisors.
By giving all of our colleagues, regardless of gender, the opportunity to contribute to the work, discussion and decision-making process, we can build their confidence and support their strengths. If someone is not as vocal, create opportunities for them to have their voice heard.ELAINE RIDDELL, MANAGING DIRECTOR, OAKLINS, NEW YORK
LILLIAN: I agree with Elaine, and I would also add that it's important to actively listen to women's voices and support their ideas and aspirations. Encouraging women to take on leadership roles and supporting entrepreneurship can also be incredibly empowering. Additionally, it's essential to celebrate the achievements of women and recognize their contributions, both big and small. By doing these simple things, we can create a more inclusive and empowering environment for all.
JOANNA: I echo what Elaine and Lilian said. One thing we can do to empower women is to encourage them to be more confident and help them to speak up at meetings. Women may be less likely to interrupt, particularly more junior female colleagues, so sometimes the best thing you can do during a meeting is ask them to share their thoughts and opinions. Most importantly, we need to actively recruit women at both the junior and senior levels and also create a supportive and inclusive environment where women and all colleagues feel valued and respected, and where their contributions are acknowledged and rewarded. We can do this by actively listening, providing mentorship, and advocating for women's advancement in the workplace.
ROBIN: One of the most important things we can do to empower women is to be strong mentors and be supportive. People like team players, and women colleagues need to know that you have their back, just as they should have yours.
Who are your role models?
ELAINE: My role models are executives who have broken the status quo and created positive leadership models for others to follow. I look up to individuals like Steve Jobs, Simon Sinek, Fred Wilson, Michele Obama and Warren Buffett. While it may seem strange that only one of my role models is a woman, I believe that in the business world we should be focusing on making a difference rather than gender differences.
JOANNA: I have been fortunate to have many role models throughout my life, starting with my mother, who instilled in me the importance of hard work and determination and taught me that I could achieve anything I set my mind to. Two of my most significant role models and mentors are Professor Myra Hart, my Harvard Business School professor and the founder of Staples, whose entrepreneurial spirit and leadership inspired me. She was also my example of "having it all" as she managed to balance her family life with her extremely successful career. Additionally, my former client and good friend Carolan Workman, who helped build Workman Publishing into one of the largest and most successful independent book publishing companies, truly inspired me with her dedication to her employees and commitment to doing the right thing. These women have had a profound impact on me. I'm grateful for their examples and strive to emulate their success and character in my own life.
LILLIAN: My role models are individuals who have made significant contributions to their respective fields, inspired others with their innovative ideas, and demonstrated visionary thinking and a commitment to social impact. Some of my role models include Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill and Melinda Gates, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ginni Rometty, Oprah Winfrey and Wu Yi, a former female politician who was a key figure in China's economic reform efforts and a strong advocate for gender equality and women's rights in China.