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Apr 23, 2019

Nicole Pullen Ross, a 20-Year Goldman Sachs Vet, Breaks Ground

The highest ranking black woman in Goldman Sachs’ wealth management division on why she loves finance, the challenges she’s faced and how being a woman is an asset in managing other people’s money.

Growing up in Roanoke, Va., Nicole Pullen Ross wasn’t surrounded by people reading the Wall Street Journal at the breakfast table. But there was a connection to the business world: Her father was an accountant at a small manufacturing firm, Singer Furniture, and she imagined she would be one too.

“What I knew of business was accounting, which I thought sounded interesting until I worked at H&R Block doing taxes,” she told Worth in a recent interview. But a course on economics at Hampton University, where she received an undergraduate degree in accounting, opened her eyes to the greater world of finance and markets. “I loved it,” she recalls.

READ MORE: 29 Groundbreaking Women Who Are Changing the World

“It was very clear to me how closely the pieces of the puzzle around the globe all fit together—how the impact of small decisions could be significant and that what happened in the U.S. could impact what happened in China. It really made the world much smaller.”

Nicole Pullen Ross

Her interest led to a summer internship and a job at J.P. Morgan and an MBA from Columbia University. Eventually she landed at Goldman Sachs, where she has been for 20 years and is now head of Private Wealth Management’s Mid-Atlantic region. Ross (pictured right) also heads up the firm’s sports & entertainment practice and serves as co-head of the Goldman Sachs investment management division black employee network.

Ross is the highest-ranking black woman in Goldman’s wealth management division—one of the few black women (or men) to rise so high in the financial industry. Worth talked to Ross about her experiences as an African American woman in finance, what’s changed over the past 20 years and what still needs to be done.

Q: Have the challenges for black women in the financial industry changed during your career?

A: My perspective certainly has over the course of 20 years—given where I was as a 27-year-old in the business versus where I am today. Some of that is because of the level of seniority and comfort I have, having been around for a while, and some of it is because of the way the world has changed and how much more willing people are to have conversations around race and diversity. That is probably the most significant change that I’ve seen.  

How has the banking industry changed?

I’ve always had a strong board of directors that I could gain insights from, as one of very few black women or black people in general that operate as managing directors across the industry. In the past five years or so, the actions to make sure that we’re walking the talk has been more significant.

When you got your first job at J.P. Morgan, were there any other black people in positions of authority?

You often hear people say that “you can’t be what you can’t see” and this notion that if you look around and no one else looks like you, it might make you wonder how possible it is for you to achieve certain accomplishments. I was incredibly fortunate to work in a group that was led by a senior black woman whose name was Pat Jones and she was definitely a unicorn in terms of the respect she inspired and her willingness to mentor.

What percentage of Goldman’s employees are black?

I don’t think that’s a statistic that we share.

I guess there’s more work to be done.

Yes, there is more work to be done. Our aspirational goal that CEO David Solomon outlined in a recent memo that was shared externally is that, we’d like to have 11 percent of our employees be black professionals.

Are there specific challenges that wealthy black Americans face in managing their money that might be different from others?

No. The balance of our clients are consistent, whether they’re athletes or entertainers or business owners or executives, and race really doesn’t have an impact, at least as I’ve seen over my career.

Do you have situations where a black person might say, “I’d rather have a black person managing my money, I’d trust them more”?

Yes. And, on the other side of that, you could have someone who says, “I’d rather not have a black person managing my money.”

Has that happened to you?

Only once in my career. It was a gentleman who I had a great conversation with. We were planning a meeting, the team sent bios of the people who would be at the meeting, including the senior person, and it included my picture. He called back and said, “Oh I can’t do business with the team if she’s part of it.” He was an 80-plus-year-old man from the South. I grew up in the South and so I certainly didn’t take it personally.

If you are authentic and confident then you quickly realize that you have as much right to be in that room as much as anyone else.

What is the advice you give young black people coming into the industry?

The first thing is that they have to be excellent in whatever they’re doing so that can’t be taken away or questioned—be prepared for whatever opportunities might present themselves and create your own luck in that way. The second thing I tell people is to be authentic. I tell them about barriers that I’ve had in my career and times when I thought, Is this the right career path for me? Most of those have been self-imposed issues. If you are authentic and confident then you quickly realize that you have as much right to be in that room as much as anyone else.

Do you think that women, and particularly black women, fresh out of school coming into the workplace and into the financial industry are more self-confident and self-assured than when you were coming up?

I do think they’re more self-confident. They have more examples of people who look like them who have been successful.

You’re heading Goldman’s sports and entertainment practice. How did that evolve?

Repeatedly we would get comments from clients saying, “I really need you to help this person.” Or, “Here’s an article about someone who I knew” or someone who fit a profile of an athlete who was taken advantage of, or who was subject to fraud and lost a significant level of wealth.

It seems we see those stories a lot, right?

Too often. And we wanted to be part of a solution for them. When you think about the athlete today, he or she is first and foremost building their career and creating their wealth in the first decade or so, but they’re also entrepreneurs, they’re also philanthropists, they are also very engaged in their communities and, for us, it becomes a question of how can we help them navigate all of that.  

Are you interested in sports? Is it important to be able to engage with on that level?

It’s certainly not a prerequisite. I grew up as one of three girls with a dad who really enjoyed sports and so I somehow turned out to be a Dallas Cowboys fan, although I lived in Virginia. It does me no good in the Northeast. My husband is a Giants fan; my kids are all over the place. We enjoy watching sports as a family. We enjoy going to games and so there is a personal interest and a lot of passion around sports and I think that translates into being able to do the job.  

What’s different about working with entertainers?

The most significant difference is the inability to anticipate earnings—the earning stream can be more sporadic. If you are an actor, you might have a significant event, movie, production, and you might receive a significant cash flow and then that cash flow will change over time. There could be gaps in time versus an annual salary or annual bonus.

Are men in sports willing to listen to a woman giving them financial advice?

One of my friends played professional basketball and was very successful. As we were thinking about building this business, he was very encouraging and would say to me, “You’re really going to resonate with the players because many of them are young, they are surrounded by men all the time and to hear the advice and the perspective coming from a woman is going to be differentiated and there’s going to be a level of trust that you’re able to gain that others can’t.” That is definitely panning out in some situations and we’re fortunate for that.

How so?

I was meeting with a football player—this was probably six months ago—and after we left the meeting, I saw that I had several missed calls on my cell phone from him. I called back and said, “Is everything okay? And he said, “I just want to let you know I’ve been playing football for 10 years and I’ve never met anyone who looks like you and I’m excited to work together.”

That is cool.

Not only am I a black woman, but I’m barely five foot something. And I used to be a lot more athletic than I am now, so it’s so many things that make me different.

Why do you think people might trust you more than they would a man?

There’s a vulnerability in talking about wealth, right? It’s very personal. And I think there’s certainly a skill to being able to have thoughtful conversations where you are able to get the information that others might not in order to do the best job possible for clients. I do think women are skilled at doing that.

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