Executive Vice President,
Head of Beta Solutions
As Executive Vice President, Head of Beta Solutions for OppenheimerFunds, Sharon French is charged with building an ETF business that brings beta as an investment vehicle into the organization. The group is a new one within Oppenheimer, starting in 2015 with the acquisition of RevenueShares, and French is enthusiastic about the opportunities ahead. “We’re starting with smart beta, which will evolve over time to include other approaches. That’s an important part of why it’s called Beta Solutions and not the ETF Business or the Smart Beta Business, because we truly are evolving so quickly as an industry, and it’s important to have a broad scope to best serve our clients.”
Currently in the 30th year of her financial services career, French began in global banking and then moved into brokerage and asset management. Her experience in the latter industry spans the retail and institutional marketplace, including both fundamental active as well as passive investing. The last seven years have been on the ETF side, says French, which is where she developed her expertise as a leader within the ETF ecosystem.
As French embarks on this new chapter, the two of us sat down to talk about the decisions that initially set her on the path to a career in financial services as well as the lessons she’s learned during her three decades in the business.
An appetite to learn
French entered financial services at a time when women were in the minority more often than not. How, I asked, had she gotten her start?
“I graduated with a finance degree and a minor in Spanish, because I wanted to engage in business outside of the U.S. There was an opportunity in a global banking role with Chase Manhattan (now JPMorgan Chase) and I was fortunate enough to get hired into that role. You had to prove yourself in the NY home office before you went overseas, so at the ripe young age of 24, I was doing research and cost-analysis projects in Milan, Frankfurt, Paris, Madrid and London. Frankly, I was over my skis, when I look back at that time. I was anxious to go overseas, and partly based on my strong work ethic – a quality that comes from my parents – I was nominated.
“I had an insatiable appetite for building my knowledge base, so I more or less learned on the job. And it ended up being a fabulous experience. I went from one country to the next and when I came back to refuel in the U.S., they wanted me to go to Asia. I said, ‘OK, I can do this.’ Was I scared? Absolutely! But I thought, ‘I am a capable person and I’m being given these opportunities…there’s no way I’m going to turn them down. I will learn what I don’t know.’ The advice I often give to others is to not let fear get in the way. As Sheryl Sandberg wrote in her book, Lean In, you just don’t know when you’re going to get that opportunity again.”
A belief in oneself
Given French’s propensity for jumping in with both feet, oftentimes in situations where she was likely one of the only women in the room, I could not help but wonder if she had encountered gender discrimination. Had she ever found gender to be an issue, I inquired.
“Not in any significant way. There might have been a time where I was more qualified than a male candidate, yet because of a deep relationship that person had with the hiring manager, he was chosen, which didn’t make logical sense to me. Although frustrating to me, I had to accept it and move on.
“I think a lot depends on how you show up. If you show up and believe that you should be there, that comes through. In order to be taken seriously, you have to act accordingly. I didn’t always feel like I needed to jump in and say something, but when I had something to say, I said it with conviction and I had the supporting data to back it up.”
A strong work ethic
Given the business community’s keen interest in mentors and sponsors in recent years, I was eager to learn more about the individuals who’ve had such an impact on French. She had mentioned that her parents were important in shaping her work ethic. Who else, I asked, had played a significant role in helping her climb the ladder professionally, and how?
“I come from a large Irish Catholic family of six children. There were eight mouths to feed, six colleges to pay for – so every penny mattered. We were a very close family (still are) and the only vacations we took were camping at National Parks. So whether it was my mother starting a little side business while she took care of six children or my father going to school at night to get his college degree, they taught all of us to work hard.
“Today, my siblings and I have very different careers – from academia to finance to healthcare to fashion to media – but we’re all extremely career-oriented. It was drilled into our heads that we could do anything, but it was going to require hard work.
“I was blessed to be given such a strong foundation, and I share that with others. I feel that you either have a strong work ethic or you don’t; work ethic is very hard to teach. Throughout the first half of my career, I was often approached with new opportunities because people realized that I wanted to learn, that I had ideas, and that I was working hard. It was for this reason that I met the Executive Vice President of Smith Barney’s Consulting Group and the Retail New Product Development Group in 1990. He approached the CFO and my boss at the time, and said, ‘I’d like to have Sharon move over to my team.’ That was an inflection point in my career where I went from a finance-related function into a marketing-related function. He became my boss, but also my mentor, and has remained a mentor to me my entire career.”
A readiness to listen
Intrigued by the fact that such an important mentor had come into French’s life this way, I asked her to tell me more about the relationship. How did it work, I asked, and what specific actions did her boss take that proved so helpful to French?
“My mentor has always been a very straightforward person – with very high expectations. He is incredibly bright – especially when it comes to product development. In the past, some said he had sharp elbows, but I always found him to be a deeply caring person. He has always been focused on making the best decisions for the business. He’s had to say ‘no’ a lot in his career and not care if people liked him or not. He’s always been tough on me as well; he never sugarcoated anything.
“He’s been retired for quite some time, but he still gives me advice. We talk about all kinds of things, personal as well as professional. Whenever I make a professional decision, he is the first person I call. He’s my sounding board in decisions about my job choices and compensation packages. I always tell him what I think and then I ask his opinion, as opposed to him telling me.
“For example, while I was at AllianceBernstein I was presented with a couple of job opportunities, both with great firms. I was struggling as to which direction I should go, and he was very, very, helpful. As I looked at the pros and cons of each, I would reach out to him and say, ‘What am I not thinking about? Here’s how I’m looking at it; is that the right way to look at things?’ He gave me the perspective, knowing that I still had many years to work. I ultimately chose BlackRock iShares, primarily because of the marketplace evolution to passive/ETF vehicles that I wanted to be a part of. I’m so happy I did because it gave me a deep understanding of that ecosystem and now I’m building the ETF business for OppenheimerFunds to ultimately serve a growing client base.”
A desire to pay it forward
In light of French’s positive mentoring experience, I wondered if she was a mentor to others, and if so, how that relationship typically came about. Was it a formal arrangement or more informal?
“I have been extremely fortunate to be mentored both formally and informally and I have mentored both formally and informally as well. There is no question that at this stage of my career, a big part of my professional happiness comes from paying it forward. I want to make sure that other people benefit from the things that I have experienced, and that’s directed toward women and men. I have mentored men, too, though I think women are facing more of a challenge from an overall life balance perspective. I often mentor young women who are deciding whether to have a family or take a break from the industry or, at the other end of the spectrum, whether they can handle a promotion and still juggle family demands. There are challenges in being a working parent.”
An ability to share
French’s mention of motherhood offered a perfect segue into the question of work-life balance, as she has two teenage children. How did she navigate the challenges of working full-time and raising two children, I queried.
“My husband was a trader, so thankfully he was attached to a trading desk and never traveled. I was always the one who traveled. But we lived in San Francisco for ten years and he would leave at 3:30 in the morning to be at the trading desk at 4 a.m. trading with London, and I’d be in New York, so we needed a live-in nanny. For the first eight years of the kids’ lives, we had a live-in nanny and then we had nannies as we needed them. My husband ultimately left the trading world to become a middle school math and history teacher, a decision I very much supported. It was a passion of his and I said, ‘OK, just do it—you’re not getting any younger!’
“I think it’s virtually impossible to have two spouses who travel. There may be some people who do it, but I don’t think we ever could nor did we ever want to. It was always important that one of us could be home when we needed to get home.
“I always wanted to work; I never, ever felt like it was an obligation. I think that’s an important lesson to teach your children. I have a son who just started his first year of college and a daughter who’s heading into her junior year of high school with the same ambitions. Recently I heard my son queried in a college interview and they asked his perspective on why kids seem “overly attached” to their mothers – constantly texting for help – and he responded, ‘Well that’s not me; given my mom’s full-time career, it required me to be independent.’
“My daughter did have moments along the way where she wished I could have been in the classroom doing something, but overall she’s been inspired and I think there’s a bit of pride that she has a working mom. And it’s a delight to watch them grow and develop – we remain close, even when I’m on the road.”
A willingness to embrace fear
As our interview drew to a close, I couldn’t resist asking French what she knew now that she wished she had known at the start of her career. What pieces of advice would she offer to women five or ten years behind her, I inquired, or perhaps to those at a similar point in their careers who couldn’t seem to cross the hurdle to their next role, especially that CEO seat.
- Balance humility with confidence: This balance is not always easy. To me, confidence is the ability to take risks – and humility is the ability to see the world beyond your own ideas. You can best learn this over time, and it’s only because of the professional maturity that I have now, thirty years into it, that I understand this concept.
- Embrace fear: A long time ago, somebody gave me a book called “Hug the Monster” because they wanted me to get certified in scuba diving and I was deathly afraid. And to this day, I think about that book because it relates to embracing fear and those early lessons that I had in my life about not letting fear get in my way. Use fear to your advantage and use it as positive energy.
- Utilize your resources: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Utilize resources to get advice, to be mentored, etc. You can also learn a lot from mentoring others. It’s also important to understand the differences between mentorship and sponsorship and make sure that you are top of mind with the people who are making decisions around high potential employees.
- Join organizations that are specific to your segment: Whether that’s hedge funds, capital markets/trading or ETFs. One of the things that I’m very proud of is that I’m on the board of Women in ETFs. It’s a newer organization and we bring together women in the ETF ecosystem and help to further their careers by connecting people in the industry. We’re supporting each other through the current and next generation and inspiring one another through education and idea sharing. Specifically, I co-chair the Global Leadership and Mentorship Committee. Get on a committee, chair a committee, jump in!! Those are the work-related types of engagements that will help to expand your network, which will ultimately benefit you as well as those around you.”