Fairygodboss

Janet Cowell's career in finance has taken her around the world.  Everywhere she's gone, the message has remained the same: money makes the world go 'round — and the world would be a lot better off with more women managing that money. 

After moving back to South and settling into a hard-won government role in Raleigh, North Carolina, Cowell began to work with Girls Who Invest. The organization focuses on education, industry outreach, accessibility and career placement to inspire and support young women to become tomorrow's leading investors. It's a mission she couldn't be more passionate about. 

We spoke to Cowell about her career path leading up to Girls Who Invest, the impressive changes she's made in local government and how she invests herself. She also shared the advice that helps her tackle even the most anxiety-inducing business problems and how she practices self-care. 

Fairygodboss of the Week: Janet Cowell

CEO, Girls Who Invest

Raleigh-Durham, NC

Tell us a little about your career. How did you get to where you are now?

During high school, I was sponsored by the U.S. Congress and German Bundestag to study in Germany for one year. I loved the experience and decided to study International Relations. I ended up at the University of Pennsylvania and while I did go on to study Mandarin Chinese and major in history, a lot of my friends studied business. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, some of my friends who had already graduated worked as business consultants in the former Eastern Bloc to reform their economies. It seemed like a Monopoly game: buying and selling factories. I realized the power and impact that business can have on the world. Since I had studied Chinese, I decided to go to Hong Kong and get a job in business. U.S. banks and brokerage houses were building their Asian presence at the time, which allowed me to get a job as a stock analyst with Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) and then Lehman Brothers. 

While I appreciated the power of business and the experience of living and working abroad, I had been born in a family that was values and public service driven. My father was a Methodist minister and my mother was a school teacher. The public service genes rose to the fore and I decided to move back to the South (Raleigh, NC) and get involved in politics. I ran and won a seat on the Raleigh City Council, followed by the NC State Senate and then the North Carolina State Treasurer. As Treasurer, I managed more than $100B in assets for more than 900,000 teachers, police and other public workers. 

When I was Treasurer, I was very interested in diversifying who managed the money for the state pension and also used my position as a large shareholder to advocate for more women on public boards. Now, at Girls Who Invest, I’m able to help empower young women around the country to join the ranks of portfolio managers and take on leadership positions in the asset management industry. 

What is an accomplishment that you are proud of?

When I was Treasurer (2009-2016), I grew the pension fund from $60 to $90 billion and earned a return of over 7.5% per year.

What is a challenge that you've faced and overcome?

Each time I ran for office, lots of people told me it wasn’t my turn, I couldn’t win or I was too young. I ran anyway, worked hard and won. 

Who is YOUR Fairygodboss? and Why?

Blair Jones is a Managing Director at Semler Brossy Consulting Group. When I worked as a business consultant before going in to politics, she was a great professional mentor and sponsor for me. 

What do you do when you're not working?

I like to cook and have been drawn to vegetarian and Middle Eastern cuisine. I’ve been exploring all the Middle Eastern markets near my home, searching for ingredients so I can try cooking Syrian dishes. 

Lightning Round: What is your favorite movie?

"The Matrix."

Lightning Round: What book would you bring with you on a deserted island?

I’ve been reading a lot of christian mystics. A female author that I have on my list: Teresa of Avila’s "The Interior Castle."

Lightning Round: What is your shopping vice? What would you buy if you won the lottery?

I like hats. Big fan of all the street vendors selling hats in New York. If I won the lottery, I’d buy property. 

What is the #1 career tip you'd like to share with other women who want to have successful careers like you? 

“Don’t look at the rocks.” This advice was from a kayak instructor. If you want to safely navigate whitewater, look at where you want to go, not at the obstacles. I’m amazed at how frequent this advice comes to mind. I was in a board meeting the other day and we were talking about reducing customer churn. It is such a profound difference to think: “How can I help my customer succeed?” (and thereby retain them) instead of “How can I prevent a customer from terminating?”

Why do you love where you work?

I believe that the intersection of women, education and finance is very powerful.  If more women managed money, the world would be a better place. 

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