Karin Risi ’94 VSB ’99 MBA was named head of the Retail Investor Group at Vanguard in March of 2015. She is now one of ten Managing Directors who advise and report to Vanguard CEO Bill McNabb.
Karin grew up in Southeastern Pennsylvania and chose to stay in the area when she graduated from Villanova. Her first professional opportunity was with a rotational program for financial associates at Sunoco in Center City, Philadelphia.
Karin joined Vanguard in 1997 because she wanted to build a career in the investment industry. She was hired as an investment analyst in Vanguard’s Planning & Development division, which gave her a strong foundation in investments, as well as exposure to Vanguard’s largest Institutional clients.
After three years of deepening her investment knowledge, Karin was recruited to join Vanguard’s Corporate Strategy group. There, she diversified her skills from narrow and deep technical expertise to developing a broader view of Vanguard’s competitors and its portfolio of businesses.
Karin’s analytical strengths emerged as one of her most transferable skill sets early in her career. She was able to successfully leverage her strong analytical skills as an individual contributor in Vanguard’s Portfolio Review and Corporate Strategy groups. From Corporate Strategy, Karin launched into her first role leading people. She was offered the opportunity to lead a team of fifty in the Investment Advisor Services group in Vanguard’s Institutional division.
At this time, Karin recalls, “I had the benefit of not only a great boss, but an incredibly valuable mentor. It was so beneficial for me to work for an accomplished leader who cared about my development, and could identify what I needed, right at the moment I needed it.” Still in her 20s at the time, with arguably little practical experience, Karin remains grateful that Vanguard’s senior leadership took a chance on her potential and gave her such a valuable personal growth opportunity.
After a brief return to Corporate Strategy for a special assignment, Karin rounded out her skill set with another leadership position back in Vanguard’s Institutional division. In this role, she was responsible for leading the client relationship management functions and traveling frequently to meet with some of Vanguard’s largest institutional clients.
Karin joined Vanguard’s Retail Investor Group (RIG) in 2007, which is the business division that she now heads. Vanguard’s Retail division serves roughly seven million individual clients with $1.2 trillion in assets under management. During her years in RIG, Karin held leadership roles in Vanguard’s high net worth client group as well as its individual advisory business. Most recently, within the advisory unit, Karin led the expansion of Vanguard’s asset management business and the launch of its new Personal Advisor service, which provides ongoing portfolio management to clients in partnership with a Vanguard financial advisor.
As her career at Vanguard progressed, Karin and her husband started a family in 2008 and have two young children. In 2012, Karin was diagnosed with breast cancer and has since dedicated a significant portion of her time to supporting breast cancer patients through her work with a local non-profit organization.
We at the Villanova Women’s Professional Network are inspired by Karin’s story and her successes. We were lucky enough to sit down with her and pick her brain about several topics of interest to women in the workplace today.
VWPN: How have mentors and/or sponsors helped you achieve success in your career? What advice would you give to women who are seeking sponsorship to help advance in their careers?
Karin: I’ve had the benefit of many mentors at every stage in my career, both great bosses and trusted peers. Mentors with seniority or significant experience can be incredibly valuable, but I’ve found some of my closest peer relationships to be equally meaningful to my professional growth. Over the years, I’ve learned to look to my most trusted peers for candid and specific feedback, as well as much needed encouragement and support.
Sponsors are a slightly different story. I’ve had many mentors, but I’ve only had one or two sponsors and they’ve probably been the most influential and meaningful contributors to my career development. You’re lucky if you get one sponsor in your career; if you’ve had a few, I think you’re blessed. While you can find mentors through formal programs and networking, securing a sponsor is a much tougher task. You attract sponsorship – you can’t really ask for it.
Drawing on my own experience, I’ve found that you attract sponsorship by consistently demonstrating the ability to take on more challenging assignments that require a high degree of comfort with ambiguity. It’s hard to lay out a road map to finding a sponsor – but staying focused on delivering incredibly well in the job you’re currently in is a strong start. Looking back, I’ve found that a strong sponsor can jumpstart your development by holding you to a standard much higher than you’re used to – and believing you can rise to the occasion.
VWPN: Can you weigh in on the work-life balance discussion? How do you create a sustainable balance between your demanding professional life and your personal life?
Karin: To be clear, I don’t achieve perfect work-life balance on any given day, week, or even month. Perhaps I’m rationalizing, but I don’t measure my “success” in this area over short sprints. Instead, I think about how well I’m integrating the most important elements of my life: my family, my career, and my commitment to the community. Over longer periods – stretches of months, perhaps – I’ll periodically step back and reflect on how I’ve been spending my time. I’ll honestly assess if I’m happy with that balance and – most important – if it’s working for my family. Perhaps the two most critical factors in making my personal work-life blend work for me are a supportive partner coupled with my own willingness to drop the notion of achieving someone else’s definition of work-life perfection. It’s definitely more of a “blend” than a “balance,” but it works for me.
VWPN: You were a founding member of Vanguard’s “Women’s Initiative for Leadership Success (WILS)”. Can you tell us more about your work with this program and its successes and challenges at Vanguard?
Karin: Yes, I was part of the leadership team that launched Vanguard’s WILS initiative back in 2009. I later became the program co-lead for several years and today, I serve as its executive co-sponsor. So, it’s fair to say that I feel passionate and heavily invested in Vanguard’s efforts to support and accelerate the professional development of women. Our program is evolving and it’s not perfect, but I’m proud of the meaningful strides we’ve made as an organization.
The momentum behind WILS, the traction that the program was able to gain right from the get-go, came from CEO Bill McNabb and our most senior executive team. In fact, I’m convinced that the early successes of our program would have faded quickly without that visible support. It was the commitment of senior leadership that allowed WILS to become a meaningful part of Vanguard’s environment. If we didn’t have our senior staff on board, it just wouldn’t have happened.
WILS has also been inclusive of men from the beginning. There’s no way that we could have a robust women’s development program without being inclusive of men, who are leaders of and peers to our women.
What’s the key to success for our program? Stay committed and be patient over the long haul, because it will take time. That’s what we’ve seen with WILS. The program keeps evolving to meet the professional development needs of our women. We’ve worked hard to design curriculum and identify important opportunities for women to enhance their investment skills, broad business acumen, executive impact, and a multitude of other core leadership competencies. But, we’re constantly reevaluating and refining our approach to ensure WILS remains relevant for our female crew. We’ve made steady and measurable progress, but we’re never really done.
VWPN: You experienced serious adversity in your personal life. Can you tell us more about that experience and how it shaped you as a leader?
Karin: Things were going pretty well on the personal and professional front in 2012 when, without warning or any family history of the disease, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. An experience like that brings clarity quickly. You quickly align things and gain immediate perspective on what’s important. In the scheme of things, the previously “critical” meeting or whatever personal drama that might have thrown me for a loop in the past…suddenly didn’t matter all that much. If I didn’t have work-life balance before my diagnosis, that would have been a clarifying moment for me to find it quickly. Luckily, I already had the benefit of a supportive family and many close colleagues who genuinely cared about my situation.
After the experience is more or less behind you, which I’m so grateful to say that it is, it’s still part of you. So what do you do with it?
I think some people choose to put the whole ordeal in a box, put it away and move on, and I respect that. I’ve had the benefit of interacting with many breast cancer survivors since my experience and I’ve learned that successfully “moving forward” looks different for each of us. And I’d never suggest that my path is superior to any other. But, for me, it’s been surprisingly important to make some productive use of my experience.
I serve as Vice Chair on the board of Unite for HER, a local organization that provides incredibly valuable complementary therapies like yoga and acupuncture to women impacted by breast cancer. I know firsthand the value of this organization’s work because I was the beneficiary of their services and ongoing support during my own experience. When I was searching for some way to give back, Unite for HER was the obvious choice. My initial volunteer efforts offered me an important connection and common ground with other women going through an experience similar to my own. That ongoing connection with our patients remains so personally important to me. Perhaps equally important, my board involvement allows me to contribute my professional experience in a way that helps shape strategic direction and drive the goal of extending our mission and reaching more women.
VWPN: As a double Villanova grad, do you maintain a relationship with the university?
Karin: Not nearly as much as I’d like – my plate is pretty full! But I remain grateful to Villanova for the friendships I developed while in the undergraduate and MBA programs and for the top notch education that I received. It’s been a few years, but several Vanguard leaders, including myself, have served as guest lecturers in one of the undergraduate strategy courses. It was a great way to lend some practical business experience to the coursework and also a unique opportunity for me to gain exposure to some impressive young talent from the business school. Vanguard maintains a pretty strong representation of Villanova alums in its ranks. It’s always gratifying to see Villanova grads at Vanguard who are performing well and progressing in their careers.