How Ellevest CEO Sallie Krawcheck Gets It Done

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: AE.Fletcher.

Sallie Krawcheck co-founded Ellevest in 2014 with a singular mission: To get more money into the hands of women. And by all measures, she has succeeded handily. Today, Ellevest — an investment platform built for women — holds more than $1.5 billion in assets for over 3 million customers. Last year, the company raised more than $53 million in venture funding to reach women who have been historically underrepresented in the financial field. (Women, especially women of color, are less likely than men to invest their money, and miss crucial opportunities to grow their savings as a result.)

Krawcheck has earned many superlatives, including “the most powerful woman on Wall Street,” but she’s had her fair share of setbacks, too. Before she started Ellevest, she endured decades of misogyny in banking and was very publicly fired from not just one but two top finance jobs. Still, she maintained a reputation for being honest — a rarity on Wall Street — and uncompromising as a business leader, an investor, and a parent. (When she was the CEO of Smith Barney, she famously interrupted a meeting with 600 managers to take a call from her young daughter concerning the whereabouts of her pink nail polish.) She has also spoken openly about her first husband’s infidelity and the need for women to protect their financial independence. (“Once Jay-Z cheats on Beyoncé, all bets are off, right? None of us are safe.”)

Krawcheck stays motivated by the satisfaction of proving her naysayers wrong and helping women build wealth. For everything else, there’s walks, cooking, and wine. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two cats. (She and her husband have a son and a daughter, and she has two step-kids. All are grown and out of the house.) Here’s how she gets it done. 

On her morning routine:
I cannot sleep when the sun is up. I’m always up by 6 a.m. at the latest. These days it’s more like 5:30 or 5:15 a.m. The first thing I do, I’m a little sheepish to say, is give one of our two cats a massage. Not a petting — it’s like a deep tissue massage, and she demands that I do it in our spare bedroom shower every morning. When I wake up, she sprints in front of me and then plops herself down in the shower and presents herself. If I don’t do it, or I try to do it someplace else, she’ll meow at me for hours. So it’s a nonnegotiable. But it’s nice to start the day off that way. I think one of the most relaxing sounds in the world is a cat purring. Then I make myself a latte with oat milk. My brother and I have an ongoing Spelling Bee competition. We’ll do the Wordle if we have time. But it’s a race to the death. Those things take up the first hour.

By 7 a.m., I’m in Central Park. I try to exercise four or five, six times a week. I struggle to do it, but it’s part of the routine. I do a fast walk around the lower loop, and I listen to the Coldplay channel on Pandora. Or if it’s bad weather, I ride the Peloton. Then I shower and dry my hair. My daughter and I speak via FaceTime while I get ready. We’ve been doing this since she was three — she would come in while I was putting on my makeup and sit on the counter, and we’d talk. It’s a really important part of the day to touch base with her. Now she’s 26, and she lives in Williamsburg, and she’s typically walking her dog when she calls. Usually, both of the men in our lives are still asleep.

On her typical work week:
I travel a lot for work. I will go anywhere in the United States to speak to a reasonably sized group of women about building wealth. In April I did three red-eyes home from California. There was one week in March when I did two red-eyes in one week. A lot of people don’t like red-eyes, but I sleep semi-poorly regardless. So if I’m sleeping poorly on a plane versus sleeping poorly in my bed, it doesn’t make a huge difference. And if I can get off the plane at 5 or 5:30 a.m., then I can slide right into my typical day here.

Our office lease was up in 2020, and so we just said, “Everyone can work where they want.” With remote work, we’re more productive, but the challenge is that we’re less creative. We used to say, “Let’s gather three people and go into this conference room and whiteboard this new idea.” That’s harder over Zoom. By the time everyone gets together online, I’m like, “I can’t actually remember the idea, or now that I say it, it sounds stupid anyway.”

On getting over a creative block:
If I hit a wall, I go out to the park immediately and I walk. It gets the blood flowing and the brain freed up. That’s where the ideas come. I’d say almost every good idea I’ve ever had has probably come while walking in Central Park, including the name for Ellevest.

On working at all hours:
I’ve never had a structured start and end to my workday. Even now that my kids are out of the house, my work doesn’t just stop because of what time it is. In fact, I often have ideas around 9:30 p.m., right when I’m about to fall asleep. I’ll lay my head down and three ideas will pop up, and I have to wake up and write them down. But I want to be clear: I love it. Nobody is telling me, “You need to be working at 9:30 at night.” I’m so compelled by our mission and the life-changing power of women having wealth. Besides cooking, it’s about all I want to do.

On what she does to relax:
I love to cook. I also love to eat. But my husband, very sadly, has about one taste bud, maybe two. So I don’t cook on the weekdays; I don’t have the time. We usually order in for lunch and dinner. On weekends, though, I’ll get my daughter and her fiancé to come over, and we can dig into a cooking project. I was on a pie kick a couple of summers ago. I had the summer of perfecting the barbecue. Now I’m working on biscuits. I’ve got a very good biscuit, but I don’t have a great biscuit. I find cooking meditative and productive and delicious.

On the people who help her behind the scenes:
I’ve got a great husband. I mean, a really great husband. When my career took off, he pared back his time in the office to two to three days a week so he could be home more with the kids. And he works really hard to keep the household moving. He’s cleaning up behind me [right now]. It may not take a village, but it takes a couple.

I also have an amazing team at Ellevest. My partner is Dr. Sylvia Kwan, who has been in the investing industry for three and a half decades and is one of those understated, quiet, self-effacing geniuses. She built our investing algorithm, which is the only one that takes gender into account. Connie Hsiung is our chief operating officer, and I talk to her maybe 80 times a day. She would probably say it’s more. And then I have an amazing admin assistant, Alex Strong, who’s a single mother who lives in Boston. She makes sure I’m in the right place at the right time, which is no easy task.

And her inner circle:
Everybody says it, and boy is it true: These CEO jobs are lonely, desperately lonely. The people who you spend most of your time interacting with, you can’t share everything that’s going on through the day. When I’m feeling beaten down, I’m not going to call up someone at the company and say, “Hey, I’m feeling discouraged and nervous and scared.” But I’ve got a handful of folks that are available when needed. And I’m available for them as well. Some people call it a personal board of directors. I’ve found it useful to have that quiet network in place. Some are people who know the industry, but others are people who know me well and can reflect me back to myself. My brother is one of them. When I’m feeling stressed, I’ll reach out to him, and he can say, “You know, Sally, the last time this happened …” Or, “When this happens, your first reaction is to …” Talking to people who are one degree removed from the business is a secret weapon of mine.

On talking about money:
Women are socialized to associate money with loneliness, isolation, and uncertainty — it’s all about shame and overspending and how hard it is. Whereas for men, it’s power, strength, independence. There’s no amount of money, the research shows, that a woman makes that she doesn’t feel ashamed of. It’s either too much or too little. And I feel it too. I once did an interview where I was asked about money and how it affected my relationship with my siblings. And I actually had a bead of sweat roll down my back. I thought, “Even I’m not always comfortable talking about money!”

My husband and I, we keep our money separate. And we split up the different expenses. We invest separately. And we don’t particularly talk about it that much. We talk about it with our kids, of course, and brought the topic up early and often.

On winding down:
After dinner, as early as 6:30 or 7:30 p.m., I change into my PJs. I get into bed, I prop a few pillows up, and I sit there and I read. I read a fair amount — fiction, nonfiction. I also have a glass of wine. I’m a southern gal, so I’ll have a Chardonnay. It takes the edge off. I had a glass of wine every night in the pandemic. I’m probably down to three or four nights a week now.
I do not work in the bedroom unless I suddenly have an idea that I need to write down while I’m there. I try to keep it as a separate space.

On what motivates her:
I’m in airports a lot. And not every time, but a significant percent of the time, I’ll be sitting there with my Ellevest bag, and a young woman will walk by and say, “Are you an Ellevest client, too?” Or, “Do you work at Ellevest?” And I’ll say, “I’m the CEO.” And they will thank me. More than once I’ve had someone cry. A few weeks ago, a woman told me, “I invested my money through Ellevest, and it grew, and I just withdrew it to send myself to graduate school.” That’s incredible! When that happens, I get so revved up I want to work all night.

I keep a picture of my high school guidance counselor on my wall in my office, rest her soul. When I was in 11th grade, I was a cheerleader, dating the cool guy, headed in a certain direction. And she took me aside in the hall one day and started waving my SAT scores at me. She said, “Do you see these scores? You can go as far as you want to with these. You need to decide that you want to do that.” And it was like a light bulb went on: I don’t have to stay in South Carolina. I can try to have a really big life. And it’s been that from there on out. I got a scholarship to the University of North Carolina. I managed to get a job on Wall Street. I managed to get promoted. There was a series of improbable events and a ton of hard work that led me to the responsibility that I have. But that fire still burns, even having gotten knocked out of a couple of these top jobs. Plus, I bore easily. I mean, every time I’ve had a career break, I’m just bored, bored to death.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How Ellevest CEO Sallie Krawcheck Gets It Done

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