Women’s History Month Panel Discussion: Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Career Advancement
The Blackstone Women’s Initiative recently hosted a panel in celebration of Women’s History Month featuring Whitney Wolfe Herd, Founder and CEO of Blackstone portfolio company Bumble, Kathleen McCarthy, Global Co-Head of Real Estate, and Jennifer Morgan, Global Head of Portfolio Transformation and Talent.
Jon Gray, Blackstone’s President, joined the trio to discuss the trends they see shaping their industries, lessons they’ve learned in their careers and how they seek to create cultures that support women across their businesses. Excerpts from their conversation, which have been edited for clarity, are below.
Jon Gray: I’d like to talk about your respective areas of expertise. What are you seeing ahead for your business?
Whitney Wolfe Herd: At Bumble, we focus on the relationship journey, and we’re excited about the many business opportunities that exist at different touchpoints on that spectrum. Today, we’re facilitating healthy and equitable connections around dating, friend-finding, and professional connections. We ultimately want to be a lifestyle brand for women and sit at the nucleus of all their relationships. For example, after women find success as part of our dating platform, how can we be a part of their marriage and family planning, how can we support them as they advance in their careers?
Kathleen McCarthy: Blackstone Real Estate looks for large thematic trends that we can invest behind in scale. Today, we see the best opportunities in the sectors that are benefiting from all of the changes happening in the way people are living, working and entertaining and taking care of themselves. For example, as goods are increasingly sold online and e-commerce grows, we’ve invested in logistics – warehouses, fulfillment centers – around the world. We’re in the midst of a biotechnology revolution, and our life science assets provide high-quality office space that can help biotech and biopharma companies scale. We want to own real estate where we see accelerating changes.
Jen Morgan: In Blackstone’s portfolio operations group, we believe technology is the centerpiece of any business model. It used to be that technology was just the concern of the CIO, but now it needs to be on every executive’s mind and embedded in the business strategy.
We believe this shift has big implications to how our companies build management teams. If technology has disrupted a company’s industry or business model, it should disrupt how we think about leadership and talent as well. So when we talk about the qualifications we’d need for a CEO or board members, we can’t take a traditional lens. We can’t expect to find somebody who has some requisite number of years of experience in an industry, for example, when the industry itself has been completely transformed, or has only existed for a few years. We need to broaden the set of skills and qualifications we’re hiring for to build businesses that can thrive in today’s world.
JG: You have all had inspiring careers and have built successful businesses. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned that shaped your trajectory and informed your approach as leaders?
KM: Over the course of my career, I’ve learned that being a leader does not mean being everything to everyone. It’s about building a great team and figuring out what your contribution can be. I’ve found I’m good at identifying simplicity amidst complexity. Often, a team will have good ideas, but they’re unsure how to move forward, or a business may be growing quickly and there’s a gap in leadership. I take a lot of pride in helping unstick those situations and setting the path for our teams.
JM: When I joined SAP, the company was undergoing a period of transformation; their business model was shifting towards the cloud, and they were making more acquisitions after decades of organic growth, which was having a real impact on the corporate culture. In this moment of transformation and change, I had to paint the vision of what success looked like. I had to bring together all our leaders to lay out what was working, what was broken, and how we could move forward in a way that would create long-term value, instead of only taking shortcuts which is a tough balance when quarterly results matter.
As a leader, you can muscle your way through a quarter or two if you lead by shortcuts. But to build a business to last, you need to look beyond the numbers and focus on the people. I worked to learn more about the people in our businesses, to understand what motivated and inspired them, and when we focused on that, the numbers followed.
WWH: I’ve learned that technology is nothing without people, and that if you don’t have an audience using your platform, your technology is meaningless. When we launched Bumble, I saw how women had been forgotten in tech companies. There weren’t enough women leading companies, and the technology itself was often being built for men. I was inspired to launch the first woman-forward tech business, not just in the technology but in the spirit of the brand. It showed me that you don’t need a technical background to have a career in technology, but you do need to know your customer. And once you know what makes your customer tick, you can work with incredibly talented people to help bring your idea to life.
JG: How have you thought about cultivating cultures in your businesses to attract and empower women and make them more successful in their careers?
JM: As a parent, it’s important to be present in both the big and small moments in your child’s life. I wanted to bring that philosophy as a leader and give people permission to adapt their schedule to take their kids to school or leave early to have dinner with their families. I tried to model that behavior and make it okay, so people didn’t feel like they had to hide the fact that they wanted to bring their child to school, attend a recital or sports game, etc. I think this decision fostered loyalty and created a space where people wanted to be and where they would give 100% when they were working.
KM: It’s important to focus on the numbersof women and underrepresented groups in your organizations, but you also need to think about their experience. Looking back over my own career, when I’ve questioned whether a job has been right for me, it was because I wasn’t being challenged or felt like I wasn’t making an impact. At Blackstone, we want to ensure that our people have the best experience possible and feel like sitting here is the best decision for them professionally and personally. For women in particular, there can be different cultural expectations regarding the personal sacrifices they make in order to have a challenging and interesting career, and we want that experience to be worth it.
WWH: I want to be a model for my son and help set a standard for the future. And it’s something we’re trying to work through now at Bumble, because we need a modern approach to balancing a career and children. Our focus is on identifying how we can empower women, and that means accepting the whole woman and all aspects of her life.