By Rachael Chong
Margo Alexander is not a woman you want to bet against. She has made a career out of making the right judgments and defying the odds herself. At Harvard Business School, she was one of only 24 women in her class of 800. During her 33-year career at Paine Webber and UBS Global Asset Management, she became the first woman to head a research department for a major firm, the first woman to preside over a trading floor, and one of the first women to become chairman and CEO of a large asset management company. In 2002, Alexander picked yet another winner in Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of the then startup Acumen Fund. She joined Acumen, chairing its board for nine of its first 10 years, and currently serves as chair emeritus and chairman of Social Impact Investing Committee. She also serves on the advisory board for UC Berkeley's Haas School and its Center for Responsible Business and the NY Stem Cell Research Foundation.
"For my whole life I have been a big believer in luck and that life is not fair," she says. "A lot of people, for no good reason and no fault of their own end up on the short end of the stick and a lot of people become very lucky for sometimes no good reason either."
She views philanthropic work as an extension of what is fair. Her actions show us that working to level the playing field and creating opportunities for others is a deep, long-lasting form of generosity.
Throughout her career in finance, Alexander focused intently on excelling at her job, building a strong family, and accumulating assets. She recalls the common calls to give back but her generosity is rooted in something much deeper. "I hear 'give back' all the time and it just doesn't resonate. It's kind of like `I'm paying off a debt or I feel a little guilty,' which is different. Generosity is a process of sharing or not being afraid to share."
Alexander was exposed to a rich diversity of thought and culture as a student at Berkeley in the `60s, something that stood in stark contrast to the lack of diversity in finance. She went to HBS with a desire to change that trend. After a steady rise through the ranks of PaineWebber, Alexander used her senior position to promote diversity by hiring more qualified women than other departments.
Alexander's focus on addressing inequities remained a driving force as she transitioned from the corporate sector to the nonprofit sector. Despite having no particular interest in poverty alleviation and the organization's lack of track record in its early stages, Alexander signed on to chair the Acumen Fund's Board because she saw the potential in Jacqueline Novogratz as a leader. Ms. Alexander's talent in identifying talent was again proved wildly correct. Acumen Fund is a pioneer in the field of venture philanthropy. The global impact investment fund has not only changed the way we think of poverty alleviation, but has mobilized over $80 million in capital to 72 enterprises in eight countries around the world, resulting in the creation of 55,000 jobs.
On one of her first trips to India to assess an Acumen investment, she recounts a conversation she had sitting on the dirt floor of a married couple's home. They were talking about what they would do with their doubled income, and the man said he wanted to buy more land to plant more crops to expand their business; the woman, on the other hand, said she wanted to use the money to build an addition to the house. Realizing a shared humanity between a rural family in India and her own family confirmed for Alexander why sharing her wealth and good fortune is so important. We are all part of the same ecosystem.
"One thing about philanthropy is that it connects you with the outcome of other people's lives, just as though they were your family or very close friend. You feel that somehow the work you are doing, you have a shared outcome."
Today, Alexander serves as the chair of Acumen's Committee of Social Impact Investing. She reminds us that we cannot control the circumstances we are born into but we can control how we contribute to the world and how we approach inequity: "It just seems like an easier way to live: to be generous than to not."
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.