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Remarks by Dr. Judith Rodin at the Financial Women’s Association, “Celebrating the Power of Women”

Thank you to the Financial Women’s Association for this honor. I feel privileged to be in the company of such inspiring, accomplished, and truly remarkable women, and of course, you too, Tyler [Mathisen].

Betsy [West], Barbara [Krumsiek]—I am honored to share this podium with you tonight.

This award is a testament to how our world is changing, and how our roles are blurring. It used to be that our sectors were more clearly delineated—capital markets were responsible for generating mass amounts of wealth, and philanthropy was charged with helping to spend some of that wealth in benefit of those otherwise shut out of traditional economic systems.

But the calculus is no longer that simple.

Today our global problems are too heady and too thorny for philanthropy to solve alone. Philanthropic capital totals in the billions, yet there are trillions of dollars in social needs—from crumbling infrastructure to gender inequity—that require our attention around the world.

And today there is increased recognition that the goals of finance and philanthropy are more similar than they are separate. Both want prosperous societies, robust economic growth, and good health outcomes…because these are the things that fuel strong markets.

Emboldened by these realities, we see finance and philanthropy intermingling much more frequently, if you will, bringing Wall Street to Main Street.

For example, at the Rockefeller Foundation, we’re helping to build an enabling environment for a number of financing innovations, from creating the model for social impact bonds in the United States, to innovating new models of microinsurance with the insurance industry, to building critical infrastructure to grow the field of impact investing enabling socially-motivated investors to generate financial returns as well as create positive social and environmental benefits. We salute Barbara and Calvert Investments, which has been at the forefront of socially-responsible and impact investing.

Now, you might also ask yourself what any of this has to do with women.

In my experience—quite a bit.

For one, women all over the world stand to benefit the most from these types of financial arrangements which they use disproportionately to feed their families, send their children to school, and re-invest in their communities.

Second, I don’t believe it is a coincidence that as more women take their places in board rooms, governing bodies, C-suites, and other spaces where decisions are being made, we have seen a rise in the kinds of innovations that blend both financial returns and social good, whether it’s better, more equitable policies in the workplace or the kinds of innovative mechanisms that channel private capital towards better health systems or greater resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Let me give you one example of how this played out in my own career.

When I was leading at University of Pennsylvania, I was urged by many of my trustees —mostly men—to insulate the university against the disadvantaged Philadelphia community at our doorstep.

It was well-intentioned advice, but I had no intention of taking it.

How could I exhort our students to give back to society, if we as an institution were unwilling to engage? Instead, we built an award-winning neighborhood revitalization program in West Philadelphia—recognizing that as a university we could do so much more for, and with, our surrounding community.

Indeed, when I look back over my career in academia and now in philanthropy, and I count up all the well-intentioned advice I’ve received to be cautious about doing something is often it’s the advice that I’ve ignored which has yielded my greatest successes.

One example I remember so well came from one of America’s pre-eminent advice-givers, among the corporate world’s leading executive recruiters, whose client list included several Fortune 100 companies. I had just been offered the top position at the University of Pennsylvania, at a time when there were only four women university presidents, and none in the Ivy League, which is fortunately hard to believe today.

He took me to lunch and cut to the chase: “Judy, this is a great opportunity. You have a wonderful reputation. Just don’t screw it up.”

Now, at first I was flattered. A wonderful reputation is nice. But the more I thought about it, the angrier I became. Don’t screw it up? What exactly did that mean? Keep my head down? Don’t speak out? Don’t take risks?

I thought: Of course I’m going to speak out. Of course I’m going to take risks. I’ll probably offend someone and make a few mistakes. Not out of any lack of diplomacy, or competence, or integrity. But by having the ambition to aim high, the confidence to take chances, and the boldness to lead.

And so I encourage you, no matter if you continue to climb the ladder of finance, or to borrow a phrase from my friend Sheryl Sandberg, climb the jungle gym to new opportunities, I hope you’ll take chances. I hope you’ll be bold. I hope you’ll aim high.

And I hope you’ll continue use your talents to help people think about problems in different ways and help lift up women all over the world.

In my experience, it’s a formula for a fulfilling and rewarding career—and lasting, transformative change.

Once again I’d like to thank the Financial Women’s Association for inviting me to share this evening with such extraordinary women. Thank you.