Four years after the passage of Title IX, Ginny Gilder and the rest of the Yale Women's Rowing Team staged a "Strip In" to fight sexism in sports. More than 40 years later, not enough has changed. Ginny continues to tackle gender inequality as a co-owner of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, while using her investment platform to promote racial justice and give back to the community. What drives her to keep up the fight?
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Adam Sansiveri here, Co-head of Sports and Entertainment at Bernstein Private Wealth Management. Welcome to Season 2 of The Big Stage podcast, where we speak with top artists, athletes, and industry leaders to get an inside look into their lives. I once read that Olympic athletes train on average of 25 to 30 hours a week. My guest is no longer training for the Olympics, but she certainly hasn't slowed down.
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It is my pleasure to welcome Olympian, professional sports entrepreneur, activist, author, investor, and philanthropist Ginny Gilder. Jenny, thanks so much for being here. Thanks for inviting me. That's quite a list. I'm impressed. I mean, I think all our listeners certainly are, and I'm excited for them to hear more about all of this. Ginny, you've done so much.
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So I've really been looking forward to this conversation. I just hope we can fit it all in in the short time that we have. But let's start towards the beginning. On June 23, 1972, Congress passed Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education programs and activities and demands equality across sports and academics.
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Three years later, you entered Yale as a student athlete. What was your experience and what were the disparities between the male and female athletic programs at the time? So let me just start by saying I was 14 in 1972 and had no idea of that Title IX had passed or even existed. But then, as you said, I started Yale at 1975.
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I was 17 and I had seen a rowing regatta when I was in Boston and kind of fell in love on the spot and decided to start rowing. And I started Yale and found the rowing coach with a long rowing shell on the old campus where all the freshmen live and went and signed up on the spot, even though he was not very interested in me because I was short. I'm 5'7", not really short, but it is short in the world of rowing. I learned how to row in the tanks, which are in the basement of Payne Whitney Gym at Yale. There's three tanks.
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One was dedicated to the women, one was dedicated to the lightweight men. One was dedicated to the heavyweight men.
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In the fall, we rode about two miles from campus. We would jog through really terrible neighborhoods to get to those waters. It was just, it was called the lagoon and it was narrow and really nasty water.
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In the spring, though, we got to row at the boathouse and spring for rowing starts as soon as the ice breaks up from the river. We rode on the Housatonic, which is in Derby, Connecticut, and it's about a 12-mile drive from campus.
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So all the crews would meet at the same time right outside the gym, and we would drive together in school buses to practice, practice and then come home. But what I discovered that year was that even though we all got on the bus together, got off the bus together at both ends, our experiences were very different while we were at the boathouse. Obviously, we all practiced separately,
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we had our own coaches, but the women had no locker room facilities. So there was this, was a two-floor boathouse. And on the first, bottom of the first floor at the back of the shell storage area was a tiny little bathroom where we could use to change clothes, use the bathroom if we needed to. And that was for 25 to 30 women. The men had a full locker room with showers, all the facilities that they needed to take care of themselves before and after practice.
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So we would get off the water, we would be wet from sweating, wet from the back splash of ores shitting us and wet from the weather. We'd have to sit on the bus for 20 to 25 minutes before the guys were ready to go home. Then we'd ride home for 20 to 25 minutes and then we would all go to the one dining hall that was still open and eat dinner together. That year,
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1976, was the first year that women's rowing was in the Olympics, thanks to the Canadians. And we had two women on our team who are trying out for the national team. And the water, the ice broke up in February, which was great because we got on the water faster, but the weather was terrible. So we were really cold all the time.
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And the captain of the women's crew, a woman named Chris Ernst, you know, she had been negotiating with the university about facilities for a while and she got fed up. And we ended up staging a huge protest that's known today as the strip-in, the Yale strip-in. And that went around the world because we had a stringer for the New York Times at the protest, as well as a photographer from the Daily News, basically saying, according to Title IX, the university was breaking the law.
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That was really the beginning of my education, that whole experience with regard to activism and the reality of equality. And unfortunately, the heavyweight men, the rowers at Yale behaved really badly.
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They were not supportive of what we were doing. So it also showed me how rampant sexism really can be in terms of individual humans who you would otherwise think were intelligent and had some empathy. I think our listeners can see why I started with that question, because it certainly was a defining moment and so much that has guided you and all the amazing accomplishments that you've had since that time. Jumping forward, I'm curious, is there anything you see today,
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happening in women's sports that you didn't think would be possible when you first started as an athlete? Honestly, when I was 17, I wasn't thinking much beyond am I going to, do I even belong at... Yeah, right. I mean, there was so much about the day to day. I think if anything, I'm disappointed, frankly, by the wheel of progress, how slowly it turns, not just with respect to women, but certainly racial equality. I mean, there's so much that we have to do. That sort of hits on my next question, which is, is there anything today that you don't yet see in women's sports that you would like to?
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I think you just answered it. Well, start with Title IX being actually applied.
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All the elementary school, high school, university programs across the country. You can talk to girls in high school programs, women in college programs all over the country. And you will hear stories about inequity. Going back to the Olympics, it's no secret how hard you have to work as an Olympian. And people, I think, realize that it's not just a love for the sport, but it's actually living it. And your hard work was rewarded in 1980 because you were selected for the US Olympic team. But the US boycotted the Olympic Games that same year. That had to be crushing.
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What was that moment like when you found out and what was your process to motivate yourself to train and get back to the Olympics four years later? It's interesting because Jimmy Carter announced the boycott in the winter, like, November, December, I think maybe in November of 1979, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Basically, Jimmy Carter didn't want any Americans to die in the military while he was president. And so he thought, because the 1980 Olympics were in the Soviet Union in Moscow, this would be good leverage.
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And of course, it totally failed. So we found out about it that fall. And I had been trying out for national teams since 1977 and never made it. I mean, three years in a row. Never made it. My father was really fed up, was like, OK, it's OK while you're doing this in college. But Ginny, he was in the investment business. The market's telling you something. So you've kind of got to move on, time to use your degree. And I was just graduating. So this really was my last ditch effort. And I remember on February 15th of 1980 was actually the date that the boycott became official when the Soviets had not responded.
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And I was running stairs at the Yale gym, which was a brutal workout, with a friend of mine named Sally Fisher, who was on the varsity at Yale for four years. And we did a few sets and I stopped at the top of one and said, Sally, you know, this is useless. You know, the Olympics we're boycotting. And she looked at me and said, yup, but we're not done. I got, we got another set and she turned around and started running down the stairs. So I had to run down the stairs after her and we kept doing the sets.
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And then in the US Olympic Committee said that they were going to name every Olympic team. And I just decided I had to keep training and try out, at least for myself, to satisfy myself and see if I could put this period on my rowing career. So that was kind of what kept me motivated. But then what happened was there was a woman named Anita DeFrantz, and I don't know if you recognize her name. She is the US member of our Olympic Committee who is on the International Olympic Committee.
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And she had just graduated from law school and she was a rower, and she had been on the 1976 Olympic team, rowing team. And she was the one who led the fight against the US government to let the US national teams, the Olympic teams, compete. So rowing was right in the middle of the whole political fray around fighting not to discriminate against the athletes, not to undermine the Olympic movement.
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And it was, again, another amazing education.
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So personally, I felt actually torn because, you know, I've never had to go fight a war. I was basically being not asked but told you're going to make this sacrifice. And, you know, I especially back then, I still love being an American, but I'm a little more bruised than I was back in 1980. I felt like I had a duty to, if this was what my country was calling me to do, I felt like, OK, you got to do this. But I also thought it was a really misguided move.
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It did nothing. It undermined the Olympic movement. It didn't get Jimmy Carter what he was looking for. And we were an easy mark because we were not a group that lobbied, if you will, at Congress. So it was, you know, and I was lucky because I did end up competing in '84, but there were hundreds of athletes for 1980 was their only shot, and they, of course, lost that opportunity to compete. Yeah. Oh I bet those four years were a long four years of training.
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But what that taught you in that mental toughness of your whole Olympic experience. I'm, I'm curious, does that discipline you honed prepare you for the business world? I think sports prepares you for life, you know, first of all, life is not fair, and sometimes things, luck of the draw, things are often not fair.
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You often get what you don't deserve as well as what you do, you know, and sometimes you don't get what you do deserve. But I think more than that, it taught me that if I really want something, I can't let other people define for me whether I'm going to accomplish it or not. I just have to give it my best shot. And if I really want it, it doesn't mean it's going to happen, but something will come out of all that effort.
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I'm curious, because you're such a successful businesswoman, is that harder or easier than being an Olympian? Oh, it's much easier, but I'll tell you why. Part of it is a function of my age and what I've learned. When I was rowing, I was so afraid of failure. And I really I didn't understand how powerful teammates were.
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And I ended up after 1980, I switched over to sculling and I became a single sculler. I was in the women's quad, which is four rowers in '82. In '83, I was the single for the US, and then '84 I lost the Olympic trials for the single because ten days before the Olympic trials I broke my rib overtraining and I really didn't rely on the team that I had around me.
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And today in business you might think I'm a great business person. I don't know about that. But what I do know is I have great partners. I have great partners at the Storm level. Both are employees as well as my co-owners. I have great partners at my investment company. Wherever I go, I'm always looking for who are the people who will be fun to work with, frankly, and who share the vision that I have. And that's why business is easier, because no successes, I never think of business, the success that my businesses have enjoyed as something I've done.
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I always think of it as what we've done together. And rowing, I didn't quite feel that way.
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Even though it was still the same case then, too. I spent a lot of my time talking to professional athletes who are transitioning from their professional athlete career into doing something else, and you did that so incredibly successfully. And I'm sure it wasn't smooth or you always knew what the path ahead looked like. But I'm curious if you have any advice for a professional athlete with aspirations to succeed in a second career or as a professional investor?
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I would like to think that all pro athletes really love the sport that they have worked in for all the years they did it. I think for the most part, when we become athletes, we do it kind of because we fall in love. And yes, if you're a pro athlete, especially if you're a male pro athlete, you can make a lot of money. But somewhere there, I mean, what you have to put yourself through, especially if you get injured and invariably you get injured if you're working at that level for that long, you really got to love this. So it actually took me quite a while to figure out what my next jump was.
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And I think the most important thing is to find something that you really care about. It's not enough to just want to make money. I know people say, oh, you're in the investment business. It's not about the money. Of course you need to earn a living. Of course you have to generate a return. But there are things I like about the investment business that keep me there. And there are things that I don't care about as much.
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And certainly with respect to the Storm and being an owner there, the corner of business, sports, and social change where the WNBA, and the Storm especially, live, man, that is my home. That's where I want to be. That's the one thing I would say is, don't give up on this idea that you can do something you love.. That will actually translate to something else, take the time to figure it out.
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And you've clearly pulled your passions and values into those second-career initiatives. And one of the things that I think our viewers are really interested in is that you own a professional sports team. Right. As you mentioned, you have become one of the owners of one of the most successful franchises in the WNBA, having won four WNBA championships with the Seattle Storm. So what was that process like to become an owner?
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And what drove you? Were that those values you mentioned to do this? OK, so this is really kind of a crazy story.
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It's rooted in something sorry, which is that Howard Schultz, who owns, CEO of Starbucks, owned the Sonics and Storm back in the early 2000s and he sold the Sonics and Storm to Clay Bennett, an out-of-towner in Oklahoma. And Clay Bennett could not, and everybody pretty much knew, he could not negotiate a new deal with the city and state, city of Seattle, state of Washington, to build a new arena or upgrade key arena. So he said he was taking the teams out of state. And there was, there was no government funding.
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The government was not willing to step in. So I had become a Storm fan in 2004. I had gotten really fed up with Major League Baseball. I was a huge Yankee fan growing up with my dad, moved to Seattle, became a Mariners fan, but got so tired and frustrated by the league's approach to steroids that I was looking for something new. And that was when I found the Storm and introduced my kids to it. So we had been fans with the first game we went to was the final championship game when the Storm won the first championship in '04.
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So I had a friend named Dawn Trudeau who I knew was an avid fan, and she had been involved a few years earlier and try to bring an ADL team to Seattle. So I saw her at a game in early June of '07, right after all the politics had settled about the Sonics and Storm, and grabbed her in the hall at the key.
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And she you know, she sat in the fancy seats. You know, she had courtside seats. I was in kind of middle, not bad seats, but certainly not courtside. I had no access to her. I had to call her on her cell phone. And reception is terrible in the key. Anyway.
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So I said to her, I pulled her out and I said, Dawn, are you thinking about trying to do anything to keep the Storm there? And she said, I don't know. And I had been working in the investment business. So I finally had some money, and I said, well, if you're, if you decide to do it and you need help, let me know. And at the start of that year, so early 2007, January, I had been, you know, not quite New Year's resolutions, but I had been thinking about like what's going on in my life, what's missing, what what do I need to do. And I had started my family office with my dad in the fall of '04, and I was traveling a lot more out of Seattle.
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I wasn't on any boards and I was really kind of missing my connection with the city. I was feeling like, God, I need to do something here and also I was really missing working with women, because the investment business is so male. And certainly back in '04, it was even more male, and I was just kind of missing, I don't even know what it is about working with women.
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It's not like I can give you a list, but just the sense of ease, I guess. So I was just kind of thinking of those things and then this thing happened with Dawn, Dawn ended up calling me two weeks later saying, yes, I want to do this. I have a small group I want to put together. And that was one of her learnings from the ADL, was she wanted a small group.
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So I sat down with her and Lisa Brummel and we brought on Anne Levinson who really did the deal. Without Anne we wouldn't have gotten a deal done. She worked with Clay to buy the Storm. And the first meeting I had with Lisa and Dawn, Lisa was the head of HR at Microsoft at that point.
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She's another Yalie. She's two years younger than I am, but we really didn't know each other that well. She was, I don't not know how many, I think she had like 13 varsity letters at Yale. And of course, four of them were in basketball. And we sat down at her office. And my first question was like, why does everyone want to do this? Because for me, the first thing was, is there a values alignment? And there was a values alignment. For me, it was about if we can keep the Storm in Seattle and have it stay a successful franchise will help the WNBA. And that's what women's sports needs as a successful women's pro sports league.
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And Lisa and Dawn, certainly I would say, Dawn, a little more than Lisa, were like, that's fine. Lisa is incredibly pragmatic and business focused and she, her feeling was, and they had both been fans since the beginning. Right. I was a Jill come lately to the Storm. They were, I mean, Dawn probably has priority number five at this point. That's how long she's been a season ticket holder. They were, we got to do this for the fans. We have amazing fans. And the other one, which I totally agreed with, is we have to make this business work.
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This is not going to be a hobby because it's not really, again, about making a financial killing. But if you want your league to succeed, that means you have to be able to sell it in the future, which means it has to be income producing. So we were all aligned from the beginning and none of us thought that we were going to get the team. It was, basically, this is a total flyer and then, like, two weeks before Christmas, Anne Levinson called and said, guess what? You're going to own a basketball team.
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And we were like, what? So not ready. That's great. And you've done such an amazing job.
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You and in the rest of the owners.
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And as I reflect on 2020 and all that has happened in sports, one of the things that really stands out to me, and I'm sure does to you, is the focus, the spotlight on racial inequality and how athletes across the WNBA, across the NFL, across major leagues have started to really come forward and use their voice in a way that they haven't maybe been able to in the past or were not, you know, were discouraged to in the past.
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I think one of the ironies that maybe people don't know is that Title IX was enacted as a follow-up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
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I wonder if you could speak to the significance of that and just your thoughts on the WNBA players and using their voice to fight racial inequality? Well, it's so natural, this idea that politics is in your right hand and sports is somewhere far away on the right is just it's not true, especially if you're not male. The WNBA is going to be 25 years old next year. And women have been fighting for access to the right to play the sport they love for a living for longer than that.
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So all the players in the WNBA are so used to just trying to elbow some room for the right to play as it is. And it's only in the last few years that even NBA players have really started stepping forward, recognizing how awesome these women are. And of course, that was one of the huge losses when Kobe died, because he was such an advocate for the game, especially with his daughter being involved.
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So it's nothing new for the W, for the athletes to be advocates for social change. I mean, really, it started with our league in 2016, when Black Lives Matter really started hitting with the Minnesota Lynx and they were the first ones who wore practice shirts with BLM.
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They were, they actually were fined by the president of the league, at that time, Lisa Borders. And at that point we first of all back-channeled with the president and said, time out, do not fine these players. We can tell you that if our players, which we knew was when, do anything like this, we will be supporting them. So those fines were actually rescinded.
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I mean, there was a little bit of a learning curve at the league, but give them credit, not a lot. Given that the league is 80% black, it makes sense that our players would care not just about equity for women, but racial equity also. one of the things that has changed very, for the good since I was an athlete, is that women athletes today, frankly, have no tolerance for all the B.S. that deluded white men, for the most part, throw their way about not having a right to play their sport.
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All those get back in the kitchen comments, blah, blah, blah, that women deal with on the Internet, they are so good at just flicking these guys away, like seriously, they have created the right, like mentally, I think psychically, energetically, the women in the WNBA, and I think women athletes everywhere in the US, believe they have a right to be there shoulder to shoulder with the guys.
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And it was, I think, different in my era. I really had a lot of insecurity about that. I mean, certainly I believed that on one level. But even my father, you know, said things. My mother said things.
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So that also gave WNBA players a place to stand from and not such, it's really not a leap, but more just a step into advocating for racial equity. That's great. Well, hopefully, if anything does come out of 2020, that is good, it will be that more equal playing field for our future youth athletes that are growing up today because of the work that folks like you and players on your team and people are doing today.
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I want to focus on your memoir for a moment.
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You wrote a great memoir that hits on many important issues that we've been covering. It's called Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX. Could you tell our listeners what inspired you to write this? A couple of things. One is, I didn't realize it at the time, but in my twenties, especially when I was in college, I was so exhausted all the time from training. I mean, I was tired and I didn't realize how much of an edge that took off kind of my brain power. And it's not that the investment business and the business of sports isn't challenging, but I kind of wanted a purely intellectual challenge.
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And in my family, we really love words and good writing is really valued. And I thought if I could just write something that I'm proud of, like, that would be meaningful to me.
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So there was that. But then there was also the feeling of, if there was one young person I could reach out there, one human who could read my story and see that no matter how many chips are down, like, you've got to fight for yourself and don't ever give up on yourself. And kind of one of my mantras is don't let other people decide who you're going to be or what you can accomplish. Well, it's worth writing this story.
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So that was really the impetus. I love it. Well, hopefully some of our listeners will go out and get it and take a take a look.
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We've mentioned you're a professional investor and you run the Gilder office for growth. What is your philosophy and values as an investor? Just tell our listeners a little bit about that side of you. So my father was in the investment business starting in the mid-50s, and he had his own firm, Gilder Gagnon & Howe. He worked in that field for 55 years. And he died in May at 87. And he was the one who came to me to say, you know, no one in your generation is really with it on the investment side, what happens when I'm gone?
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Will you help me build a bridge to the future for the family? I had zero, zero work experience in the investment business, and I'll tell you, my dad was a hard ass. And if he thought I could do it, wow! OK, so I built a little family office from the ground up, first working with my dad and then eventually taking on my siblings.
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And my dad was all about growth. He figured that the people who really made the big money concentrated like Bill Gates, and he, he did not invest in new issues, but he invested in growth companies. So he was early on in Walmart, FedEx. Oh, my gosh. I love that he invested in Dunkin Donuts because we had to go sample the product all the time. Denny's. So he was really about growth.
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So it's different within the next generation because my father was really a wizard at investing and we are not. We're good. So we have to invest the money both for growth and also for our clients to put their money to work in terms of their quality of life. My father basically said to his clients, give me whatever money you can that you don't need. So it was put money and never take money out. So people did that for 20, 30 years and ended up doing very well.
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The philosophy is really how do we invest in growth in a way that accommodates what our clients need in terms of their own lives. And we have a much more diversified portfolio than my dad. We're invested in private equity, real estate, as well as equities and some hedge funds. In fact, we've actually decided to create an IRA. We're going to look for a couple of families that want to invest alongside us because, again, we're interested in growth and my employees want a little more opportunity and challenge.
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And we've also started an equity fund, brand new, that my sister and I are funding together, really to focus again on emerging managers, women, non-white, who might not have access to capital because they don't have been able to jump the hoops in terms of institutional support yet investment. So, again, we're trying to do a little social entrepreneurship in the investment business also.
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Love it. The social side of philanthropy, community is very important to you. Tell our listeners what causes you're most focused on.
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You know, my two things are access to opportunity. And when I say two, I think of it, one is in sports. And obviously, you know, my first love in sports was rowing. I don't know if anybody has seen A Most Beautiful Thing. The documentary. I was an executive producer on that. And Arshay Cooper is now working at Pocock Foundation in Seattle to really create a whole new program for rowing programs all across the country to figure out how to diversify in terms of who they're able to reach. So that's an emerging interest.
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I love rowing, but I haven't been wild about continuing to give because I wasn't going to dedicate myself, frankly, to that space. But I wasn't enamored by how, who was getting to row. So sports is always going to be there for me. And then the other one is education. How do you generate access to opportunity for people, young people, so that they get what they need and can really compete in terms of, academically? So those are kind of the two areas where I really focus.
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Well, Ginny, I feel like we could probably talk for another hour, but we're running out of time. So I want to ask you one final question that I've been asking some of our other guests. What lesson did you take away from 2020? Frankly, it's, slow down. You know, you don't have to go flying all across the country every other week to get the stuff done that you really care about, and make sure that you're focusing on the things you love. And the humans you love. Well said, well said. Well, Ginny, we'll wrap it up there.
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Thank you so much for joining us on The Big Stage. Adam, thank you so much for inviting me. This has been awesome. Thank you all for listening. This has been The Big Stage.
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- Adam Sansiveri
- Managing Director —Head of the Nashville Private Client Group and Co-Lead Sports and Entertainment Group