If you didn’t know who Suzanne Shank was before BET’s Black Girls Rock! awards, then we hope you do now.
The ‘Shot Caller’ award recipient and incredible business woman gave one of the best speeches of the night. “When all of us invest in black girls, when we give them every opportunity to succeed and empower them with confidence, ” Shank said in her acceptance speech, “the returns for our community, our country and our world are limitless.”
In case this is your first time getting aquatinted with Suzanne Shank, here are 7 things to know about the kick-ass CEO.
1. Suzanne Shank grew up in Savannah, GA
Suzanne was born to Roger Shank, a bus driver, and Mary Shank, a school administrator. She was a cheerleader, a homecoming queen, editor of the newspaper and a valedictorian of her 1979 class at Sol C. Johnson High School.
“My best memories of Savannah are of the strong sense of community and the ‘village’ of neighbors, family, teachers and church members who encouraged my efforts to succeed,” Shank told sjchs.org. “This level of support from not only my parents but from my extended family empowered me to take risks.”
On Suzanne’s birth certificate, the hospital wrote “Negro Laborer” to describe her dad’s work.
2. She was a Civil Engineer before going into finance
Suzanne studied civil engineering at Georgia Tech and worked for General Dynamics in Atlanta for two years. After discovering a passion for financial management, she went back to school and got a graduate degree in Finance. She was accepted into Harvard, Columbia, and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania to study for her MBA. She chose Wharton.
The transition from engineering to finance, however, was a challenging one. “For every one interview I booked,” she told Forbes. “I had ten rejections. I shifted my focus to building up my network and spoke to my peers and alumni, which led to a position at a boutique firm.” She went from designing roads and highways to funding them.
When giving advice to women on how they should make the pivot from one career to another, Suzanne gave the following tips:
- Be prepared. Pursue all necessary training even if it means earning another degree.
- Be persistent. Expect that it’s going to be challenging at times. Don’t give up until you have exhausted all options.
- Become the expert. Experts in a particular area tend to be highly sought after both within and outside of their organization.
3. She is a founding member of Siebert, Brandford Shank & Co.
Shank and friend Napoleon Brandford were approached by pioneer Muriel Siebert, the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, to form a firm in 1996. Suzanne was made CEO while Napoleon took on the role of chairman.
Ten years later, the firm grew to be one of the biggest black owned investment banks with almost $360 billion in transactions.
And when the financial crisis hit in 2008, Suzanne’s firm took advantage of the turmoil to come out even stronger when the storm passed. “Thirteen years after founding the firm, we were faced with the financial crisis. We made the strategic decision to take advantage of the turmoil … by hiring several experienced bankers who were displaced or unhappy. This move precipitated the doubling in the size of the firm and dramatic growth.”
4. She resides in Detroit
Although she is known for her work on Wall Street, Suzanne currently resides and runs her business out of their Detroit office. Her firm has 17 offices around the country, including dual headquarters in New York and Oakland, CA.
5. Trillions in project fundings
Shank’s firm has underwritten not millions, not billions, but trillions in projects. Her firm attains financing on large infrastructure projects like sports arenas and airports. How is that for black excellence!
Suzanne has been named on various lists for her achievements. Such lists include Essence magazine’s 2008 Power list, top women in finance in 2010 by US Banker Magazine, one of the 50 Most Influential Black Women in Business by Black Enterprise, to name a few.
Reflecting on her success, Suzanne said: “I never really aspired to be an entrepreneur or a CEO. My first career was an engineer. I never thought we’d do a billion-dollar deal as a lead manager. (Now I) fly around the country and see major infrastructure projects my firm helped finance … it’s great work … You know for us, I think, we really want to be recognized for our value-add, more than our minority firm designation. And I think that it’s because of our strong performance and execution that we get hired over and over again by our clients. We live by repeat business.”
6. Suzanne Shank is a mom of two daughters
Her daughters Devin and Camryn, currently in college and high school, received a shot out from their mom during her acceptance speech. She is married to Sean Werdlow.
When describing what type of mother she is, Suzanne has said, “I have always been a mom who made meals (for her kids).”
7. She is a philanthropist
On top of her busy work and family life, Shank makes time for philanthropic work, especially in the black community. She has devoted her time and money in various organizations such as the Charles H Wright Museum of African American History and Spelman College.
Suzanne Shank also co-founded the Detroit Summer Finance Institute, an internship program that gives inner-city students a chance to learn about the finance world and the jobs available to them. Her advise to them? “Dream big and then put in the hard work and time that is needed to achieve your goals.”
But first and foremost, is the rise of this amazing woman of color. In a world where 72% of the Fortune 500 are white men. We live in perilous times, to borrow a Biblical phrase. Scary, dark, deeply flawed times.