‘Get comfortable with the uncomfortable’ – How Suzanne Shank founded a firm that has facilitated over $1 trillion in debt financing

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 1, 2024 7:00 AM EDT
Suzanne Shank. Photo credit: Siebert Williams Shank

“To be successful in this hard-charging field, you have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Things will continue to change, but you have to charge through it, while maintaining strong business and personal ethics along the way,” Suzanne Shank once said about being a leading Black woman in the male-dominated finance world.

The first African-American woman to lead a publicly traded financial institution, Shank faced a series of challenges getting to the top. She has had to confront both the figurative glass ceiling and the physical concrete ceiling that are barriers affecting Black women. She has also made it a point to bring up a series of disturbing encounters, like when counterparts in a meeting asked her to bring a beverage because they did not think she was a participant.

The corporate world wasn’t Shank’s first encounter with racism and discrimination. Even then, she was determined to prove her detractors wrong and worked hard to prove both her value and the value of those who looked like her. A native of Savannah, Georgia, Shank was an only child. Her mother was a teacher and her father was the first Black bus driver in Georgia. She watched her parents work extremely hard and adopted their work ethic and drive.

These experiences, albeit irritating, motivated her to overcome and break expectations. Her firm became the first minority and woman-owned (MWBE) firm in Wall Street history to rank in the top 10 among municipal bond underwriters and the first MWBE to lead a municipal underwriting over $1 billion in principal amount. As CEO of Siebert Williams Shank & Co., Shank has overseen over $2 trillion in transactions.

“They taught me how to be fearless in the pursuit of opportunity, how to embrace competition, and how to overcome challenges. If they could do it in the South at a time when there were very few opportunities for African Americans, then I should be able to do whatever I wanted,” Shank noted about how she learned to be resilient from her parents.

In pursuit of economic security, Shank decided to become an engineer. She earned a bachelor’s in civil engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and began her career at General Dynamics, one of the largest defense contractors. However, working in engineering didn’t present many avenues for upward mobility. Consequently, Shank enrolled at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to increase her prospects of career advancement.

However, her transition to finance proved to be challenging. Shank received ten rejections for every interview she booked. She shifted her focus to building up a network by speaking to peers and alumni, eventually landing a position at a boutique firm. Two months after obtaining her graduate degree, Black Monday – the largest stock market decline to date – hit. While many of her classmates lost jobs, Shank was secure in her new role.

After ten years at financial advisory firm James J. Lowrey & Co., Shank was approached at a dinner by Muriel Siebert, the first female member of the New York Stock Exchange to start an investment banking firm together. Alongside Napoleon Brandford, a senior banker and colleague at Grigsby Brandford & Co. they came together with a vision of building a firm wholly owned by women and minorities. They founded Siebert Brandford Shank in 1996 with the 35-year-old Shank becoming its CEO. She had a one-year-old child at the time and was quite uncertain about leading the company. But her colleagues bet on her and Shank chose to bet on herself.

Siebert Brandford Shank steadily grew following its start. Shank’s strategic decision-making during the 2008 financial crisis ensured the firm stayed afloat during the crisis. They calculatedly grew the business by hiring talent displaced by other Wall Street firms looking to cut costs. As their competitors languished, Siebert Brandford Shank doubled in size. The firm became the first MWBE firm in Wall Street history to rank in the top 10 among municipal bond underwriters and the first MWBE to lead a municipal underwriting of over $1 billion in principal amount. It was renamed Siebert Cisneros Shank in 2016.

In 2019, Siebert Cisneros Shank & Co. and the Williams Capital Group merged to form Siebert Williams Shank & Co. (SWS), Wall Street’s largest woman- and minority-owned firm. With Shank as CEO, the firm has established itself as a formidable force in corporate and municipal finance. It is dually headquartered in New York and Oakland, California and has 19 offices across the US.

“The fact that our ownership is reflective of the diversity of America gives us a unique and valuable perspective as we deliver high quality services and ideas to our clients. But we pride ourselves on being a top corporate and municipal bond financing firm, period. We are not just the number 1 ranked MWBE firm, we are in the top 15 of all municipal bond underwriting firms,” Shank said of her firm’s leading position in the industry.

SWS has recently been involved in high-profile initial public offerings for companies such as Oscar Health, Airbnb, and Root Insurance and was the lead underwriter for Verizon Communications’ $1 billion green-bond offering. The firm has completed over $1.4 trillion in financing for municipal issuers and $1 trillion in corporate bond and equity transactions. Shank is personally responsible for crafting financing structures, credit strategies, and investor outreach plans for numerous large-scale municipal bond issuers nationally.

Shank is using her seat at the Wall Street table to elevate the voices of diverse professionals in boardrooms and create positive change in diverse communities. In 2001, she co-founded the Detroit Summer Finance Institute, an internship program that allows inner-city students to learn about the finance world and available jobs. Partnering with Microsoft, SWS launched the $250 million Clear Vision Impact Fund which invests in diverse small and medium-sized businesses, especially in underrepresented areas. The firm has also made donations to support various HBCUs.