After graduating summa cum laude from Montclair State, Ellyn McColgan worked in human resources before receiving an MBA from Harvard Business School. She began her 25-year career in the financial services industry with Shearson American Express, then moved to Fidelity Investments, where she rose to President of Distribution and Operations. As President and Chief Operating Officer of Morgan Stanley Global Wealth Management Group, she oversaw 17,000 employees and revenues of $16.5 billion. She was elected in May 2012 to the NASDAQ OMX Board, where she remains the only woman.
Q: What role did Montclair State play in your career path?
A: I knew that finishing my college education was a prerequisite to any career in teaching or business. My goal at Montclair State was to get great grades, be involved in activities and position myself to be hired by someone. I was a psychology and social studies ed major, but there were few teaching jobs when I graduated. So I pursued a career in personnel—or human resources. There were no resources available to students back then to get us started on careers. I had to figure it out myself.
Q: What is the single most important factor in your career success?
A: Finding mentors who were willing to help me is what made all the difference. Financial services was a man’s world—there were no women mentors then. You needed men to stand behind and support you. I was enormously lucky—my bosses mentored me throughout my career.
Q: Are you a mentor?
A: I serve purposefully as a mentor for women—and men. I believe that women have to help women. A lot of younger women are unduly optimistic and think everything has changed. It hasn’t. Things are better, but they aren’t fixed yet.
Q: Did you have to work harder than your male counterparts to succeed on Wall Street?
A: We all worked hard, but women had to work harder at making the men feel comfortable that we could handle the same work. Back in 1983, very few women were working in the financial services business and those of us who were pioneers had to convince people we could do it. Men assumed that even if they invested in training women, the women would marry and leave to have kids. Once we were given the chance to compete, we proved we were capable and were given more opportunities.
Q: How do you juggle career and personal life?
A: I never married and I don’t have children, so I never had to make those choices. That being said, it’s not so easy to be single and manage a career either. I’ve still had to manage friends and family relationships. I had to make sure that I had a life outside of work so that I wouldn’t be consumed by it. Life is complicated: it needs managing and everyone has to make choices to do that.
Q: Is it easier for women to succeed on Wall Street today?
A: Without question, it’s easier, but there are still very few women in senior positions on the Street, so there is more work to be done. I’m on the NASDAQ Nominating and Governance Committee and hope to introduce more women candidates to the board. It’s odd to look up in executive session and see I’m the only woman at the table.
Q: How should young people go about building careers?
A: Career paths are no longer linear, so it’s really important to identify your goals and develop action plans to achieve them. Do you want to make a lot of money? Be the president of a company? Find a cure for cancer? Have a family? You’re the only person who can design your life.