With a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Vanderbilt and experience in Democratic politics, Jennifer Scully seems an unlikely vice president of private wealth management for Goldman Sachs. But, steered by principled mentors with good advice, her journey from liberal arts to finance isn’t as outlandish as it may at first appear.
Young and idealistic, Scully volunteered for the Clinton/Gore campaign right out of college. The Democratic win in 1992 led her to work on the Presidential Inaugural and then in various senior capacities in the finance office of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, she found herself running the New York operation for the 1996 Presidential Re-election Campaign.
“Although the pay wasn’t much, I remember being idealistic and wanting to advance the beliefs that brought me into the world of politics—civil liberties, free speech, justice and equality—but it seemed I could remain committed to those ideals while developing a more stable and financially secure career,” Scully says. So, she exited politics but remained in New York to see if she could turn some of what she learned working in finance for the Democratic organization into a serious financial career.
And she didn’t mess around: Scully jumped in with both feet, helping start a hedge fund in early 1997 with two former Goldman Sachs executives. “I was already accustomed to working long hours with a small budget, so start-up mode was an easy transition,” she explains. “The founders knew I had solid relationships with many business leaders in New York, and they agreed to teach me the fundamentals of finance while I helped them start and build the hedge fund.”
Thus, Oscar Capital LLC was born, and several months later Scully entered Columbia Business School to accelerate her learning curve. It was the fall of 1998, and her first lesson was monumental. “Russia defaulted, Thailand slipped and hedge fund legends like Long Term Capital Management went under!” she exclaims. “I was racing from b-school orientation to my desk at Oscar to speak with our clients and assess the damage of the now illiquid market!” The class was Financial Crisis 101.
The hedge fund managed to survive, but Scully immediately became a big believer in diversification of risk and the security of high-integrity instruments. “If I was going to bring my treasured relationships and the knowledge I had about both policy and finance, I was going to do it with the biggest and best,” she says.
Mentors from her political career included Jamie Rubin (who now heads a private equity firm), James Harmon (who ran an investment bank) and Lewis Katz, a consummate dealmaker. “Jamie and Lewis both taught me lessons in closing deals and extracting myself from bad deals and bad partners,” Scully says. “And both encouraged me to pursue an MBA rather than a law degree.”
In business school, she says her most influential professors were Bruce Greenwald and David Beim. “Dr. Greenwald taught me how to see the forest through the trees,” she remembers. “His best advice to me was to be wary of any financial instrument or idea that seemed too complex.” Greenwald told her, “Anything worthwhile in the world of investing should be explainable to my mother, and if you can’t explain it so that she can understand it, well, then you clearly don’t understand it yourself!”
Professor Beim was faculty advisor to the Ethics Board, which Sully chaired while at Columbia. “Dr. Beim taught me that ethics and good values are paramount in finance and that my choice of institutions must align with my own strong values.”
Looking for a broad platform and a firm of the highest integrity, Scully leveraged Columbia career services to interview with several firms and evaluate her options as her graduation neared. In the end, there were offers from big banks and some of the top boutique investment firms. “I picked Goldman Sachs because of its high quality people, its commitment to integrity and its well-diversified platform—all things that my mentors had urged me to look for,” she says.
Scully continues to heed the good advice that she has picked up over the years. “Since I started working at Goldman, a mentor advised, ‘Make sure there is someone in the room on your side when critical decisions are being made about you (regarding pay, assignments, support staff, and so forth).’ You won’t be in those rooms, so you need an advocate,” Scully says. “I share this piece of advice with younger and newer people at Goldman all the time.”
Another piece of advice that Scully likes to pass down is: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” She says this is especially good advice for women who are juggling career and family. “There are so many small things that are just not that important. It’s hard for type A achievers to apply this lesson, but I have found it grounds me…when I can apply it!”