There Are Seats at the Table for Everybody — How this Fintech Is Championing Women Leaders

Sponsored by BlackRock

Rebekah Wahba and Sam Merwin

Photos courtesy of BlackRock.

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June 12, 2024 at 5:52PM UTC

BlackRock is a global asset manager, helping investors build better financial futures. “Our founding mission was to establish a firm that thinks differently about managing investment risks to best serve our clients, and this is still at our core today,” the company tells Fairygodboss. 

But beyond helping clients reach their financial goals, BlackRock is committed to helping its own people achieve their personal career goals. One way BlackRock supports its employees in this endeavor is through internal networks – like the Women’s Initiative & Allies Network (WIN), which brings together leadership, innovation and passion to bolster women at the firm in fostering their full potential. WIN is the oldest and largest employee network at the firm, boasting a membership base of 5,500 employees across 50 global offices.

“About six or seven years ago, a colleague and I were looking around at the career development programming offered by the firm. There were a lot of programs for senior women to help them achieve their career goals or prepare them for leadership; there was a lot of support for graduate Analysts, as well as for Vice Presidents through the VP Village professional network,” says Rebekah Wahba, cofounder of WIN’s Associate Development Program (ADP) and Head of Product Analytics for the Aladdin Product Group. “But we noticed a gap in support for Associates – female Associates in particular – to aid in the next stage of their career development.”

Wahba and her colleague had observed a diverse range of professionals at the Associate level – people who had been promoted from being Analysts, those who had moved laterally into the firm and others who had been Associates for a while who were looking for guidance in their careers. So, they put their heads together and created a framework that would be impactful for women at the Associate level across BlackRock. It’s the framework that the Associate Development Program still follows today.

“WIN creates a safe space for employees to connect and raise awareness around a common purpose,” says Sam Merwin, who serves as the Head of Markets Advocacy for ETF & Index Investing. Merwin went through the program herself in 2017. “We organize leadership development programs, host guided discussions and events, work with external partners and much more.”

While Merwin says that the program involves a lot of women supporting women, she adds that it’s also open to allies who share in the mission and principles of the network.

“One of my favorite parts of the program is how it’s breaking the stigma that professional women are only invested in their own career growth and that they’re competing for that one seat at the table,” she explains. “This is a group of women supporting other women saying, ‘There are seats at the table for everybody, pull up a chair. There is room for you here.’”

We caught up with Wahba and Merwin to learn more about WIN, ADP and other opportunities at BlackRock.

In your own words, could you tell me about the WIN Associate Development Program (ADP)?

Wahba: When we started out to design a program that would prepare women for the next step in their career journey, we reflected on what aspects of their growth would be the most impactful to them over the length of their career. We came to define three pillars: personal impact, executive presence and leadership, that we believe would set the foundation for the rest of their career. To support women in elevating their personal impact, participants look inward to reflect on what they want to achieve, and how they define their priorities, goals, and purpose. To help participants develop stronger executive presence and build confidence, we focus more on nonverbal cues and leadership behaviors rather than on more traditional presentation skills. The last pillar of the program, leadership, brings in BlackRock senior leaders to talk about how they view leadership and what it means to be a leader at BlackRock. 

The program provides the women with practical tips and opportunities to try out new skills within a safe and supportive environment, all in an effort to build their confidence and abilities to embrace a leadership challenge or role in the future. After “graduating”, we find that the women feel more confident to use what they learned in all sorts of situations: whether it’s leading a small team, mentoring an Analyst, getting promoted or even taking on a new role in a new location. We champion all different leadership models to help foster the next generation of female leaders at BlackRock.

What does your role in the 2022 WIN Associate Development Program (ADP) involve?

Wahba: As a co-founder, my role is to set the vision for the program and bring in talent to drive it forward. We initially tapped people who wanted to volunteer and get involved, but once we had two cohorts up and running, we started emphasizing the importance of paying it forward, which spawned two great things: a fully-fledged alumni network for those who have graduated from ADP – something which I’m most proud of — since it means ADP is not a “one-and-done” program; and alumni leading the programming for the next generation. Our organizing committee is entirely made up of alumni, and alumni also step into leadership roles across the entire WIN organization. My next goal is to see how we can replicate the success of the program for other women at all levels and stages in their careers.

Merwin: I went through the program in 2017. We’re on our sixth cohort now and while the pillars have remained the same, we’ve tried to modernize the approach to those pillars. The environment today is much different than it was in 2017. So, when I think about things that matter today, I think about diversity, equity and inclusion, for example, and how we can incorporate the firm’s views and our personal views into the programming. We ask cohort participants what topics they’re interested in, and we make sure we incorporate those topics while staying true to the core purpose and mission of the program. That way, we’re delivering both what’s relevant and what’s impactful in order to constantly evolve the program.  

And as the number of alumni from the program grows, we have much more senior alumni than we did when the program first started. Now we have alumni ranging from Associate to Director because we’ve seen past participants get promoted. It’s a great way to give people a safe space in which to be vulnerable, to talk to people who’ve had similar experiences and who are (or have been) in similar places in their own careers.

In addition to the formal programming we offer, there’s a lot of informal programming that takes place as well. Participants establish mutual mentorships, go on coffee chats and simply network. We hope to keep fostering that because we’ve seen so much success! 

What has WIN ADP accomplished that you're particularly proud of?

Wahba: The alumni network really speaks to the durability of ADP. We’ve built something that has impacted more than 150 women at BlackRock and created this long-lasting set of relationships that people can tap into at different stages of their career.

Merwin: What amazes me year after year, and what I’m most proud of, are the testimonials we get from people who’ve gone through the program: hearing women share their experiences of how this program has helped change the trajectory of their careers and knowing that we’re really making a difference. Rebekah and I don’t do this for ourselves; it’s our “pay it forward.” I’ve benefited a million times over from this program, and I’m incredibly passionate about keeping it alive and as impactful as possible.

What do you think is the future of the WIN Associate Development Program (ADP)? How do you see it expanding and growing?

Wahba: We initially launched the program to serve women in our East Coast offices – from Wilmington to Toronto. From there we expanded to include Associates from our West Coast offices which more than doubled the number of women in the program. This year, we invited women from all over the Americas – from Bogota to Boston to apply for a spot in the program. It’s been so great being able to offer programming to women across the region who don’t always have access to the same resources as those in a flagship office. The connectivity and networking opportunities it enables are truly unique. It’s always been our vision to try to empower more women with this.

Merwin: Growth has been slow but steady. There were 18 of us in the first cohort; and this year we’re offering it to 60 Associates. We’re exploring what the future growth trajectory looks like, and we’re fully invested in it. We know we have support from the firm to continue offering this program, so we’ll keep working on it with our partners to determine how we can bring it to life for more and more women.

How has being involved with the WIN Associate Development Program (ADP) aided your career growth and development? 

Merwin: Having this network has been instrumental for me in my career. I think about the challenges I’ve gone through — whether it was pursuing a promotion or thinking about taking on a new role at the firm — and having this diverse network of people who have similar yet different experiences from me as a sounding board to get honest, candid feedback has been so helpful.

There are also takeaways from the program that have stuck with me: I’ve had to rewrite something on a new post-it note because a six-year-old post-it note loses its luster. It says, “There are four things that will make people view you as successful: you make them money, you make them happy, you save them time, or you bring them success.” There are micro tips you pick up from the program, but there are also macro tips that shape the way you think of your career and what you’re bringing to the table as a professional.

If you take the time to invest in yourself, pay attention and pursue these types of opportunities, there is so much to learn. And I have seen the benefits of going through this program pay off in my career beyond measure. 

After participating in ADP, what is your top piece of advice for women who want to grow their leadership skills?

Wahba: Something I’ve seen in every application I’ve read over six years is cohort members asking to help them find and maintain confidence and especially how to get your confidence back after it’s been shaken. I think taking that leadership opportunity when it presents itself or making it happen for yourself is the most powerful thing we can do — because confident women are successful women and will empower more successful women just by being role models themselves.

Merwin: Take initiative; there is no one way to be a leader. I think a big misconception is that you have to be in a senior position to be a leader. Some of the most junior employees I’ve worked with have been excellent leaders. There is no hard or fast rule on what a leader has to do or sound like. Also, be your authentic self; being authentic is a great way to be a leader. Don’t be afraid to speak up, use your voice, have an opinion, share your views. All of these things position you as a leader regardless of the phase of your career. Position yourself as a leader in a way that feels right and true to you.

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