BONFIRE OF THE VAIN ONES

Sometimes I am sitting in a meeting and suddenly Tom Wolfe’s great 1987 novel, “Bonfire of the Vanities” pops into mind. It happens in the presence of a “Master of the Universe,” that deliciously described symbol of Wall Street success. He (almost always a “he”) is a hedge fund manager or an investment banker of unmitigated self-confidence, who makes tons of money (dah…), wears slim cut European suits (with Hermes ties), owns a fantastic Upper East Side apartment , has a driver, works out with a trainer, and snorts plenty of coke.

MOTU as a species, were nearly extinct after the tech bubble in 2000, and then again, following the financial crisis of 2008, but they are a very hardy breed. After each setback, they reproduce with a vengeance, infiltrating related habitats that can easily support their lifestyle, such as venture capital and private equity.

The “Masters” of 2017 are still over 90% male, still rail thin with the same skinny shirts and imported cars (okay, more Tesla’s thrown in the mix), but they have shorn the ties, colonized the Bay Area, ditched the coke, and wholeheartedly embraced Tough Mudders as their drug of choice.

I was thirty-one, four years post an MBA at the school on the river when Tom Wolfe’s book was published. My colleagues were smart and swaggering, but never attained the true “Masters” status because even the most senior investors needed and valued everyone’s intelligence and input.

I am now the CEO of an investment firm that I co-founded. Because I wear skirts to work, with heels rather than Nike Air Max, I have observed MOTU from a different vantage point. By 1987, when I read “The Bonfires,” I already had four children and was well into minivans, not the latest series of BMWs. For three decades, I have been watching and praying for signs that the Masters culture is fading.

So there I was, with one of my partners, in the beautiful San Francisco offices of a very successful hedge fund manager to learn more about one of their products as a possible investment.

I had already noticed, to my dismay, that there was only one female among the twenty four partners on their organizational chart, when a young male partner entered the room, rushing from some market moving trade or maybe CrossFit. Although he was in perfect MOTU attire, I refused to make a hasty judgement.

As Jeremy began to describe his team’s investment style, he spoke at normal speed to my partner, a man a few years older than he, but, oddly, addressed me at about half speed as if English were my second language or I was under six years old. After ten more minutes, I needed to acknowledge that we were in the presence of a modern-day MOTU, who was also a superlatively-trained “mansplainer,” trying his best to help an insufficiently skilled “woman” understand what the hell he was talking about.

I have done my share of fishing, that sport where you attract the unsuspecting victim with bait he can’t resist, hook the poor fool, give him some line for a swim, and then reel him in, nice and slow until, suddenly, he realizes he’s caught and can’t escape. That strategy has other uses.

I asked, innocently, if Jeremy had ever owned Valeant, a hedge fund darling that became synonymous with excess debt, greed and broken promises. Valeant’s flamboyant CEO’s own physical collapse mimicked that of his stock, which sank from a high of $262 in mid-2015 to a current price of $13 today.

When Jeremy admitted that he had, mumbling about it being a “complicated” trade, I hit him with a few reasons why Valeant was a prescription for failure. He turned an unflattering shade of red, but agreed that they had made a mistake. Having made my point, I did what fisherman and women all over the world do when the fish is underage and undersized; I released. My hope is that he’ll take the next female investment executive he meets more seriously.

My career is closer to its end than its beginning. When my female classmates and I charged out of business school, we had great expectations for taking Wall Street by storm. The painful truth is that we have barely moved the needle.

What should we do? Among other things, we need to respectfully challenge patronizing behavior, when it’s obvious that we are witnessing it. Women should not be afraid to ask questions, exhibit their skills and showcase their knowledge. Our male colleagues are superb at that ability.

I have become more of an activist in the latter stages of my career, a pursuit for which I had no time when I was younger. We need to transform the culture, one Master of the Universe at a time.

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