Influential Voices: Susan Heck

The Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research is committed to empowering women’s voices and leadership on the Stanford campus and beyond.  To promote this goal, the Clayman Institute is publishing profiles of our Advisory Council, women and men who have volunteered their time and energy to creating greater gender equality.  Over the course of the year, student writers will interview council members-- representing many communities, including financial, legal, non-profit, and entrepreneurial. We hope these profiles will inspire, as well as begin a dialogue with our readers about what it takes to exercise voice and influence in the areas that matter to you.  We will ask each of the council members to share their histories, paths to success, and career advice. 

Susan Heck never planned a career in finance.  With a PhD in international education from Stanford University, Heck pursued careers in Italian literature, teaching and community activism. In reflecting on her nearly 30-year career in finance, Heck acknowledges there is more than one way to navigate a meaningful life. 

Early roads traveled

In the 1960s, inspired by travel abroad, Heck pursued a master’s degree in Italian literature. While she loved the field, she felt she was not cut out to work in what she perceived to be an all-male ivory tower.  So she headed off to Washington, DC in a borrowed VW. Heck found work at the Experiment in International Living introducing foreign exchange students to the workings of US government.  At night she tutored inner city youth, and was drawn to helping young people advance through education.

 Wanting more practical teaching experience, Heck joined the Peace Corps in Africa. Assigned to Ethiopia, she worked both in the classroom and at the Ministry of Education, co-editing the national student magazine. On weekends and after hours, with three Ethiopian friends, she started the first public relations and advertising firm in the country. While abroad, Heck deepened her commitment to education.

Upon returning to the US, Heck experienced the customary re-entry crisis: how to use her educational experience? Heck taught high school dropouts for a year while she searched for a program to deepen her understanding of the role of education in development and lead her back to Africa.  Heck found what she wanted in a doctorate program in international education at Stanford University.

During her graduate years at Stanford, Heck became acutely aware of gender inequalities. She sought to make a positive change at Stanford and in the broader community. Together with three students and a faculty member, she founded Stanford’s Center for Research on Women.  Today, called the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, it is one of the nation’s oldest organizations devoted to promoting gender equality through research and education.

While completing her Ph.D., Heck met and married a fellow Stanford graduate student.  Having completed the first Ph.D. in evaluation research at the Education School, Heck abandoned her plans to return to Africa and focused on applied research outside the Academy.  She and her husband moved to Texas where she conducted research at the two government educational research institutes in Austin. Heck established a research firm with an anthropologist to train Central and Latin American researchers how to incorporate qualitative techniques in their educational research.  

A turning point

When it became time to leave Texas, Heck wanted a change.  She enrolled at the University of Texas Business School in a “retread” program designed for Ph.Ds wanting to move from academia to the private sector.  Heck, her husband and small daughter moved to Los Angeles where she looked for jobs in business.  “I was told in interviews, we don’t hire PhDs – you think too much,” she remembers. In the middle of the 1981 recession, she volunteered on local political campaigns while continuing to reinvent herself professionally.

Through her political work, she met with a leader in her community known to help advance women.  As the second woman “broker” at the then Dean Witter, she was a pioneer in the field. She invited Heck to job-shadow for a day, at the end of which the firm offered her a job.

Heck says laughing, “I had no idea what I was getting into.  I didn’t even know the difference between a stock and a bond.” Heck now understands the firm recognized her potential as a self-starter from her work in Ethiopia, at the Institute, and at her own research firm.  What mattered was her persistence in the face of obstacles and rejection. Despite initially feeling like a duck out of water, Heck became a very successful Financial Advisor and in 2001 became First Vice President of Investments at Morgan Stanley. 

What did it take?  Heck is clear it was not solely mastering the technical aspects of her job.  “Yes, you need analytical skills, but most of all you need to cultivate the ability to listen and communicate clearly with people of all backgrounds, cultures and education levels.”

Heck reflects on her role in the financial industry, “The job of Financial Advisor is one of relationships, building trust, and communicating with people. It is a service, not a sales, job -- one of helping people gain financial security and comfort.”  In the end, once a teacher, always a teacher. “You teach people about risk; you tease out their goals; and you match investments to their goals and risk tolerance.”

In the end, Heck was also always a starter.  In concert with other Stanford grads, she continued to support the Institute by bringing faculty to Los Angeles to talk about their research.  One speaker presented shocking statistics about the rising wave of crime among teenage girls.  A group of attendees got together and, over a period of years, set up a nonprofit, Girls and Gangs, to mentor young women both in and after incarceration and promote their continuing education.

Reflections at seventy

It was a circuitous route from there to here, says Heck.  "I can look back, as I’m about to retire, and say, 'Don’t be afraid to say, this is not for me; this doesn’t fit; let me try something else.'  Work on building confidence as well as competence.  You don’t have to do everything yourself. Find people to help with the parts you don’t know or do well. Partner with people who complement you. And trust your instincts as you find your own voice.”

The paths of a professional life can be crooked, many, and varied – and still be rewarding.  Where one ends up isn’t always planned.  You try different things at different stages.  And she openly admits, “I used to fret: 'What is my passion? What should I do,' as if there were one right answer.

"Now, at 70 years of age, I can say – it’s okay.  You don’t have to know.”  She smiles.  “There is more than one way to lead a life.”