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Kim Lew, President and Chief Executive Officer, Columbia Investment Management Company: Playing in the Ivy League

Kim Lew • 9 June 2021
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Playing in the Ivy League

Columbia University, founded in 1754, has turned out a distinguished array of graduates, from Alexander Hamilton to Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Warren Buffet (who got an A+ in Benjamin Graham’s investing course in 1951). For most of its history the people who graduated from Columbia, like the people who ran it, were white men, while women were consigned to Barnard College, across the street from the main Columbia campus. But that was then; 267 years after its founding, Columbia’s student body is 42% minorities, and 51% female – with most of those women enrolled directly in Columbia rather than Barnard.

That transformation has extended to its investment office, headed for the first time by a woman, Kim Lew – an African American/Chinese woman, whose father is an immigrant. Lew, who came to Columbia in November 2020, after a quarter-century at the Carnegie and Ford foundations, is feeling welcome at what is now a highly diverse institution.

KimLew’s job is to make sure Columbia’s $11 billion endowment continues to help maintain its status as a top tier university. To do that, it has 24% of its’ AUM invested in equities, 35% in hedge funds, 21% in private equity, 14.5% in real assets, and the rest in cash and fixed income. Real assets include energy, real estate, commodities, and infrastructure. This is all managed externally, save for some passive portfolios.

Now that Lew has settled in, she says there will definitely be some tinkering: “I think if you look at the portfolio five years from now, you’re going to see a larger allocation to venture capital, and in order to accommodate that, we’re probably going to have a smaller allocation to real assets and possibly hedge funds.” While part of the decline in real assets reflects market opportunities, she adds, “The university has made a commitment to not invest in extraction and production of fossil fuels, so that portfolio will go down – energy will go down significantly.”

Lew focused on private equity during much of her 13 years at the Ford Foundation and during her equally long tenure at the Carnegie Corporation, where she became co-CIO and then CIO. She is not worried that PE has become a flavor of the month. “That may well be true, but there are people that are very skilled at private equity and venture and growth, and they will find a way. Everybody who has argued how crowded private equity is should remember it’s just as crowded in public markets.”

Having been a CIO already, Lew knows that only around a third of the job is about investing; the rest is board and constituent relations, developing and mentoring the team, and overseeing administrative matters. But now, as a CEO as well as a CIO, she is coming to grips with a major difference between foundations and endowments. Foundations like Ford and Carnegie typically start life with a single infusion of funds, and the CIO’s job is to husband and grow the patrimony. But universities are aggressive fundraisers, and money is constantly flowing in. On “Giving Day,” November 19, 2020, Columbia raised $24 million. Meanwhile, “The Columbia Commitment,” launched in the summer of 2017, seeks to raise $5 billion in five years.

While that inflow is good news for the endowment, donors often impose restrictions on how their money can be invested and used, so Lew says, “The level of complexity is so much greater because you have a number of sources of capital: There’s not really one endowment; there’s multiple endowments.” As a result, managing volatility is so much more important for endowments, while for foundations who have no inflows of capital, this issue is liquidity.

Lew adds, “I think that what this job requires to be good at it is being able to hold a lot of different things in your head at the same time and be good at juggling and creating a process that allows you to consume a lot of information and manage appropriately.” Not to worry, she adds, “I think women are very good at that, and that is not to say that men aren’t, but I think the things that it takes to be good at this are clearly in the wheelhouse for women.”

Throughout the financial world, Lew says, women’s capabilities have often been under-appreciated and under-represented. “I think that foundations are progressive places, especially the two foundations I’ve been at,” she says, but she says foundation boards of directors are often “the last bastions of white privilege.”

As for her own experiences, “Do I think that there have been moments where things have happened that I thought, ‘This never would have happened if I were a man?’ For sure. There were moments when I thought, ‘Hmmm. This feeling of otherness is really loud right now.’” The problem for outsiders, Lew says, is that “so much about being really good at a job, and so much about success, is about sourcing, which is about networking, which is about being included.” Old boy networks are fine – if you are an old boy.

Lew says, “The women that mentored me were very clear about, ‘You don’t talk about your children; you never leave work early for your kids’; these were some of the things it takes to be successful.” But she says, “I think that we’re at the end of the stage where women are told, ‘If you are going to succeed in this field, you have to be one of the guys. You must laugh at their jokes. If you put up a stink about something, you’re going to be blackballed.’”

Lew has two daughters, ages 21 and 14, and she tells them, “There’s no way you can be a better at being a white guy than a white guy, so be yourself. Don’t waste time.” Early in her career, Lew says, “I was the only half-Black, half-Asian person, so I wasted a lot of time trying to be things that I was not, and I was never going to be good at that. I wish I had figured that out earlier.”

Lew has had a lot to figure out. When her father, an immigrant from China, met her mother, who was African American, they were teenagers, Lew says, and his family would essentially disown them. Lew was born in Harlem and the family later moved to the Bronx. Her family inculcated a love of learning, and she got into one of the highly competitive New York high schools for gifted students, Bronx Science. Then she was off to the University of Pennsylvania. Nobody in her family had been to college but her father, who worked in the mailroom at AT&T, heard that the CEO had gone to Penn, so he figured it must be a good school.

Lew, who graduated from the Wharton School at Penn and then Harvard Business School, faced some of the same kind of scrutiny as Kamala Harris, another half-Black, half-Asian woman, who some think identifies more strongly as a woman of color than as an Indian. What about Lew? Well, at the Harvard Business School Lew belonged to both the African American Student Union and the Asian Students Association. She adds, “I recently did a conference for the Association of Asian American Investment Managers, and they asked me, ‘You’re African American. You’re Asian. What tribe do you associate yourself with?’ Well, I claim every tribe that claims me. What that means is that, because I have a ton of family that is Chinese, I am very aware of what it feels like to be Asian. I appreciate the knots that you have to twist yourself into not be threatening when you hear, ‘Asians take all the slots in college’ and other comments from people who feel that you’re taking something from them.” She adds, “Due to the nature of what I look like, Asians don’t always claim me, but I always claim them.”

She says, “I want to speak for everybody who’s not seen for the value they bring. I have felt that in a lot of different ways -- which includes being from a historically underrepresented group, a child of an immigrant, and somebody who was the first in her family to go to college. I am all those things. For people who were not thought to be right for a certain job, I feel like I should speak for them all. I should be about myth-busting.”

Lew lives with her two daughters in Jersey City. “I moved to Jersey City when I graduated from college (and went to work at Chemical Bank) because it’s what I could afford, and then I just fell in love with the place, and I never left.” Her husband of 21 years passed away in June of 2020, and she says, “I’m trying really hard to get my legs underneath me.”

Beyond her work and her daughters, she says, “I wish I could say I had a good hobby, but I don’t. I am obsessed with television. I don’t even watch good TV; I watch any kind of TV.” She calls herself a bit of a foodie and adds, “I like to cook, although I don’t do it as often as I’d like.” In addition, “My husband was into photography, so he made my girls photographers, and I was dragged along. We have about 10 cameras and a million different tripods. Because it was his passion, we take pictures a lot: It was something we could do during COVID.”

Although she speaks often about family, when young women ask her about career choices and work-life balance, she says what she tells them is, “The reason I have been able to do this is because I love my job. If you do not love your job, it is incredibly hard to get up and leave your kids and a place you love, to go to a place you don’t love. I don’t think you can be good at it unless it’s important to you to be good at it, and that’s only if you love it and it’s something you enjoy.” So, her advice is: “One, you have to love your job, and two, whomever you partner with -- wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, etc. – you better be with a good partner. It’s easier to do it alone rather than with a bad partner because if you’re alone, your friends will support you, but if you have a partner, your friends assume your partner will help you. So, make sure you choose a partner that supports you.”

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