From Crayon Dreams to Trillion-Dollar Triumphs: The Inspiring Tale of Sue Wagner and BlackRock

Sue Wagner, the finance pioneer and co-founder of BlackRock (BLK), stands as a titan in the financial world, reshaping the industry through a unique blend of innovation, insight, and a touch of original humor. Her journey from crayon-written business plans to steering BlackRock, which manages over $9 trillion in assets, beyond impressive. Sue’s story and rise to the top against all odds is a true success story, an inspiring narrative rich with anecdotes and lessons about resilience.

BlackRock’s Triumphs

Wagner’s determination and leadership played a pivotal role in BlackRock’s triumphant initial public offering and the establishment of BlackRock Solutions. Beyond financial success, she emerged as a formidable female champion for diversity and inclusion, co-founding and chairing BlackRock’s Women’s Initiative Network, and sponsoring the Women’s Leadership Forum.

Wagner proves that financial prowess can harmonize and uplift women with a commitment to equality. “Like most entrepreneurs when we started, we were just thinking about how to survive, about everyday excellence, and doing whatever needed to be done to make sure we could deliver what we promised our clients. We were finding our way, solving problems, doing the work of the work. We had clear values; we clung to integrity and partnership,” she said at the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Organization’s 2023 ceremony.

From Crayons to Trillions

Reflecting on her early days, she revealed that the BlackRock business plan was written in crayon—an unconventional start to what would become a financial powerhouse. She along with eight partners embarked on the BlackRock adventure with a crayon-written business plan (Sue’s favorite color is blue), and a $5 million working capital line. She reminisces about the “sausage making” days, emphasizing the importance of everyday excellence and adapting to challenges. BlackRock’s growth to over $9 trillion in assets under her management reflects not just financial prowess but a commitment to vision, integrity, and partnership.

When she stepped down from her executive position, she spent time thinking about her legacy, and realized it would be written by the collective efforts of her colleagues and future generations building on BlackRock’s foundation. Wagner’s seat on the board allows her to witness the creative passion, constructive paranoia, and genius that BlackRock employees bring to better serve clients and make the world a better, more inclusive place for everyone.

Wagner proudly highlights that two of BlackRock’s founders were women — in addition to herself, there’s also Barbara G. Novick, BlackRock’s Vice Chairwoman, and presently a Senior Advisor, a rarity in the finance sector then and unfortunately still today. Stressing the importance of being role models, insisting on equal opportunities, and extending advocacy beyond office walls, Wagner calls for a redoubled effort to support all women, recognizing that women’s rights are indeed human rights.

Wagner invoked Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with two quotes that resonated with her: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” and, “In a society where women often feel pressured to tear one another down, our saving grace lies in our willingness to lift each other up.”

Beyond finance, Wagner serves on the Board of Directors for Apple and SwissRE, showcasing her multifaceted impact on the corporate landscape. She is also a member of the Boards of Trustees of the Hackley School in the U.S. and her alma mater, Wellesley College. Wagner’s diverse roles highlight a commitment not only to redefine finance but to also contribute to the broader business world. She inspires women globally to take the leap forward with pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams.

But leading and inspiring comes with its own set of challenges. In her own words, public speaking is “really not my thing,” but she drew inspiration from Madeleine Albright’s Security Council experience, where speaking up became pivotal.

Five Key Takeaways

Wagner was honored by the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Organization, and offered key takeaways for anyone aspiring to be a leader:

1. Speak Up and Overcome Trepidation: Take a cue from Wagner’s experience and don’t let fear hold you back. Overcoming trepidation and speaking up is crucial, especially when your voice matters in a challenging environment.

2. Start with a Bold Vision and Adapt: Wagner’s crayon-written business plan symbolizes the power of starting with a bold vision and being adaptable. Embrace the unconventional, adapt to challenges, and navigate them creatively.

3. Focus on Everyday Excellence: Wagner emphasizes the significance of everyday excellence. In the early BlackRock days, survival and client commitment were the focus. Prioritize day-to-day excellence as the foundation for lasting success.

4. Values, Integrity, and Partnership Matter: Clear values, especially around integrity and partnership, shaped BlackRock’s foundation. Wagner highlights the importance of cultivating a strong value system that permeates the organization’s culture.

5. Be a Role Model and Advocate Beyond Office Walls: Wagner urges being a role model and championing equal opportunities. With 25% of BlackRock’s founders being women, she stresses the need to extend advocacy beyond the workplace, emphasizing that women’s rights are human rights.

Sue Wagner’s wisdom offers valuable insights for individuals navigating their own paths in both the corporate world and life in general. To celebrate women and collectively lift each other up, we can learn from her inspiring journey from a crayon-written plan to becoming a trillion-dollar success.

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