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Suni Harford – Citi: Why Now is the Time for Women in Finance

Suni HarfordOne might assume that careers in finance favor those with a relatively staid personality. Not so says Suni Harford, Citigroup’s Regional Head of Markets for North America. “I’m dramatic and emotional and all the good and bad that goes with that,” she says. “And while I am a numbers person (I majored in physics and math), I’m very comfortable communicating. I like to have fun with it.”

Suni oversees the sales, trading and origination businesses for Citi’s premium securities and banking franchise in North America. She is quick to point out the advantages for a woman on Wall Street. “It’s a difficult, intense career, but it has its rewards. First off, visibility is built in as there are not that many women on the Street. And second, there are benefits on the financial side,” she says. “I’m a big believer in financial independence for women. If you do well, and achieve financial independence, you have choices at 40 or 50 that a lot of other people don’t have.”

Suni, who has three children, says that a career in sales and trading can deliver a surprising degree of flexibility. “I’m at work at 6:30am. I don’t see my children in the morning. That’s the choice I make. But at the same time, when the markets close, we close. We are not a face-time business; we tend to follow the hours of the market. While there is travel and often client entertaining to do after work hours, sales and trading is still more flexible than many legal, consulting, or investment banking careers.”

And what about the financial meltdown of recent years? Suni wastes no time in responding: “Volatility breeds opportunity. The best time to come into any market is when you can buy at the low point. The opportunities on Wall Street right now are incredible.” Suni’s perspective derives from experience; she joined Wall Street in the late 1980s, during another period of crisis. “Instead of waiting five years to have your first client, it took one or two. It’s like that now. The whole street is so leanly staffed, it’s an opportune time to join.”

Suni arrived on Wall Street straight out of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, where she received her MBA. She decided to pursue her MBA just two years after receiving her undergraduate degree. “I was an actuary, and I hated my job,” she says. “The only way to change careers at the time was to go back to business school.” She chose Tuck because she wanted to get out of the city for awhile, and she was attracted to the relatively intimate environment. She quickly gravitated to a group of classmates whose personalities were similar to her own, and found herself drawn to investment banking, a field she had never previously considered. After earning her MBA, she joined Merrill Lynch & Co. and rose to vice president in Investment Banking. After five years, she moved to Salomon Brothers, a legacy Citigroup firm, where she made the move into fixed income capital markets.

Suni is the first to admit that her energy can be formidable. “I’m a type A personality. I am very organized and I multi-task, like most women.” When she’s interviewing new recruits for her firm, she says she looks first for strong math skills, but also for a glimmer of personality. One candidate professed in his resume that he could solve a Rubick’s Cube in under a minute. “We brought him in just to see him do it, and he did!” she says. “He had the guts to throw something like that on a resume and he was up for the challenge. People need to be well-rounded and unique.”

Diversity in business is a top priority for Suni, one she frames via her own well-considered point of view. “Diversity breeds better business, better problem solving,” she explains. “Diversity means diversity of personality. The stereotypical back-slapping Wall Street trader? He has less in common with the guy who led the chess team in high school than he does with me. Because I’m a back-slapping kind of gal. So when we talk about diversity, it’s really about how you deal with the many different personalities in the workplace. Our diversity effort is well past the awareness and event-planning phase. It’s a very complex problem we’re solving. We tackle it as a business essential, and we put real resources behind it.”

Suni loves what she does, but she says she planned to retire at least ten years ago. “My second career is going to be teaching physics.” Why? “Physics – I love it!” she exclaims. “I’ve always wanted to teach. If I have my druthers, I’ll teach high school physics at my alma mater. I think I might even be good at it.”

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