Like many women in the 1970s, investment adviser Jane Williams faced significant career challenges in what was deemed a man's profession. It didn't matter that she had a degree in economics from Boston University or that she had been a member of the university's Economics Honor Society. In the financial world, the men considered her gender a liability. Most employers wanted to know how fast she could type, she said.
But despite the rejections, Williams made a self-empowered move that would wake up the financial giants and kick-start her career. She co-wrote a book on banking innovation through the Economic Council of Canada. Merrill Lynch, which had rejected her four times in different cities, called to offer a job, she said.
Fast-forward nearly four decades. Williams is chair and co-founder of Sand Hill Global Advisors in Palo Alto. She is now regarded as one of the most influential women in investment advising.
Williams was named to Barron's List of Top Women Financial Advisors in the nation in 2014 and to the San Francisco Business Times' and San Jose/Silicon Valley Business Journal's lists as one of the 100 most influential women in business in the San Francisco Bay Area.
On Oct. 2, Williams will receive the 28th Athena Award from the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce. An international award named for the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, strength, strategy, and skill, the Athena recognizes a woman who has attained and personifies the highest level of professional excellence in business and the community.
Williams' experience in the investment field stretches back more than 38 years. She is a recognized expert for her work with women and couples in financial transition, and she testifies in family courts on financial topics.
She formed Sand Hill with two partners in 1982, including now-retired CEO Gary Conway.
"He was my big booster. He really believed I wouldn't get respect until my name was on the door," she recalled.
While they believed in her, Williams also very much believed in herself. She grew up in Winchester, Virginia, the second of five children in a family whose roots date back to Williamsburg.
She got her passion for investing from her father, a certified public accountant whose first love was the stock market, she said. But she got her resilience from the steely examples of her mother and grandmother.
"My mother was a firebrand. When she was stricken with polio, she was told by her doctor at age 11 that she would never walk again. She said, 'The hell I won't.' My grandmother would say, 'Have you burned your bra yet? Has your boyfriend burned his draft card?' They always encouraged that you can do it another way," she said.
Sand Hill is not a female-focused firm, but some of Williams' most meaningful work relates to helping women who are going through significant life transitions such as divorce and widowhood, she said.
"The era of equal opportunity works great in theory, but not so well if the family decision was for the woman to stay home and raise the children," she added.
Williams was struck by how gaining financial control so greatly impacted her clients' lives.
She recalled an older-looking woman who shuffled into her office one day.
"When I learned she was my age, I was blown away. She was really weakened. She was not supported by her husband, and now the marriage was ending. She was frightened. I told her that she could do this," Williams said.
When the client returned the next week, she dressed differently and had a new demeanor.
"She said, 'You know, I have a Stanford MBA. You're right -- I can do this.' Stanford MBA or not, we can all take control of our financial choices," Williams said.
About 20 percent of the company's work is about strengthening nonprofits, she said.
Williams' own volunteer work has included the Peninsula Community Foundation board, through which she helped shepherd its merger with Community Foundation Silicon Valley in 2006 to create the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. She is currently on the advisory board for Ravenswood Family Health Center in East Palo Alto and is a member of the Philanthropy Advisors Council for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
Success aside, Williams has a personal reason for her philanthropic work and help to women.
"The reason I do it is it makes me feel good," she said.
When Williams receives the Athena Award at Palo Alto's Garden Court Hotel, Jacquetta Lannan, owner and founder of hot-dog truck and soon-to-be California Avenue restaurant Chez Franc, will be the first recipient of a new honor, the Athena Young Professional Leadership Award. It recognizes emerging leaders.
The Palo Alto Weekly is a sponsor of the Athena Awards. More information and tickets to the event can be found at Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce.