03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Oct 16, 2012

The Goldman Sachs Investment You Haven't Heard About Yet

There is no industrial sector more myopic, self-absorbed, conceited or lacking in aesthetic appreciation than Wall Street.

In Tom Wolfe's generation-capturing book The Bonfire of the Vanities these transactors of capital had the hubris to characterize themselves as "Masters of the Universe." It's a cultural identification that persists; but no matter how superior they think they are, it's fairly obvious they lack the chromosome that triggers empathy, or conscience.

Lately, the iconic transactor of capital, Goldman Sachs, has seen its pre-eminence challenged by a populist movement deluded by its belief that demonizing those who are able to profit from their mastery of a capitalist economy will somehow improve the lot of those who haven't.

It used to be that women were most likely to carry a grudge against the company. For years Goldman's reputation was that of a work environment incompatible with women. It wasn't so much that they were treated with overt disrespect as it was so workplace-centric that no woman could compete unless she had a wife at home to support her.

To be fair, the company's integration of women executives -- now representing about 35% of its workforce -- has attracted exceptionally high achievers. It also has a long tradition of charitable giving. Several years ago, under the leadership of Lloyd Blankfein, chairman, a company-wide discussion was initiated to identify how its core competencies and massive funding potential could be harnessed as agents of change, beyond the impact of check writing.

Searching for a cause

Of all the possibilities this storied bastion of testosterone production might have selected, educating women entrepreneurs surely qualifies as one of the more astounding, and least likely. Nonetheless, according to a 2009 Harvard Business School case history an internal research study entitled Womenomics -- prepared in Goldman's Tokyo office -- triggered a companywide thread of dialogue that reached top management. In 2007 Mr. Blankfein, along with members of his senior management, agreed that educating women and girls was the highest and best execution of their commitment to stimulate sustainable global economic growth.

Seasoned UN humanitarian agency staffers realized long ago that the way to affect profound change in a single generation is to educate girls. But, for a corporation so far removed culturally from this mindset to arrive at the same conclusion is testimony to an intellectual tenacity that merits attention.

What resulted from these internal discussions was a 2008 initiative called 10,000 Women.
Funded with $100 million it can do just about anything it pleases. According to Goldman's Global Head of Corporate Engagement, Dina Habib Powell, what it has chosen to focus on are women who have overcome the enormous hurdles faced by anyone with the guts to start a business. From that vast pool of candidates it selects those who appear most likely to benefit if they are given half a chance. She said that they see it as "an investment in the economic and social potential" of these courageous self-starters who are a largely overlooked subset of commerce in the developing world referred to as "the missing middle".

10,000 Women offers access to a superb business education delivered through a network of business schools throughout the world. By affiliating leading universities with schools of the highest regional caliber women selected for the program gain access to the vast resources of the larger partner. This arrangement allows for something else that is critically important: It leaves in the hands of its local partners the final decision on curricula offered to their students. Those do-good organizations that impose pre-conceived ideas on what should be offered to local constituencies usually end up neither doing good nor feeling good.

In addition to academic training, these women enjoy "wrap around services"; that is, networking events that foster direct contact with local business leaders who probably wouldn't have given them the time of day under other circumstances, mentors, advisory services, and - most critically - access to capital. These women not only get an opportunity to join the old boy network, they get to build an old girl network of their very own design.

In agreeing to allocate such an enormous sum, particularly when the financial world was collapsing, Goldman's board of directors made it clear the 10,000 Women management team had better not fritter away the money. With the program barely a year old quantifying its efficacy is still a work in process. Initial scoring, coupled with anecdotal evidence, indicates they are off to a good start. What they can't yet measure fully, and possibly never will, is the intangible results that accrue to women who taste success in business, like self-confidence, dignity, the elevation from wife to partner in the household, and, certainly, the empowerment of a woman who controls capital.

Mentoring and Meaning it

The intangible effect works both ways. Through an initiative they launched a number of years ago called Community TeamWorks each Goldman Sachs employee is allowed to take a day off every year to volunteer for a worthy cause. For those who choose to become mentors with 10,000 Women the nurturing process is longer, demanding more from everyone; it's a committed relationship. Nonetheless, there's a waiting list of Sachsers eager to contribute their time largely because the psychic rewards are so great, and stimulated by compelling word of mouth testimonials.

Those testimonials must ring loudly in the ears of skeptics who wonder if it's all done for effect. Mr. Blankfein is quoted as saying that he thinks the biggest competition for his best staff is public service.

Maybe they're human after all.