How She Got There: Janet Cowell, CEO of Girls Who Invest

Name: Janet Cowell
Job Title and Description: Chief Executive Officer at Girls Who Invest
College Name/Major: University of Pennsylvania, B.A. in Non-Western History (Chinese Language and History), Masters in International/Global Studies (German), The Wharton School
Twitter Handle: @JanetCowell

What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?

JC: As CEO of Girls Who Invest, I work with young women from U.S. colleges and universities, our financial firm partners, and our academic institution partners (University of Pennsylvania and Notre Dame). For background, GWI offers a 4-week on-campus academic program for rising juniors, followed by a 6-week internship with financial firms such as D.E. Shaw, Goldman Sachs, The Carlyle Group, etc.

What a work day consists of depends on time of year. Recently, I have been working with other GWI staff to read applications for our summer program. We locked ourselves in a conference room for a couple of days to hash out who would be accepted for 100 slots (out of 600 applications). In between reading applications, I met with financial firms who might be interested in supporting Girls Who Invest/hosting a summer intern.

What is the best part of your job?

JC: The best part of my job is working with talented, motivated young women from universities around the country. They inspire and energize me.

What was your first entry-level job in your field and how did you get it?

JC: I got my first job in finance in Hong Kong as a securities analyst with Hong Kong Shanghai Bank (HSBC). The day after graduating from Penn, I put on a backpack, flew to Europe, took the Trans-Siberian Railroad all the way from Moscow to Beijing, then worked my way down through China to Hong Kong. I had studied Chinese and attended Nanjing University for a semester during my junior year, which gave me the confidence to do this. At the time in the early '90s, many financial firms were opening offices in Hong Kong to cover the SE Asian financial markets. Those financial firms were seeking young people with good English and analytical skills to do institutional research. I got active in the Hong Kong chapter of Penn/Wharton alumni and found the job by networking.

What words of wisdom do you find most valuable?

JC: Write your own script and have the courage to maintain fortitude. You don’t have to accept the role that society thinks you should play—dance to your own music.

What is one mistake you made along the way and what did you learn from it?

JC: I learned to keep it simple. As Treasurer, I was in a position to do good for the people of North Carolina and was ambitious in my pursuit. I took on management of the state employee health plan covering 700,000 public employees and assembled a talented and diverse board which added more plan options for members, wellness credits, Medicare Advantage plans, etc. Despite our good intentions, we collectively realized there were too many moving parts in our plan design—it made it confusing for members and created enrollment hiccups for vendors, ultimately impacting the customer experience negatively. The following year, we reduced the bells and whistles for a much simpler, more successful approach.

What has been the most surreal moment of your career thus far?

JC: I served in a publicly-elected office in North Carolina for 15 years. As you might imagine, running for and serving in a public office involves attending lots of community events. I represented the Research Triangle in North Carolina, which is home to a very diverse and educated population. One evening, I attended a Bangladeshi community talent show. Most of the acts were local children singing and dancing. One act, however, featured a 1970s/80s Bangladeshi pop star wearing white jeans and a flashy bomber jacket who was described to me as being the Bangladeshi equivalent of Shawn Cassidy! Since I was a special guest and sitting in the front row, he serenaded me with the tune “Goodbye Norma Jean” accompanied by recorded background music played on a boom box. Everyone was watching me for my reaction. It was definitely a surreal moment.

What advice would you give to a 20-something with similar aspirations?

JC: Find your champions. Search for allies within your power structure who are willing to advocate for you and can help you navigate.

What the one thing that‘s stood out to you the most in a resume?

JC: I appreciate people who get off the well-trodden path and forge their own way. We recently had a young woman applicant for Girls Who Invest summer program who was active in ROTC in high school and college. She somehow signed up with the Israeli military for a year of service even though she did not speak Hebrew. To make up for what she lacked in communication skills, she said she had to excel in her physical performance and leadership skills–for example, she lead her unit in fitness drills every morning. She was an enthusiastic admit.

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