Breaking through: 10 women smashing PE’s glass ceiling

Meet 10 female private equity executives who excel at their jobs and are paving the way for other women to follow in their footsteps.

In 2016, Buyouts put together articles featuring Women in Private Equity with the theme of “Trailblazers,” or up-and-coming women shaking up the predominantly white male PE industry.

This year, we’re doing it again but with a slightly different theme. Instead of featuring future stars, we’re focusing on women executives at all levels doing their part to break the mold in the industry.

Here you’ll find women at mid-career to more experienced executives who have found ways to excel in their careers and build families. We try to focus mostly on dealmakers, which is the area of PE truly dominated by men.

For sure, women still have a long way to go before PE can be said to be anywhere close to gender balanced (or ethnically balanced). By shining a spotlight on this issue, we hope to do our part to help push the industry out of the past and into a future of diversity and inclusion.

Sandra Horbach

Sandra Horbach, managing director and co-head of U.S. buyout group, Carlyle

Sandra Horbach doesn’t mind being called a pioneer even though she didn’t set out to become one when she joined her first private equity firm nearly 30 years ago.

In 1987, Forstmann Little & Co hired Horbach, a Chinese-studies major from Wellesley College, as an associate. She had just graduated from Stanford GSB after a two-year stint in Morgan Stanley’s analyst program (she focused on M&A).

Five years later, in 1992, she became Forstmann’s first woman partner. She left the buyout shop in 2004 for Carlyle Group. Last year, Carlyle made Horbach a co-head of its U.S. buyout arm.

Breaking down barriers wasn’t her goal. Horbach said she wanted to build businesses for her investors. “As result of being one of the first investors in industry, and one of the first women, I’m categorized as pioneer. I don’t object to it. But it wasn’t the reason for pursuing my career in PE,” she said.

Horbach may be one of the most senior women in PE but she’s also a dealmaker. A very good dealmaker. One of her more prominent deals was the sale of Beats Electronics to Apple in 2014 for $3 billion.

Carlyle, which owned a stake in Beats, made 1.7x its money on the sale. The deal produced a 75 percent IRR, she said. “The multiple would’ve been bigger but we owned it only for 10 months,” Horbach said.

Another exit came in 2016. Carlyle sold Vogue International, known for its OGX haircare products, to Johnson & Johnson for $3.3 billion. Carlyle made 3.6x its money on the investment, which produced an 86 percent IRR.

While she didn’t set out to break down barriers, she does say she has a responsibility to be a role model. Horbach spends much time mentoring men and women, inside and outside Carlyle, as well as traveling to events to recruit prospective Carlyle candidates.

Horbach frequently speaks at gatherings, including the upcoming Women’s Private Equity Summit, to encourage women to consider the industry: “Mentoring young people and helping to develop them will be my most important legacy. At the end of the day, this will be my legacy more than any single deal.”

Rene Yang

Rene Yang, Vista Equity

Even before making her mark in private equity, Rene Yang was a big believer in opening the financial world to more women.

Yang, 34, co-founded and was president of Columbia Women’s Business Society. She was shocked that a university in New York City didn’t have a women’s business club. That organization is now one of the largest pre-professional groups on campus.

Yang joined Vista in 2007 as an associate, prior to which she held analyst roles at Yahoo and Lehman Brothers. She was Vista’s first female hire on the deal side of the business. She quickly climbed the ranks and last year was named co-head of Vista’s new microcap strategy, Endeavor Fund.

Her deal highlights include Accruent and Mitratech, two of Vista’s highest-performing investments. She also led Bullhorn Inc, AGDATA and Lone Wolf Real Estate Technologies Inc — the last of which she sourced by building a relationship with the founder over the course of two years.

Yang is Canadian and spends her spare time playing ice hockey and skiing the most challenging mountains North America offers.

Kimberly Reed

Kimberly Reed, partner, One Rock Capital

For Kimberly Reed, working in finance started out as something to do after college but evolved into a private equity career that became a passion.

“I fell in love with it immediately. I love all aspects of private equity, even 20 years later, I still think I found my dream job,” Reed said.

She loves three things about private equity: meeting entrepreneurs (“I love meeting people like that, salt-of-the-earth people who work really hard”); the significance of the investment decisions the firm makes for limited partners; and her ability to serve as a role model for her daughters.

Reed, 44, worked at various PE shops, including Chase Capital Partners, Waterview Advisors and American Capital

Strategy, before connecting with some old friends, Tony Lee and Scott Spielvogel, who were thinking about starting their own shop — One Rock Capital Partners.

Reed grew up with Lee in Washington State, and she worked with Spielvogel earlier in her career. “I set him up with one of my close college friends, and now they’re married,” Reed said. “We’ve all been friends for 20 years.”

Reed unofficially helped the partners look at a few deals, and then “we realized the three of us, even though we were good friends, were also good professional colleagues,” Reed said. She joined as a partner. (Lee and Spielvogel are managing partners.)

Reed considers herself lucky to have partners who support her responsibilities. She works as hard as they do but on occasion she has to rush to her daughters’ (ages 8 and 5) games or help with homework. “They enable me to have work-life balance,” she said.

Outside work, Reed enjoys throwing big dinner parties, “I like to joke that’s the only time [my husband] gets to put me in the kitchen.” She and her husband also collect art.

Jen Mulloy

Jennifer Mulloy, managing director, TA Associates

Helping companies improve healthcare outcomes has proved rewarding for Jennifer Mulloy, whose ability to engineer deals in this complex sector propelled her advancement into the senior ranks at TA Associates.

“Whether it’s working to improve the quality of care, working to become more efficient, or using technology to tackle some of the big issues in healthcare, it’s really satisfying,” said Mulloy, who is a managing director at the firm.

Mulloy, 43, first joined TA’s Boston office in 1998 as an associate after departing Robertson Stephens. She ultimately returned to her home state in 2005, when she moved to the firm’s Menlo Park, California, office. Today she co-heads TA’s North American healthcare and consumer groups and sits on its executive committee.

One recent transaction of which Mulloy is particularly proud is the firm’s August 2015 investment in CCRM, a network of fertility clinics. CCRM presented an opportunity to work with leaders in the fertility space to advance the field. TA also saw opportunity because the space lacks a clear leader, she said.

Mulloy, who sits on the boards of CCRM, Dutch, MedRisk and Twin Med, said being a woman in finance hasn’t been an issue for her at TA.

“I’ve always thought that every opportunity was there for the taking,” Mulloy said.

When she’s not working or traveling, Mulloy spends time on “mom-style activities.”

“I’m very focused on working really hard and doing a great job, and then coming home and being a good mom” to her three children, Mulloy said.

Mulloy received a bachelor’s with honors in economics from Stanford University in 1995 and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 2002.

Jeri Harman

Jeri Harman, managing partner and CEO, Avante Mezzanine Partners

Jeri Harman knew a few things about starting a business before she launched Avante Mezzanine Partners in 2009. A veteran of American Capital and Allied Capital, she’d led the launch of Los Angeles offices for both firms and served on Allied’s investment committee.

“I was able to take that and use it to do the same thing at Avante,” Harman told Buyouts. “It was harder at Avante because I didn’t have the infrastructure and parent that I did before. We had to do it truly on our own, without someone else writing the checks.”

Another critical difference was timing. Launching a new firm and raising a debut fund are herculean tasks, and doing both at the start of the global financial crisis added a degree of difficulty.

“It was brutal. But if you can do that — the silver lining there — if you can raise a fund in 2009-2010, you can do anything,” she said.

Avante provides subordinated debt and minority equity to small established companies in the lower middle market, typically investing $5 million to $25 million per deal. The firm closed its oversubscribed second fund on $250 million after just six months on the market in 2015.

In addition to her work at Avante, Harman’s holds leadership roles at the Small Business Investor Alliance and Association for Corporate Growth’s local Los Angeles conference.

She also sits on the steering committee of the Private Equity Women Investor Network, a networking and advocacy organization that furthers the role of women in an industry long dominated by men.

“I do think there’s a genuine desire by the PE industry to be inclusive, but accomplishing that is more challenging than wishing it will happen,” Harman said. “I think it’s a step in the right direction. I don’t think we’re there. I think we’re on our way there, but we have a long way to go.”

Mina Pacheco Nazemi

Mina Pacheco Nazemi, founder and managing partner, Aldea Capital Partners

While still in business school at Harvard, back in 2003, Mina Pacheco Nazemi consulted with CalPERS on emerging managers. “I’ve always kind of been ahead of the market,” she said. Having watched the category develop, “I kind of drank the Kool-Aid and decided to become an emerging manager myself.”

After 10 years with a team that started at Credit Suisse and then moved to GCM Grosvenor, Pacheco Nazemi, 40, decided to launch her own firm, Aldea Capital Partners, encouraged by clients and others in the market.

“I definitely had my eyes wide open,” she said of the challenges involved. “The world of fund-of-funds needs to evolve,” beset by high fees and a lack of strategic value. “We’re thinking beyond being a transactional relationship to being a more strategic relationship.”

On women’s representation in the industry, Pacheco Nazemi was blunt: “I think it’s horrible; I’ll be honest,” she said. “There needs to be more of a focus on that from the institutional LPs.”

Given the dearth of firms that are truly female-led, “We need to encourage and support more women who grew up in the investment world, know how to make investments, know how to manage a portfolio, etc., and enable those women to branch out and be on their own. The market has not supported a lot of women.”

Those starting out should spend their time getting to know LPs: “If we’re really trying to have more women in this business, they have to build their network with the institutional base.”

Outside of work, Pacheco Nazemi spends time with her husband and two kids, as well as young people whom she mentors. “I wouldn’t be here without people who helped me and supported me along the way, and so that’s my way of giving back to the community.”

Karen King

Karen King, chief legal officer, Silver Lake

Big-league private equity firms need big-league lawyers, and Silver Lake Chief Legal Officer Karen King assembled a team that’s guided the firm through more than a decade of rapid expansion and growth.

King, who holds degrees from Duke University and Harvard Law School, manages a team of Silver Lake lawyers stretching from the firm’s Menlo Park, California, headquarters to Hong Kong. Their responsibilities run the gamut: fundraising, deal execution, portfolio management and risk management.

“I’m a deep believer in mentorship. Over half the members of my team are women, and I believe it’s my responsibility to do everything I can to help them develop as leaders,” King told Buyouts.

Prior to Silver Lake, King covered capital-market transactions, high-yield financings, initial public offerings and M&A for Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. The experience included work with PE sponsors.

The role of King’s team grew as Silver Lake moved into new strategies and geographies, including offices in London and Hong Kong. “I’m lucky to have a large and stellar team that’s grown with the firm,” she said. “It was very important to have boots on the ground.”

“We focus on facilitating growth overall as a technology firm. So we’re focused on deal terms and structures that facilitate and foster that growth while at the same time minimizing risk,” she said. “Different deals in different geographies have different types of risk.”

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Raquel Palmer, partner, KPS Capital Partners

KPS Capital Partners’ Raquel Palmer is one of the most important voices at one of the most successful mid-market private equity firms of the past decade.

A graduate of Stanford University, Palmer started her investment career at Kidder, Peabody & Co as an investment banker focusing on paper and forest products. She later joined Keilin & Co before finding a home at KPS, where she emerged as one of the most formidable dealmakers in the turnaround space.

“The way our firm works, and has always worked, is by consensus,” Palmer told Buyouts. “We are very much — if you look at our strategy, we’re very hands-on.”

Palmer chairs the investment committee and leads the boards of portfolio companies Electrical Components International, Expera Specialty Solutions, International Equipment Solutions and Heritage Home Group, her KPS biography shows.

Palmer considers the latter among the most rewarding, and challenging, investments of her career. KPS specializes in turnarounds, and with Heritage Home, a furniture company that was acquired out of bankruptcy in 2013, the firm and its management team had to “transform virtually every part of the company,” she said.

“We have a very good recipe,” Palmer said, noting that KPS’s partners have tried to foster an environment that encourages work-life balance. “When you start to get larger and more institutionalized, you have to work on maintaining it.”

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Marnie Payne, managing director, Berkshire Partners 

Marni Payne has spent nearly two decades in private equity and considers herself lucky that she’s known only workplaces where women were promoted.

In 2000, Payne was at the end of a two-year analyst program at McKinsey & Co and wondered what to do next. A family friend encouraged her to try Berkshire Partners because she would “really like these people.”

Fast-forward 17 years and Payne is now a managing director at Berkshire. A dealmaker, she focuses on retail and consumer. She led Berkshire’s investment in Kendra Scott Design, a provider of jewelry and home decor, earlier this year. She also took Aritzia, a women’s-apparel retailer, public in 2016.

Payne said her biggest success in PE was joining Berkshire. The Boston firm is committed to diversity and has a strong culture of teamwork, she said. Of the firm’s 24 partners, five are women. More than half — 70 — of the firm’s 134 employees are female.

Berkshire also provides paid maternity and paternity leave. “I’m spoiled in a lot of ways because I’ve never been at a firm that didn’t have senior women as part of it,” she said.

Payne credits many of her accomplishments to the “wonderful mentors,” male and female, she’s found at Berkshire. Her biggest challenge? Finding balance as a working mother. Payne, who has two children, said she aims to “be present” both at home and at work. “Some days I get it really right and other days I learn from my mistakes. And I keep going.”

Cecilia Chao

Cecilia Chao, Operating Partner, Bain Capital Private Equity

Before joining Bain Capital in 2008, Cecilia Chao was vice president at Del Monte Foods, where she led the strategic planning and business development group. Explaining the career switch, Chao said private equity “is a great industry for women who are looking to quickly build or apply their professional experience and foundation in business.”

In the portfolio group at Bain, Chao has worked on a number of investments across different industries, including medevac company Air Medical Group Holdings, toolmaker Apex Tool Group, off-price retailer Burlington Stores, radio broadcaster iHeartMedia and skin- and hair-products maker Sundial Brands.

While working on Apex Tool Group, Chao spent a year with her family in Shanghai as she helped drive the growth of the company’s business in China. “Not only was it a professionally rewarding experience,” she said, “but my family also enjoyed seeing the country from where my family immigrated and our many adventures across Asia.”

A woman of Chinese descent, Chao tries to serve as an example to others. “I eagerly do my part in supporting women and diversity in private equity,” she said. “I am excited that the percentage of women in the industry continues to grow.”

Work-life balance is important to Chao: She makes it a priority to spend time with her husband and their two sons. Her family enjoys skiing, playing music and supporting organizations they are passionate about, including the YMCA and A Better Chance, which helps provide students of color with the opportunity to attend college-prep private schools and public schools across the country.