Sheryl Marshall has made a career of breaking barriers. Born and raised in Boston, she received her bachelor’s degree from Emerson College and her MBA from Simmons College, whose female leaders helped inspire her path into finance. After more than 30 years managing money for big banks, she’s now dedicated to helping get it into the hands of young women entrepreneurs. On May 6, Marshall will be hosting the second annual Capital W, The Boston Women’s Venture Summit, a chance for women from all over the country to pitch and network with venture capital partners. She spoke about seizing opportunities and taking the T.
1. Marshall’s introduction to finance was through a family owned business in the North End that served the immigrant community. It helped foster a love of math that led her to pursue a career in the financial sector.
“My father and grandfather owned a hardware store on Salem Street in the North End. I remember visiting as a child and feeling like I had entered a foreign country, before darting off for my lemon ices and cannolis. I have vivid memories of people who didn’t speak English coming into my father’s store. . . . I’m 66 now, and I didn’t have any female role models growing up. I didn’t know any businesswomen. But I love numbers and still do, and I had wanted to be a stock broker since I was a teenager.”
2. After joining Merrill Lynch in her late 20s, Marshall found herself one of only a dozen women working in the city’s brokerage houses. It meant dealing with a fair share of misogyny.
“A good portion of the first year, I was absolutely terrified. I had a boss who would call me into his office and basically browbeat me. I was the first pregnant woman stock broker at Merrill Lynch, and when I called personnel, they said, “We’ve never had that kind of problem before.” I got divorced when my daughter was pretty young, and they threatened that if I left, that I would never, never get another job. But I did, and [the new company] were so profit-motivated, that they didn’t care if you were a green monkey if you got the job done. It wasn’t enlightenment, it was greed.”
3. She believes that attention to equity in the workplace ebbs and flows with the economy.
“The first thing that goes down the chute during a recession is anything that had to do with women and minorities. Before the recession, there were several women poised to be the head of the investment banks. But now it’s not going to happen in my lifetime. It’s the most macho, bro business.”
4. Recalibrating the imbalance in venture funding to allow for more parity between genders isn’t a new idea for Marshall. She founded a women-led, woman-centric venture fund in the early 2000s that went bust after 9/11. Now she’s attracting women from across the country to the Capital W conference and hoping to change the way that venture capitalists approach female founders.
“Only 2.7 percent of venture-funded companies have a woman CEO, and 85 [percent] of all venture-capital-funded businesses have no women on the executive team. The total number of women partners in venture firms has declined significantly from 10 percent to 6 percent, according to the Diana Project at Babson College.
“A man and a woman can walk into a VC with the same business plan. The man will get the funding, but the woman won’t because they say that she needs to be further along. To me, it’s really about closing yet another gender gap.”
5. The Newton resident was a trustee of the ICA for 15 years and regularly attends gala events with her husband, who is an overseer of the Celebrity Series of Boston. But they don’t let their plans dictate their mode of travel and stick to the ease of the T.
“I’m an inveterate T rider. I take it everywhere. My husband and I go downtown dressed head-to-toe in our black-tie attire all the time. Last time we did, [a] bunch of high school kids all cheered for us.”