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“I Would Not Let Gender Hold Me Back”

August 29, 2018

In honor of Gender Equality Day, Penn Law celebrates Sophie L’Hélias LLM ’87, founder of the Gender Diversity Exchange℠ (GDE). In the story below, she digs deep into her intimate narrative and the powerful forces, both personal and political, that led her to create this groundbreaking index described by L’Hélias as “a search engine for positive impact, that draws upon my experience as an investor, lawyer and board director.”

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I learned that boys and girls were to be treated differently when the school’s college counselor suggested I apply to a nearby secretarial school while encouraging the boys in my class who, like me, majored in mathematics, physics and biology, apply to college.

Until that day, I had never seen or felt any difference:  I had many female role models in my family and beyond, and parents who treated sons and daughters equally, just as they were equals for us.  

My maternal great-grandfather was the first in his family to go to college. He left his small hometown in Brittany and travelled to Paris to become a surgeon and returned home to open a hospital. 

He had three daughters: his youngest was my grandmother, Monique, who studied mathematics and became a practicing graphologist; her older sister, Genevieve, became a renown pediatric orthoptist, raising her son as a single mother after she divorced; her eldest sister, Tanette, was tetraplegic after contracting polio as an infant, and studied English literature in Paris to become a professional translator of English books and plays and travel the world in her wheelchair.

Neither gender nor handicap prevented any of them from going to college at the turn of the 20th century.

The three sisters showered me with love, taught me to be adventurous and showed me how to overcome hardship, failure and mockery.

My mother’s family wasn’t alone in making me believe that women and men could succeed equally. My father’s four sisters graduated from college, and three of them had careers in banking and the oil industry. 

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My parents were both born and raised in small towns in Brittany, a coastal region in France whose people are known for their grit, mobility and work ethic. For more than one thousand years, husbands would go to sea for years, sometimes to never return. They left behind their wives and children to struggle with poverty. To survive, women had to work, leave their homes or join their husbands at sea. 

I was born in Paris where my father got his first job working for a bank. They wanted to discover the world. Before I was two, we had moved to India leaving the streets of Paris for the bustling, coastal and culturally rich city of Mumbai, where I spent the next four years. I have many memories of those happy years where I learned to speak English and Hindi – only to forget it later - and with a child’s eyes discovered a world rich in color, music and dance.

By the time I was in first grade, my family relocated to Toronto where we spent the next five years and then to Vancouver for another five years. A nation of immigrants, I spent my years in Canada living and learning from people who came from all walks of life and the four corners of the earth. The majority of my friends did not speak English at home.

My best friend was born on a reserve outside of Vancouver. An orphan – her mother died at childbirth and her father was not known - she was adopted by a loving elderly British Canadian couple whose other children were grown.  She taught me the plight of First Nation communities and the importance of identity. I witnessed the injustices and bullying she faced at school and at the community center where we would hang out after school.

During that time, my mother who was a hard-working stay-at-home mom decided to go back to school and obtain her masters in English literature. She wrote her thesis on women in Margaret Atwood’s novels and led me to discover decades before Netflix made The Handmaid’s Tale.

After ten years in Canada, my life took on a new turn when my parents moved to Lusaka, Zambia which was in the midst of an armed conflict with neighboring Zimbabwe. That’s when my parents sent my siblings and me to boarding school in France where I would later meet the college counselor mentioned earlier.

I travelled to Zambia at least once each year for extended periods of time and visited neighboring countries on long road trips in our parents’ station wagon packed, with gasoline and food and water supplies, in case the car broke down. The six of us would sleep in the car when we couldn’t find a place to spend the night, or to wake up see the sunrise at a location my father desperately wanted to see.

I cannot begin to describe how eye-opening it was to discover Sub-Saharan Africa as a teenager in the 1980s. Tensions were palpable and danger was ever-present. Kalashnikovs were prevalent and food scarce in parts of the country. The Apartheid regime in South Africa was under increasing pressure, neighboring Mozambique was in a civil war, Angola was also at war and Mugabe was on his path to power in Zimbabwe.

By the time I was 16, I had lived in four continents, attended several schools and made friends from all over the world. I had strong female role models on both sides of my family and parents who encouraged me to go to college and have an interesting career.

I didn’t apply to secretarial school and decided to go to law school instead, and major in international and comparative law. My college counselor would not succeed in turning off the lights that lit the path to an interesting future.

I loved my childhood adventures and wanted to attend law school in several countries. I chose Saarbrucken, a former coal-mining town that went back and forth from being in France or Germany, depending on which country won a war in the 19th and 20th centuries. Saarbrucken was at the epicenter of European history: it was the groundbreaking post-war coal and steel trade treaty that led to the creation of the European Union.  The University offered a unique German, French European and comparative law program and awarded me a full scholarship that paid for my tuition and most of my room and board.

Though I had studied German in school and worked with Germans as a tour guide as a tour guide operator in the summer, I wanted to learn more about Germany’s history and what it meant to be living in a nation divided by a wall and hostile neighbors under Soviet rule.

My program in Saarbrucken completed, I transferred to the Pantheon-Sorbonne Law School in Paris that offered an excellent international and comparative law program that I felt would lead me to an LLM in the United States.

I had set my sights on the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Though I had never visited the school let alone been to Philadelphia, I knew it was the right place for me. I had gone through hundreds of pages of college brochures, spoken to professors and TAs and quickly saw that Penn offered me something special.

While the other law schools I had researched separated their LLM and JD law students, Penn had a small LLM class comprised of both international and American students who took classes with JD students

Penn gave me every opportunity I could dream of - and then some. Not only was I awarded a scholarship that covered my tuition, but I also received multiple job offers from top law firms from all over the country who offered sign-on bonuses that would cover my remaining expenses.

I am so grateful to the supportive community of teachers, students and staff and fondly remember my first American Thanksgiving with Professor Chuck Mooney who welcomed several foreign students to his home to join his family for the feast. They didn’t want us to be alone while everyone else was celebrating. It takes a special kind of school to promote that culture.

Soon after graduation, I joined a law firm in New York where I practiced M&A and securities law. It was a very challenging job with sleepless nights. I spent the next five years practicing in law in New York and Paris learning from exceptional lawyers.

During those years, however, I saw how lawyers were treated differently by their peers and clients depending on whether they were women or men including how male partners denigrated a colleague who announced her pregnancy shortly after she became one of the first female partners in the firm. When I voiced my concerns, I earned the nickname “suffragette” by a partner in a firm.

It was time to do something else.

I decided to go to business school and got an MBA at INSEAD and studied with people from different backgrounds who, like me, were ready for a career change. After a great summer working at an investment bank as the first female summer associate on their team, I decided try something radically different and launched a corporate governance shareholder activist practice in France.

One of my MBA classmates suggested I look into this emerging field. It was 1993 and no one was in that space in France. In fact, corporate governance not even a defined term and investors were passive.

I poured my heart and soul into my new business and wrote a weekly column for a leading financial paper and later published a book. During that period, I also co-founded an investor governance non-profit that is the world’s leading voice in governance.  

I stood out as a young French woman who was hired by the world’s leading investors to make European companies more transparent and accountable to their shareholders, even if that meant seeking the removal of a company’s board.

My clients hired me because of what I could do for them. They didn’t care if I was pregnant, had installed a crib in my conference room, took time to visit a sick family member or attend a child’s play. I was paid to perform … and I did.

Later, I joined an activist hedge fund as Managing Director. I encountered what many women encounter in the financial industry, and left soon after my second son was born to go back to what I was good at doing on my own.

A turning point came when countries adopted quotas for women on boards. After years of seeing women held back, I believed we had reached a watershed moment but when I crunched the numbers, I saw little progress. Numbers don’t lie.

That’s when I got the idea of the Gender Diversity Exchange℠ (GDE), a search engine for positive impact, that draws upon my experience as an investor, lawyer and board director.

With research showing that companies with greater percentages of female directors have better financial results, I knew that investors wanted to know the representation of women in leadership in companies in which they invest.

I created the GDE search engine to make simple and usable information on gender leadership diversity within companies widely available. There is so much published data, and not all of it was relevant to knowing how companies fared and compared on gender diversity in leadership.

Many companies make public their internal data on how many women are in these roles, either out of a sense of transparency or because local laws mandate this disclosure. Some also publicize their commitments to promote more women or nominate more to the board of directors. But until now, there hasn’t been an easy way for investors, the media, or interested citizens to find out how certain companies measured up, or how close these companies came to meeting their own announced targets.

The GDE tracks the progress of 1,500 publicly-traded across 38 industries, 27 countries and 3 geographic regions - North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific - as they promote women into the ranks of their boards, executive leadership, and management levels and build their pipeline of women in leadership.

It is a simple, fast and powerful solution to reward companies that do well while encouraging others to do better.  With a click, users can learn which companies do not disclose the data, learn if companies’ intentions on gender diversity in leadership match their measurable outcomes, and compare companies in their region or against their industry peers worldwide.

Only weeks after the website was launched in June, I was invited to present the GDE to the Board of Directors of CalPERS, America’s largest pension fund, during their offsite meeting in July. The board members’ reaction suggested that I got it right and done something important.

The GDE will expand and evolve, but for now, it has already gotten investors, companies and their directors to look at their outcomes, because at the end of the day, it’s the results that matter.

The years have gone by and my career has taken many unexpected twists and exciting turns. My children are now grown and part of the Penn community. I have had help and support all along my journey, and some disappointments as well. But who I am most grateful to is my great aunt Tanette. She loved the ocean because when she swam she felt free and her legs could no longer hold her back. I found my own ocean so I would not let gender hold me back.