Finally, make it a game. If it’s fun and you reward yourself, you are more likely to stick to it. A CFO at one of our portfolio companies has a great way of doing this — she plays “if this, then what?” For example, if you stick to your monthly clothing budget, you get a certain amount of money to put into your vacation fund. If you don’t, a certain amount comes out. Once you accrue enough money, you get to take your vacation (or whatever it is that is rewarding for you.)
As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Palmer.
Jennifer Palmer is the Chief Executive Officer of Gerber Finance Inc., a leading finance partner for companies experiencing accelerated growth. Since assuming the helm, Jennifer has increased and diversified its customer base and grown the team with top hires. Building on the heritage core to Gerber, Jennifer works with companies as true partners, providing not just funds but strategic consulting to help fast-growing companies achieve their goals. As a mother of four girls, Jennifer leads an extremely active life and encourages her colleagues to make time for family and finance. She has a law degree from Fordham and achieved her bachelor’s degree from Marist College.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the finance field?
It was unlikely I’d end up in finance — I was a fashion, art and art history major in college, with plans to go to Europe and get my PhD. Then 9/11 happened and I decided to stay close home and went to law school in New York. I knew I wanted to work in-house rather than at a law firm, to learn and grow in both business and law. I started out at a company that would require a relocation if I wanted to climb the ladder. That wasn’t something I wanted to do at the time, so I began looking for a new job and interviewed with Gerber Finance for practice more than anything else. But once I was started meeting and talking to the team, I fell in love with their culture, passion, commitment, and unique perspective. It’s been 14 years and I am still as enthusiastic about my job as I was in the beginning and continue to learn something new every day.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
In addition to running a finance company, I am mom to four young girls. When I had my last child and went back to work after a three-month maternity leave, I brought her with me. She would sleep most of the time, and the team would take turns holding her. I joked that she was our corporate therapist — holding a newborn baby was such a welcome moment of Zen and really made an impact on people’s outlook for the day. She came everywhere with me — she had 100,000 airline miles before her first birthday! One day, I had a lunch meeting at a popular family-owned restaurant in Manhattan and the matriarch told me that my baby was not welcome because there were men conducting business inside. I was shocked at the discrimination against working mothers, especially coming from another one, and now I work to make sure other working mothers don’t feel this.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Three years ago, we launched the Gerber Finance Foundation with the goal of helping to provide meals to children in need in our area. One in four children in Westchester County are food insecure. While it may seem like an unlikely cause for a finance firm, it is something that we collectively as a team are passionate about and determined to make an impact on. To-date, we have provided more than 25,000 meals. When COVID-19 hit, we weren’t able to distribute food like we normally do — through schools — but there is even more need as kids aren’t getting meals in school. We’ve pivoted twice since: first working with the National Guard, and now with the new school year being conducted virtually we are working on plans that meet the CDC guidelines to get food to those kids who need it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We truly believe that it’s all about people and relationships. We, of course, make sound business decisions, but we also make sure it’s a strong cultural fit for both companies. If the leaders of a company are honest, good people with the right intentions, we want to work with them. For instance, one of our clients is Madelaine Chocolate. In 2012, we had just started working with them when Hurricane Sandy hit, wiping out all their inventory for the year, along with their equipment, IT…everything. We were the first call they made when they got to their factory. It was a third generation, family-run company — they were survivors, and we believed they could save their company. Their core team moved into our headquarters for a few months, and they began to rebuild. Eight years later, they are still standing, and they are still a client.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?
I believe change is a result of want and need, both on the part of women and companies. Back in the 1950’s very few women had college degrees, but now more women than men are college educated. For many years, women had to choose between the money, time and passion invested in their hard-earned degrees and their family. And the need for dual incomes is a necessity in most households. We’ve seen society become more accepting of working and even ambitious moms, stay-at-home dads, full time family help, and more. On the other side, companies are becoming aware of the turnover cost of replacing women — especially highly educated workers — who leave the workforce because they don’t have the flexibility needed to make a career and family work. So smart companies are creating policies that make it easier for working parents, women and men.
Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a) individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?
I think there are actually four groups that need to take action in order to make parity more achievable:
- The finance industry: The pandemic has proven that finance jobs can be done remotely. Companies need to allow mothers, and working parents in general, to have more flexibility and to work from home, so that they can stay in the workforce after having children.
- Individuals: If women have been given the opportunity to work flex hours or work remotely, they need to advantage of it, while working hard and delivering on their promise, so companies see value and offer it to other women.
- Society: We need to be less judgmental of working mothers. I’ve had people apologize for bothering me on my “day off” when I am working from home, and even comment on my “vacation” when I was on maternity leave. A silver lining of the pandemic is that naysayers are now understanding that not only can we work from home, but we can do it efficiently and effectively, and in many cases produce better results than when we were in the office.
- The government: We need to institute nationalized paid family leave, like almost every other developed nation, otherwise we are not only penalizing new parents, but negatively affecting children and the economy as a whole. It’s shocking that we don’t have this.
Let’s now turn to a slightly new topic. According to this report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers? If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?
There is simply not enough financial education at an early age — or at any age. We need to talk about money and make it a focus. I see a few areas of opportunity:
- We should have financial literacy courses in high school — or even junior high — and have refresher courses every five years. It’s a skill we need to learn early on, and refresh as circumstance change, and to prevent the formation of bad habits. We learn math, but not how to practically apply it.
- Everyone should keep a budget to be cognizant of what they are spending. Imagine running your household like a company — you want it to be profitable, so you have to make decisions about what you spend. In my house, we have two bank accounts: one for our mortgage and the other for everything else. All the rest is discretionary. We look at it every week and it keeps us on track. For instance, if our expenses seem high one week, we know we should stop ordering out and instead cook more.
- Finally, make it a game. If it’s fun and you reward yourself, you are more likely to stick to it. A CFO at one of our portfolio companies has a great way of doing this — she plays “if this, then what?” For example, if you stick to your monthly clothing budget, you get a certain amount of money to put into your vacation fund. If you don’t, a certain amount comes out. Once you accrue enough money, you get to take your vacation (or whatever it is that is rewarding for you.)
(Choose) You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each.
My kids are still young, but I regularly try to teach them financial literacy. Some may be tough lessons, but I think it’s so important to learn about money early on. A few examples from my household:
- I borrow money from my children. They have to negotiate with me on the interest and fees, and it has taught them about leverage — one of my daughters tried to negotiate after she already agreed to loan me the money and learned quickly that’s doesn’t work.
- We don’t give allowances, but we pay commissions for jobs beyond their regular chores. I’ve also taught them about giving back — one day I paid them $20 to hand out fliers for a Gerber Finance Foundation event in the pouring rain and then asked them donate the money to the Foundation. They felt connected and involved, and giving back was a great lesson about community giving.
- I let them know that there are limited funds, and we can’t always afford everything. It really hits home when this lesson comes up in relation to something they want.
- We talk about money a lot, and in ways that are relevant to them. My oldest has recently started looking at Zillow, and we talk about how much houses costs in different parts of the country.
- If they do something that costs us money, I take a payment from them or balance that cost. For instance, if they leave the lights on all night, we talk about how that costs money, so we need to use the money we were going to spend on ice cream to pay for that.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
We all need someone to take a chance on us and give us our first big opportunity. For me that person was Gerald Joseph, the founder of Gerber Finance. Not only did he take a chance on me in the beginning, but he has also continuously given me projects outside of my area of expertise, which have helped me to learn and grown in ways I didn’t even think possible. He is why I am where I am today. He also pushes me to give these kinds of opportunities to others on our team so they can grow and understand what’s accessible to them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one more responsive to change.” — often attributed to Charles Darwin, the source is unknown, but it’s powerful none-the-less.
This quote has long been a favorite of mine, but it has become an indispensable source of inspiration since we closed our office and started working remotely March 6 of this year. We’re never going back to what was “normal” — we have to let go of the past to go forward. Like many people, I don’t love change, so this quote is a good, daily reminder that we need to adapt to our evolving company, industry and world.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
My true passion is working to reduce food insecurity and hunger among children in this country. Children are the single largest population affected by hunger globally, and on Long Island, where I live. It impacts children in lasting ways — physical development, cognitive impairments, behavioral issues, social skills. Children need more people — and companies — to step up for them; it could literally change their life.
I am thankful that my passion found an intersection with my work. One of the largest industries we work with today is natural products — healthy food, beverages, products, packaging and services. Finding ways to merge our clients to the work we also do with hunger, is something I look to solve for regularly.