Turning the Tables: An Interview with Beata Kirr

Audio Description

How does an immigrant from the former Soviet Union grow up to become Co-Head of Investments for Bernstein Private Wealth Management? In this episode, Bernstein Women & Wealth Institute co-lead Kim Davis turns the tables on our podcast host Beata Kirr, discussing her formative journey and how it instilled a drive for financial independence at an early age. 

Transcript

00:04 - 00:41

Welcome to Women and Wealth. I'm Beata Kirr, the co-head of investment strategies at Bernstein. And this show aims to educate and inspire women to make the right choices for their wealth. When we launched our Women and Wealth platform now almost five years ago, we and in particular I could not have predicted how it would take off. Here we are several years later, almost 40 podcast episodes in, with a great listener base. National events that have occurred around the

00:41 - 01:20

And judging by the feedback, you know, we hear that discussion on women's voices elevating and participating around their own comfort with their wealth, their values seems to be resonating, and I could not be more proud and excited to say that. First of all, we couldn't do this without an incredible expanding team of women that we have here at Bernstein. There is really a very big village behind me as the host of this discussion and in the spirit of evolution and innovation and continuing to move us forward, I am so excited to really partner with more and more women in this process.

01:20 - 01:42

You've heard me talk to Valerie Grant in a prior episode, and today I'm partnering with Kim Davis, who's going to be by my side closely in the Women and Wealth Institute going forward. Instead of me interviewing Kim Kim is actually going to interview me. So Kim, first of all, welcome. I'm so excited to be working with you on Women and Wealth.

01:42 - 02:05

Hi, Beata, it's so great to be here with you today, and I'm thrilled to be a part of the Women and Wealth Institute. Since I join you for the first time, a bit of background about me. I am a managing director at Bernstein, where I've been leading on advice for women. But really all investors for the last 23 years. So thrilled to be here and turn the tables a bit on you, Beata.

02:05 - 02:08

Beata. I really thank you for your partnership and I'm excited to chat with you today.

02:08 - 02:27

Well, great. So why don't we dive right in? Because Beata, beyond hosting our podcast and leading our Women and Wealth Institute, you wear a lot of hats. You're the Co-head of Investments for our entire private client business, making key decisions for 110 billion dollars in assets. But I want to rewind a bit because you have such an interesting back story.

02:28 - 02:34

Can you share a bit about why you're so passionate about helping women and your personal story and your formative journey?

02:34 - 03:17

I came here as an immigrant when I was five years old, and in fact, we came here as what was then, you know, political refugees from the former Soviet Union. As Jews, in 1979, there was an agreement reached between Carter and Brezhnev that allowed us to emigrate. At that time, a very small group of citizens in the Soviet Union were able to come to America. And I was one of them, and I'm an only child and I have some pretty brave parents because I can't imagine uprooting my family with a child at the age, they were in their 30s, giving up their life, ultimately seeing the opportunity in the United States being much bigger than the opportunity in what was then the former Soviet Union. It is now Latvia and a country that's a member of the EU.

03:17 - 03:51

But going through that immigrant experience in the US as an only child and seeing my parents struggle to really rebuild their lives, both highly credentialed, highly educated professionals, scientists, doctor, chemist. But really having to see my parents both start over completely, you know, starting out in public housing and in St. Louis and growing up in a household where it was very, very clear that the whole reason that they emigrated was for me. You know, no pressure, or anything, but I darn well better be successful financially and better be independent as a result.

03:51 - 04:23

So that was really how I was grounded in my childhood. And I ended up going to Wharton, not because I knew what The Wall Street Journal was or what investment banking was or had a parent that was in M&A. But because I figured out that this was a field where I could ultimately pay off my loans and be financially independent, so my choice to end up in finance was entirely a practical one. And then it's been a long journey since then where, of course, I've learned to love the role and digging in and making investment decisions and working with clients is ultimately my passion.

04:24 - 05:12

But to fast forward, Kim, to, you know, Women and Wealth, I'd say the reason for starting the conversation was that in a much later point in my career, I had noticed more and more women in the room. And that was exciting. I was often the only woman in the room along the career journey, both internally and externally. But clearly a shift was underway where more women were controlling their financial assets and oftentimes felt not as comfortable in the room, not as comfortable asking the questions. And it felt like we had a real opportunity to establish a conversation and a voice, engage with women differently. And first and foremost, make everybody feel comfortable and like it's an even playing field in having the discussion around their financial assets. So hopefully that gets to what you are thinking in terms of the journey.

05:12 - 05:14

I think that's great and there's so much there.

05:15 - 05:35

And since this is Women and Wealth, I'd love to talk about your parents and focus on your mom. What's your mom's name, Irene? Irene Drazen. And you talked about how she had to rebuild. So can you tell me a little bit more about her? Because something we've talked about in the past and also with Valerie about is the fact that we were raised by trailblazing mothers. So I'd love to hear a little bit more about her.

05:35 - 05:58

Yes, and I definitely want to talk about my mom, but I have to say my father had to rebuild as well. So my father was an MD, PhD, and had to reestablish himself by not only redoing medical school, but also his residencies here, passing the test of English as a foreign language and really just a tremendous amount of re-education despite having been highly credentialized as a publishing PhD in Latvia.

05:58 - 06:29

And so as a result of that re-education that my father had to pursue, my mother is an organic chemist. Her first job in America was at Monsanto. She was very grateful to, you know, immediately be able to be placed with her skills. She had also been an English translator in the Soviet Union, so those skills continue to play a role. And she was moonlighting on a radio station. Also working that and at some points in her life, she also had a third job just in retail to help, you know, supplement income while my father was in school.

06:30 - 07:18

So look, I was a latchkey kid. I had nobody home with me. I remember a time when a tornado came through town, as it does in St. Louis, and I had to figure out what furniture exactly I should hide under at that time, because the TV told me to do it. Both my parents were at work. It was just a different era. I learned to be really independent and I learned from my mother, you know, how to make ends meet and just get up every day and kind of grind through it. And again, it was my mother and father working together to do that. But I think the fact that I saw both of them doing that really equally and, you know, it wasn't an equality issue. It was just that there was no question that they were both participating equally in lifting ourselves up. So I didn't think of her as a trailblazer then. I just thought it was normal. But as I grew up, I recognized that, you know, perhaps it was less normal than what you most often see.

07:19 - 07:24

Well, I think that your path is extraordinary. But you know, it's your experience.

07:24 - 07:50

So let's talk about your journey because you did have to find your independence and make it on your own a lot of ways because, you know, your parents were working so hard and you had to figure a lot of things out in your own. Let's talk about some of the setbacks in your journey. So you've had this incredible career and it's far from over where you keep climbing. But can we talk about some of the setbacks and who were your support networks or how did you find that support during that journey?

07:50 - 08:40

Well, there's a lot of setbacks to talk about. So as I thought about you asking this question, I thought, which one should I highlight that are most instructive and interesting, especially for our younger listeners along the way? And you know, I'm going to focus on the bigger picture. I'm going to focus on the fact that I think one of the most valuable lessons all of us can have in our career is, number one, to look at it as a long arc, to look at it as a marathon. I'm not really known for my patience. I'm very impatient and I think that impatience has served me well in getting things done and ultimately achieving big goals. But that also can serve you not well, right? Because there's periods of time in your career where you're thinking, What's my next step and what's my next progression and a very wise mentor and probably my most influential manager, you know, told me the same thing.

08:40 - 09:10

This is a marathon. You have to be patient. Things work themselves out over time, right? Change happens in organizations, especially large organizations, on average, slowly. So sometimes those setbacks are when you're not in the position you want to be in at that time, you know, what do you tell yourself? Do you make a change or do you wait patiently? And as it turns out, that patience has turned out to serve me well at Bernstein, where I have now been for almost 15 years. And so that's one thing I think that's important to discuss.

09:10 - 09:39

But there's a second, there's a second really important lesson in financial services in particular, and that is that there's only so much you can control and it's a great lesson for life in general, right? And as you know, as moms, we know that, as people, we should recognize that. But look, financial services can be a volatile career. It's much more influenced by economic cycles than many other industries. And so I think it's important to share that I have been let go in my

09:39 - 10:15

And, you know, that occurred to me at a relatively young age in the sell side kind of trading floor environment at another firm. And it was a horrible recession and there were lots of layoffs. And it was a really uncomfortable and unpleasant thing that happened to me. It was shocking. It's the first time that ever happened to me, and I took such pride in my work and I was really, you know, scarred by that moment, but as it turns out, I know this is the classic kind of silver lining story, but it's really important to tell this story that where that occurred was at a point in time where I wasn't feeling really comfortable with the

10:15 - 11:02

the I had learned a lot about the environment not being one that I felt great about, the trading floor environment. The pressure for sales didn't sit well with me, and even though the way in which it occurred was not the way that I would advise to occur, the ultimate outcome led to a much better situation and gave me the time and space to really explore not only what is the role I want to play, but what type of company, what type of corporate culture, what type of environment and people do I want to work with? And I think had that not occurred to me, right? Had I not been let go in that, you know, eighth round of layoffs at that time, I wouldn't have had that opportunity. I may have still been there grinding it out, and that opportunity ultimately led to really good things.

11:02 - 11:24

So I think it's really important to be transparent and vulnerable about situations like that in your long career. For the younger generation to recognize that it's possible that that happens and to not be sidelined by it, to really understand that, you know, kind of lift yourself up by your bootstraps and think more broadly about the opportunity that it creates, because for me, that's exactly what occurred.

11:25 - 11:49

I think it's so important because when people see somebody who's got a long track record of success, it's hard to see, if you don't know the back story, those moments where you had what at the time might seem like setbacks or failures. You mentioned something really important. You recognized that certain aspects of culture were really important to you. If you compare and contrast it to what you'd come from, so what were you looking for in terms of culture when you were looking for your next step?

11:50 - 12:16

And I'm really glad you asked that follow-up question because for me, I am really the consummate team player. I don't like to use the word "I". Even today, as a leader of a team, I think about success, my success being defined by the team's success and about lifting people up along the way and about really bringing together ideas, making decisions from a, you know, consensus point of view. And it's not always possible in every single

12:16 - 13:12

But I think you do have to identify a culture that serves you well, and the culture that serves me well is a culture where it's not sharp elbows, but it's a "We" mentality. And I think sometimes you have to dig a little bit deeper to say, like, what is it about a culture that would be one way versus another? And I remember reading something along the way about, you know, cultures that have a lot of sports analogies that tend to be a little bit sharper elbows at times. Everybody likes to win, but there's a lot of winning related to sports, you know, is it a team sport or is it an individual sport? And something, it just caught my eye because it happens to be when I was on the trading floor environment, it was very much like that, right? It seemed like everybody I worked with had been a college athlete and in a more individual team sport than a team sport. And so I think just being collaborative and a team player and really that focus on winning together is very important to me.

13:12 - 13:34

I agree, and I think about how you describe teams and the collaboration, just thinking about what we've been going through today. It's been a very difficult period that we've all been going through personally, professionally, and I'd love to hear from you what you've gone through and how you've kept it together, you know, with everything you're doing to keep us through a period where we can't control everything. And it's been very hard.

13:34 - 13:36

Have I kept it together? Do you think I have?

13:37 - 13:44

Well, let's put it this way, we've all, well, we can talk about that. We can define keeping it together. But to me, you've never let us down.

13:44 - 14:20

Yeah. Well, thank you, Kim. I mean, I joke, but I have joke because look, I think there is this facade that we all have to put up. And I think actually being vulnerable and transparent and honest is one of the ways in which I do keep it together. And I hope it doesn't, you know, stress people out more. But I'm a sharer. I'm always up front to say, here's where I'm at, where are you at? And as it turns out, if you share how you're doing, oftentimes people come into the tent with you and share how they are doing. And that's not necessarily the norm in corporate environments. And I think that's a choice that leaders can make around the environment that they want to set the tone for. How much do you want to share?

14:20 - 15:00

I think the the stark reality of life is that, back to the marathon analogy, right, we are all going to go through periods of time where there's enormous stress on us personally. Children are sick, parents are sick. You know, moves occur, big changes in careers. There isn't this separation of work and life, that you really want to build a culture where you understand that people...life is life and that is part of the workday. It shows up and you have to build teams where there's slack in those teams. There's ability for life to function during work, and I think you can build organizations like that. That's really, really important.

15:00 - 15:42

But back to this question of am I keeping it together, I mean, I think like everybody else, just like you, Kim. Getting up every day, doing the job, doing the best you can to carve out time for yourself and keep your sanity. And I don't think I'd give myself an A. I think I'm keeping my sanity to the best of my ability. I think I am not one of those people that, you know, would say, Wow, I've really thrived in this pandemic. I'm not somebody that's like, Oh, I lost 20 pounds and I taught my kids Mandarin. No. My kids are playing video games. My daughter's on TikTok. I'm concerned about their screen time. So look, I don't have any good advice there. I think I'm just doing the best I can like everybody else.

15:42 - 16:19

Well, we all are. And when you go through what we've gone through and it's individual, you know, a B, or getting through is an A, you know, in my opinion. You know, and that's keeping yourself together. And I think you have one of the things that I talk to a lot of women leaders about is what type of leadership is right, you know, going forward. There's different types of leadership, you know, depending on the individual. But we hear more about vulnerability, to your point, in leadership and a different style of leadership, and how many women are in some ways more suited for leadership. So I'd love to understand how you're inspiring and helping to keep your team together through this period?

16:20 - 17:15

Well, and again, here being really honest, it is really only the last five years that I've recognized the power of my voice and using that voice for good, for broader change. The launching of Women and Wealth was the first big initiative that looked like that, and that was really about connecting with our clients and potential clients and professional partners in a way that I thought was critical. I mean, to your point, it was not in my job description. It was not in my day. I was worried about implementing portfolios for clients and then said, wait a second, we need to elevate women's voices and make sure that women are included in the conversation and create this safe space of conversation. I did that because I felt like it was the right thing to do. Now, as it turns out, it also helped influence more women joining the firm and feeling great about working here because of this initiative. And that was this unexpected positive outcome from that decision.

17:15 - 17:47

So I guess that taught me a lot about the power of voice and using it for good. And I think today, when I'm consciously focused on leadership and the power of that voice, I like to think of myself as a servant leader. I am in a position where my job is to elevate the people that are on our team to make sure they're happy, successful, growing, comfortable and engaged. You know, I hope that's the type of leader I aim to be, but I think it's a lifetime process to get there.

17:47 - 18:00

Speaking of lifetime process and the lifetime or the future of women and wealth, I'd love to hear your vision for where we go and how Women and Wealth evolves and what you're seeing in terms of trends and where we take it from here.

18:01 - 18:42

Well, one of the things I'm most excited about, Kim, is my partnership with you, bringing additional voices into the Women and Wealth story. The Women and Wealth story, as I've said, really started around creating a voice and an opportunity for women to engage. I think the future is, we knew this at the outset, but it's even more clear today, women are not a monolith. Never have been. We work with women in transition. We work with women who are founders of businesses and selling. We work with women who are philanthropists. Everybody's unique. But in all cases, we're looking to help women elevate their voice, find their confidence in engaging with their financial assets. And people's

18:42 - 18:49

levels vary. Some people come in and are already incredibly confident, so we're engaging in a different way in that dialogue.

18:49 - 19:19

So I'm excited about getting a partnership on Women and Wealth with younger women and hearing from the millennial generation of women and the Gen Z generation of women, and really pivoting to talking about what can we do to bring up the 20-somethings and the 30-somethings in this generation and not necessarily kind of the demographic that we've historically really highlighted in Women and Wealth, but really excited about your energy, Kim, and others on the team to, you know, just mix it up going forward.

19:19 - 19:44

I'm excited to be part of the mix. And, you know, going back to your point on the partnership and many voices, you know, I think sometimes I hear that people think about Women and Wealth or other efforts in our industry to authentically work with women, and they think of women working with women. And I think it's broader, to your point with your parents, it's men and women. And so I'd love to hear your thoughts on, you know, what role men play in Women and Wealth.

19:44 - 20:31

Well, obviously, you know, men are the most critical allies for women to continue to gain their voice and comfort in financial literacy and fluency. And I think the men are very much on board and recognize this seismic shift that has occurred with women controlling more assets than they've ever controlled, and look, I think we have to be honest, this industry has this history of, you know, go watch the movie, like whether it's a Wolf on Wall Street or Boiler Room. You know that when I started in this industry, that's not that far off from what it looked like in the 90s on a trading floor. And so that wasn't really such a great environment for women, and I think a lot has changed and more has changed in the last five years than in some ways the last forty-five years on Wall Street.

20:31 - 20:53

So there's been this seismic shift where there's just a recognition of, look, you've got to talk to everybody as an equal. You can never talk over anybody, you can never ignore anybody. And there's really severe consequences for that. And we've certainly met women that, you know, make it clear that there are. And so I think, I think everybody's got to pay attention. This isn't a conversation just amongst women.

20:53 - 20:54

No, I agree.

20:54 - 21:14

Last question and something that is one of your favorite questions to ask your guests. Love to hear from you. You talk about funding your favorites and really building intentional financial decisions and prioritizing what's meaningful and matters to you. So I would love to hear from you. What are your favorites and what do you care about when you think about your own financial success?

21:14 - 21:41

Yeah, I thought a lot about this question. I just got back from a vacation and it actually, I'll tell a story about that related to that point. But I don't think I was intentional about finding my favorites or living my values all these various ways to describe it until the last couple of years. Again, blinders on, doing your job, getting through the day, raising kids, all of those things that take up our 24/7 world.

21:41 - 22:16

And I'm not exactly sure what the catalyst was, but I actually think it was Bernstein's work around forming what we call our family engagement practice and this idea around values and mission statement, and we had started to do these kinds of exercises at work, and I really turned the lens on myself and said, wait a second, what are my most important values and how am I expressing that as an individual? And actually, my husband and I had a lot of conversation about that, and he was reaching a point in his career where he was even more feeling this need to be aligned with our values.

22:16 - 22:48

And so fundamentally, one of our biggest values is, you know, giving back; this idea that we've been fortunate to have success. And what does that mean in terms of how do we teach our kids that are in a very different position than I was growing up? They're not seeing a lot of suffering, struggle, rebuilding, they're seeing parents working hard, but they're not seeing us rebuilding our life in America like I saw my parents. How do we get them to have that grit and the resilience and yet also be charitably inclined and think about doing good?

22:48 - 23:20

So actually, my husband and I made a collective decision that he was going to leave his job and look for work in the nonprofit space. And that coincided actually with just about the beginning of COVID. And so it turned out to be a really good decision for our family. I think to answer your earlier question about how I've been surviving, you know, my husband hasn't been working and that provided incredible flexibility for me to focus on work and really give it my all, flexibility that probably 95 percent of women didn't have over this period of time. But it was a really conscious choice

23:20 - 23:54

we made, obviously with financial impact on our household, and the way we thought about it is that, you know, he's really giving back to our community through consulting for nonprofits, playing a much more active role in the school community, really forming even nonprofit boards through the school community to participate more actively there as well, and frankly, giving the time to our kids at really important ages to be home and be present. And so that was the value that we really chose to express through that decision in our household, and we feel good about that value.

23:54 - 24:44

And then the last thing is, I'll come back to the vacation story. We decided to do this value exercise with our kids over dinner. Our kids are 10 and 13, and this is this exercise where you have this, you know, kind of 50 cards that have values on them and you have to choose the top five values. And so we went around and each of us chose our values independently, and then we shared our values and talked to each other. And you know, our kids are old enough where they could do that, and we were blown away by the values that our kids chose. It was, you know, I'm probably going to tear up now talking about it. But the fact that they chose integrity and community and equality as values, you know, really to me was like, Oh my gosh, we have not failed as parents, we are raising human beings that, you know, have values that represent what we believe in. So it turns out it seems to be working. So I'm really excited to share that.

24:45 - 25:00

Well, what I know about you for many years, I am not surprised that you've instilled those values, so, Beata, thank you for sharing your story and including me in the conversation and look forward to our next one. My pleasure.

25:00 - 25:29

Thank you so much, Kim. It was really an honor to have a chance to tell my story, and I really just want to thank our listeners here at Women and Wealth for participating in our journey together. If you enjoyed the podcast and haven't subscribed to our show, please go to Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you listen to subscribe and rate us. You can also find us on Twitter at BernsteinPWM or find me, Beata Kirr, on LinkedIn.

Host
Beata Kirr
Co-Head—Investment Strategies

The information presented and opinions expressed are solely the views of the podcast host commentator and their guest speaker(s). AllianceBernstein L.P. or its affiliates makes no representations or warranties concerning the accuracy of any data. There is no guarantee that any projection, forecast or opinion in this material will be realized. Past performance does not guarantee future results. The views expressed here may change at any time after the date of this podcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment advice. AllianceBernstein L.P. does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. It does not take an investor’s personal investment objectives or financial situation into account; investors should discuss their individual circumstances with appropriate professionals before making any decisions. This information should not be construed as sales or marketing material or an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any financial instrument, product or service sponsored by AllianceBernstein or its affiliates.

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