At 23, Lauren Simmons made her mark on history — literally and figuratively. She signed her name into the leather-bound tome containing the constitution of the New York Stock Exchange, becoming the youngest and only female trader at the NYSE at the time. But this wasn’t all Simmons became that day.
As she stepped back from the marble-topped table after adding her name to a list containing the likes of Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, the NYSE archivist stepped forward. Simmons, the archivist said, was the second-ever African American woman to sign her name to the book. In the 226-year history of the NYSE, there had been only one other African American woman trader.
Suddenly Simmons’ accomplishment felt as bitter as it was sweet.
“I was very excited, but also disappointed that in 226 years, I was only the second,” she says.
It’s a title that’s come to define her. Even now that she has left the trading floor, being the second-ever African American woman to break the white ceiling of the NYSE has turned her into an icon.
Her story was picked up by major news agencies around the globe. She’s been on a speaking tour that kicked off in Beijing since December. AGC studios is turning her story into a movie (Kiersey Clemons to play Simmons) and she’s writing a book. Release dates for both to be determined.
“It gets a little weird when I’m walking the streets of New York and people stop me to take pictures. I don’t know if that’ll ever be normal,” she says. But “the story, as much as it’s about me, I tell people I’m not an anomaly. I don’t want to be.”
Being a minority at the NYSE. A NYSE stock trader manages client orders for stocks listed on the exchange. When a client says they want to buy shares of Apple (ticker: AAPL) for $200 or less per share, the trader will aim to fill that request, if possible. They’re the eyes and ears for their clients on the trading floor. A client might ask them to “look” into the price of a stock, which can mean getting an estimate of the opening price or information on who’s buying and selling. It’s a high-pressure, analytical, fast-paced job and one few thought Simmons could do. But then, she’s no stranger to adversity.
From studying engineering in high school to becoming a genetics major in college and then a full-time stock trader, Simmons has often been faced with disbelievers. People would tell her there’s no way she could do well in these courses or that profession. She’d never pass the Series 19, the NYSE member exam to become a licensed stock trader. She should try something else; something less ambitious. But that wasn’t the Lauren Simmons way.
“I’ve always been in environments where I want to prove people wrong,” she says. “I didn’t want to be ‘woe is me’ or have excuses for why I couldn’t do things.”
It’s a mentality she recommends everyone adopt. “When you let your limiting beliefs come to the forefront, you limit yourself from greatness,” she says. “People can see if you’re a woman, or Latino or black, but no one knows what your baggage is and because of that you can just be you.”
When she started on the trading floor, she didn’t think of herself as being different than her peers. “I didn’t realize I was the only woman in the room,” she says. “We have female news anchors on the trading floor and females who work for the actual ICE (Intercontinental Exchange) that is over the NYSE. It wasn’t anything that I was the only female trader. I went there to do a job. I wanted to be great at my job.”
Bringing diversity to the financial industry. Diversity is a hot topic and a cool word to throw around, she says, but we have to truly want it for diversity to become a reality. And we have to take ownership for our part in its creation or lack thereof.
Even after her story came out, when a job opening was posted for a floor trader, not one minority applied for the position, she says.
“People need to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations,” she says. “If you’re applying for the job and you think you might be ‘the other,’ that’s OK, because a company that wants you to do well will go out of its way to help you.”And if it doesn’t, there’s another one that will.
For all it’s white-male partisanship — “nepotism is really a thing,” Simmons says — the trading floor can be a great place for a woman or minority to start her career in financial services. Not only was it a perhaps-surprisingly warm and inviting place, but it also taught her about accountability and how to present herself within a crowd.
As a stock trader, you’re accountable for any decision you make, she says. And those decisions — which happen in microseconds — can have multi-million dollar consequences. “It’s kind of a joke that you don’t become a trader until you make a multi-million dollar error,” she says.
She recalls making her first $3 million mistake. It was about a year-and-a-half after she started and near close on a Friday. “I remember my boss saying go home, don’t think about it,” she says, which was of course nerve-wracking. How could she not think about it? But there was nothing she could do until 9 a.m. on Monday when the markets re-opened.
So she spent the weekend doing “things for Lauren.” Then, come Monday morning, she set about correcting her error. It ended up being only a $2,000 error, but the misstep taught her a lot about accountability — and work-life balance.
The financial industry is not known for a healthy work-life balance, but this, Simmons says, is another reason the trading floor can be a great place to get your indoctrination. You hear “horror stories” from other financial professionals, especially those in investment banking or private equity, but on the trading floor, “at four o’clock, when the closing bell sounded, it was the end of the day,” she says. Work couldn’t follow you home if you wanted it to.
Working in an all-male environment also taught her how to command an audience. “I think white men in particular have a way that they come across to an audience,” she says. “This confidence, this knowledge, how presentation is everything. And I got to experience that hands-on because I was ‘the other’ in the room.”
How to succeed as a woman in finance. It’s never easy being the odd woman out. The financial industry may be built by men for men, but that doesn’t mean women can’t be a part of it, too. You just need to be smart about it.
“The reality is that a lot of these negotiations in finance are built on relationships,” Simmons says. “Going out for drinks with coworkers is a thing. Golf is a thing.” And as much as you’ll probably be the only woman doing this thing, she says to still go grab that drink or swing the club with boys — but do it with tact.
“It’s a double standard for women,” she says. You’re expected to keep up with the boys but not be “that girl” who got sloppy drunk going shot-for-shot at happy hour.
Simmons told bartenders to fill her shots with water. While her colleagues thought she was taking nine shots of tequila, she was hydrating. It may seem an extreme charade to play, but “that’s how those relationships are built,” she says. And they’ll be built with or without you.
“You can’t play the game if you’re not in the game,” she says. “If you want to have a seat at the table, you have to be strategic.”
Be financially savvy. If Simmons could leave you with any message, it’d be this: “Be financially savvy. Whatever that looks like for you. Women have been balancing the books since the beginning of time; there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have their hands in the pot when it comes to investing or even going into the financial industry.”
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