VentureOut: Profiling Kathy Levinson, a pioneer in advocating for women and the LGBT community within the workplace
VentureOut: Kathy Levinson – Highlighting LGBT leaders in business.
Powered by StartOut. Written by David Duran.
In business, it’s not easy to be at the top of your game, or even be a trend setter, but one woman, Kathy Levinson, defied the odds stacked against her, not only as a woman, but as a woman who happens to also be a lesbian and Jewish.
Levinson doesn’t have just one coming out story, as she felt like she spent all her life coming out. During her early 20’s, she officially came out to friends and family, but wasn’t always out in the workplace. While working at Charles Schwab, Levinson met her then partner. When she became pregnant, coworkers automatically assumed the father was the person who ran the company because they believed that was the only way she would be able to be promoted as much as she was. This was her first real encounter of sexism in the workplace.
While at Schwab, Levinson found herself working in the same department as her partner. Her partner was her subordinate. “The head of Human Resources told me we couldn’t work in the same department,” she said. “HR opened the employee handbook to the section about married couples, but we weren’t married.” Levinson knew what the HR person was suggesting but in her first act of creating change, she quickly turned the employee handbook to the health benefits page and made her point very clear. If she and her partner were considered to be “married,” then she should have the opportunity to have the same health benefits as a married couple. As a result of her brave act, Charles Schwab became one of the first companies to offer domestic partner benefits in the workplace. “By doing it the way I did it, it was leading edge at the time and begun my shadow career of creating a workplace that was equal for woman as well as LGBT people,” she said.
Levinson stayed with Schwab for 14 years and held about 10 different high level positions. Her intent after departing was to focus on family and possibly non-profit. Before she could focus on her new life, Levinson received a call from a new company which at the time was called Trade Plus. She agreed to do some consulting work for the company in 1995 and in September of that year, she had her second child. But her starting role at Trade Plus didn’t come without hiccups. While being considered for her position, Levinson was questioned about her family and how she would be able to manage raising children and having an intense travel schedule. “This was another example where I could have laughed or been so offended that I didn’t end up working for them, but instead I took the time to explain to them why I shouldn’t have been asked the question in the first place,” she said. “It was done in a way where in the end, I was still offered the position.” In 1996, she went to work for them full time after a year of consulting and she helped morph the company into what is known today, E*Trade. She helped move the business model from phone trading to internet trading and served as President and COO of the company.
Near the end of her time with E*TRADE was right around the time when Proposition 22 was on the ballot in California. Prop 22 was a law enacted by California voters to restrict marriages to only those between opposite-sex couples. Levinson had been approached to take a leadership role in fighting Prop 22, but what she ultimately decided was to make a significant donation instead to the campaign due to responsibilities to employees and shareholders. The donation was to be kept under wraps until Levinson had time to speak to her CEO at E*TRADE as well as the Board of Directors, but unfortunately, her contribution had been leaked before that opportunity arose. After some major damage control, Levinson felt that it was still the right decision. “I think after that experience, what had been my shadow career was now really becoming my real career, and in the summer of 2000, I left E*TRADE with the intent to do what I had intended to do when I left Schwab,” she said. “My intent now was to focus on philanthropy and activism for women, the LGBT community and Jews.”
Levinson quickly found herself immersed within the Lesbian Equity Foundation, a foundation she helped create. “We spent a lot of time with the name, and the name itself was very strategic,” she said. Levinson is still involved with the foundation and she helps make a number of grants each year to women, the LGBT and Jewish communities. “Sometimes we give grants outside of that range if it’s for educational purposes,” she said. “Even though the organization itself isn’t LGBT centric, we use the opportunity to educate.”
Currently, Levinson is involved with Golden Seeds, an investing group that invests in woman owned or founded companies. As one of the Managing Directors, she seeks out companies that fall within the parameters of what Golden Seeds is looking for. She ultimately invests in some as well as sits on board seats of others. “Women get such a small percentage of venture capital and angel investor money, some 1-4% of the money,” she said. “Much like the corporate world, it just seems like women don’t have as much access to capital and my involvement with Golden Seeds seemed right in line with my personal mission of helping woman in business.”
Since her transition from the corporate world to the startup world, Levinson has actively taken an interest in helping entrepreneurs with funding and advising. Having had worked in big business, she knows and appreciates the major differences from working for someone else versus working for yourself. She hopes to continue to mentor young startups and potentially invest in some through her current position at Golden Seeds and at other organizations. “As a woman and out lesbian, with two decades of experience in the financial services industry, I have a keen understanding of the difficult road that entrepreneurs who are in the ‘other’ category can face in the world of raising capital or even in being treated on a level playing field,” she said. “Learning how to stand proud and confident, while still earning a seat at the proverbial tables of venture capitalists, angel investors, and other key constituents, can be a challenge, particularly for those in start-up mode.”
When it comes to transferable knowledge from her experience in a corporate structure to working with startups, Levinson explained that when you are really small, you don’t really think about the culture you are creating. “In my experience, it gets harder and harder to do the bigger you get, so be really clear about the environment and values you want to create.” She suggests hiring people who have the same values and lead with them. “It’s important to understand the significance of imbuing one’s company with core values very early on in the process, setting the tone for the expectations you have for those who work with, and for yourself.”
Levinson acknowledged her work within the LGBT community but doesn’t admit to feeling recognized. “I am a mom and a wife and I feel blessed that I did really well in my professional career in such that I was able to obtain the financial resources to be able to focus on my family and shadow career,” she said. “My job became my career and my career expanded to my shadow career. I’ve been lucky enough to have jobs that have been exciting, and I learned a lot about what fits with my values, and I have been able to parlay that into different communities that mattered to me.”