An Interview With Ming Zhao
Northampton, MA –News Direct– T. Rowe Price
In the United States in 2022, fields such as Aircraft piloting, Agriculture, Architecture, Construction, Finance, and Information technology, are still male-dominated industries. For a woman who is working in a male-dominated environment, what exactly does it take to thrive and succeed? In this interview series, we are talking to successful women who work in a Male-Dominated Industry who can share their stories and experiences about navigating work and life as strong women in a male-dominated industry. As a part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jen Dardis.
Jen Dardis is the chief financial officer and treasurer of T. Rowe Price Group, Inc., the treasurer of T. Rowe Price Investment Management, and a member of the firm’s Management Committee. Her responsibilities include global oversight for the Controller’s Group, Global Tax, Procurement, Corporate Strategy, Financial Planning & Analysis, and Investor Relations. Jen has been with T. Rowe Price since 2006, beginning in the CFO Group in a corporate strategy role, and became head of Corporate Strategy in 2016. Most recently, she was the head of Finance.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in the Baltimore suburb of Bel Air, Maryland, and have been in this part of the country most of my life. I was raised on a horse farm, but my dad ran a petroleum risk management and supply business. Growing up with a family business, many of the conversations in our home were about the business and the energy markets. It was common for us to have business leaders at our home, so from a very young age I was surrounded by people doing business, talking business.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
Coming out of college, I decided to join a training program for a bank where I got to meet a lot of business leaders as a commercial banking relationship manager. I was so energized by learning how different businesses tick, how they compete, and how leaders build those businesses over time. From that point on, I’ve always tried to pick opportunities that put me at the center of business strategy. I’ve worked in mergers and acquisitions, investor relations, and corporate development. At T. Rowe Price, I spent time leading our corporate strategy and FP&A teams before coming into the CFO role. I’ve followed my passion — being at the center of businesses and thinking about how they work and position themselves for long-term success.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I haven’t always been strategic about plotting out my career path or trajectory. However, I do capitalize on opportunities as they have presented themselves. I position myself to say yes at those moments. Instead of thinking of the reasons why I couldn’t do something, I try to see how I can say yes, particularly when a role is less defined. That’s how I landed at T. Rowe Price. I was working on a church committee and struck up conversation with another committee member who happened to work at the firm. He asked if I’d be interested in considering T. Rowe as a place to work. I took his business card and put it in my pocket and moved on. The next day I received a call from a woman at T. Rowe Price. It turns out he was vice chair, had mentioned my name, and wanted to see if I could interview for an open role at the firm. That chance meeting 18 years ago led me to the firm and changed the trajectory of my career.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Being willing to lead in unfamiliar territory. When an opportunity that arises that involves solving a hard or complex problem, lean in and take it on. When we launched our first large strategic plan and were trying to decide who would lead the work. I raised my hand. There was a lot that I had to take on to make sure it stayed on track. There was also a lot that I had to figure out along the way — change management and stakeholder management, and other unfamiliar areas, but that choice set the course for where I am today.
Being genuine. There are times when you can step into a persona and try to be someone that you’re not. Being genuine is the thing that connects with people the most, especially when working in a people-oriented business. No matter how you try to change who you are, you ultimately end up coming back to the foundation of what you believe in. Working at a firm where you are aligned with your values, makes everything so much easier. Being at T. Rowe Price for the last 16 years, that’s a lot of why I’m here. Finding alignment of who you are and what you believe makes your career path a lot easier.
Lastly, and this is something I still work on, trying not to take things personally. As women, it can be easy to see an issue being about us rather than the work or something that we are a part of. It can be difficult to separate what’s personal from what is just a circumstance that we have to work through. That’s been an important part of shifting from the work I did earlier in my career to the work that I’m doing today.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Can you help articulate a few of the biggest obstacles or challenges you’ve had to overcome while working in a male-dominated industry?
Because of my upbringing, for a very long time, I didn’t know to expect that there would be barriers for women working in an industry like finance. I was a math person. I was an economics major. I studied computer science. Those were things that just came easier for me, and so I just thought it was a normal thing for a young woman to do. Because my family worked together in business and I was always a part of business conversations growing up, it didn’t occur to me that I might be viewed differently. In many ways that helped me because I just showed up and acted like I belonged. Reality came in bursts, and most of these situations had to do with being the only woman and dealing with perceptions. Was I going to work long hours and be a leader or was I going to have a family? I committed to myself early on that I would chart a course for something that allowed me to do both. It wasn’t always a clear path and I put in long hours to make it all work. The challenge was being brave enough to make the choices that said I’m going to do what I think is right, find balance for me, and be good at both. It’s worked for me. It certainly hasn’t always been perfect, but I’ve tried to craft a career that allowed me to be a good mother, leader, and role model at the same time. T. Rowe Price has been a tremendous in supporting my goals.
Can you share a few of the things you have done to gain acceptance among your male peers and the general work community? What did your female co-workers do? Can you share some stories or examples?
When I was in business school, I went to work in mergers and acquisitions at an investment bank. At the time I was the only female associate on my team. I was told to go play golf when the team came to visit my school. I didn’t play golf but wasn’t given the option of not playing. I took golf lessons every day for two and a half weeks to make sure that I didn’t embarrass myself on the course. That was the tradeoff. I did those things early on because I wanted to be accepted and fit in. As I’ve gotten further in my career, I’ve tried to create opportunities for that kind of social interaction without having to do things that aren’t as natural for me. I’ve not played golf in 15 years, but I’ve found other ways to be social and build relationships. As I became a leader, it was important to me to create those inclusive spaces for other people.
What do you think male-oriented organizations can do to enhance their recruiting efforts to attract more women?
When I evaluate where I work or where I want to work, I want to see that there’s a path for people like me. When I say “me,” that includes a myriad of traits — women with finance experience who have children, enjoy living in this region of the country, and being close to family. As I think about those how diverse those characteristics can be, you’re ultimately looking at those places where you can build a career and a life. Firms can make sure that people can see that path for themselves within their structure and culture. That includes having women and diverse leaders with different backgrounds that have built successful careers that don’t all look the same. It allows employees to see that there are multiple paths to success, and they can build a life and a career and find balance based on what they value. Embracing flexibility that allows people, in particular women, to build their career and their lives can help alleviate the pressure of having to look and live a certain way.
Ok thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
This is repeating some of what I said earlier, but above all you need to be good at what you do.
Be self-aware. Be aware of what are your true gaps versus what are your perceived gaps and how you manage both. As you progress in your career, understanding both well is critical to being able to grow, and we all need to grow and develop as we build our careers.
Be brave enough to have hard conversations. Sometimes we can get in our own heads but having those open conversations and speaking up when needed is important.
Try not to take things personally as I mentioned before.
Be a good mentor and advocate for other people. Once you’re in a position of leadership particularly as a female leader, being visible, being accessible and talking to people goes a long way. It’s important to be someone that other people can talk to and learn how to build their careers over time.
If you had a close woman friend who came to you with a choice of entering a field that is male-dominated or female-dominated, what would you advise her? Would you advise a woman friend to start a career in a field or industry that’s traditionally been mostly men? Can you explain what you mean?
Honestly, I would advise my female friend or any women to go into a field where they feel confident in their abilities, where they are energized by the work, and where they can learn, develop, and grow. I hope that’s not a decision that my daughter has to think about whether it is male or female dominated. I hope she can go into a field where she can see the things that she’s passionate about, energize her, and is able to build a career in that space. If you go into a field where you wake up every day and you want to learn, get better, and grow, no matter who the people are that you’re working with or the environment that you are working in, you are going to shine. Putting yourself in a space where you can be your best self in terms of your skills and what you bring to the work will always set you up for long-term success.
Have you seen things change for women working in male-dominated industries, over the past ten years? How do you anticipate that it might improve in the future? Can you please explain what you mean?
I have. When I started out, the expectation what that you fit in or find a way to fit in. That used to be the advice that I would get early on in my career. It was essential to find ways to fit in in an industry that was going to continue to be male dominated. There was this assumption that I was going to continue to be the only woman or one of a few at a firm. The shift that I’ve seen overtime is that the industry and companies are becoming more inclusive. Women are charting their own career paths and career models. There’s not this expectation that finance will always be a male-dominated industry and you’ll always be an outsider. At T. Rowe, I have always felt included and supported, and that is so important.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I have always been inspired and intrigued by the work of Jane Goodall. When I was growing up, she was one of so many examples where prominent women followed their passions that led them into “non-traditional” fields. Seeing women in prominent roles from an early age helped me to never question that the world was wide open in terms of possibilities.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
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