As part of a series for Women's History Month, The Daily Princetonian sat down with Nancy Peretsman ’76, Managing Director at Allen & Company LLC and trustee emeritus. The 'Prince' interviewed Peretsman about why she was inspired to go to Princeton, women in the workforce, and her philanthropic commitment to the University.
The Daily Princetonian: How did your time at Princeton prepare you for your career?
Nancy Peretsman: I actually think that Princeton was an extraordinary opportunity for me, because I had not ever had the advantage of having a world-class set of teachers and intellectuals. I grew up in an industrial city going to public school. It was a really unique opportunity for me. It excited me intellectually. Inevitably, what it did, which I think it does for any young person who comes to the University who hasn’t had the advantage of really strong preparatory training, it helped with the ability to think and write critically and hone communication skills. The story I have often shared with people about the decision to go to Princeton was deeply influenced by an encounter when I was a junior in high school. At the time, the city manager of Worcester [Mass.], where I lived, began to fluorinate the water. They had taken a referendum the prior fall and the electorate voted it down. This really incensed me. Thomas Jefferson had said, 'what’s the sense of a democracy if you ignore what the people had voted for a few months prior?' Believe it or not, our family dentist called my mother and asked her to get me to shut up because fluoride was the right answer. I said, 'it’s not about fluoridation, it’s about how they took this vote,' and believe it or not, my dentist sent this charming young guy interning with him to argue with me. I remember to this day thinking 'gosh, if I could just sound like him.' I knew I was right, but he was far more articulate than I, and I needed to sound like him. He was the first person I had ever met who had gone to Princeton. It’s a very special opportunity for folks who haven’t had that educational privilege, and it had a very high impact on my life.
DP: What was your experience majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School?
NP: I opted to do the Wilson School in part because I had a specific interest that was interdisciplinary. Now, the students have so many more opportunities to do interdisciplinary studies with all the initiatives and certificates that we didn’t use to have. The appeal of the Wilson School was driven for me by my intellectual interest in the overlap between urban planning and political philosophy, and my thesis advisor was in the architecture school. Junior year, I took a semester abroad in England and worked on British “New Towns” and urban planning and political economy. It was very interesting, but bore no interest to anything I ever ended up doing in my life.
DP: What activities were you involved in at Princeton?
NP: I played ice hockey in the early days of the women’s team, because I grew up in Massachusetts as a skater. I was involved with a group of people who brought a change about in how the Undergraduate Student Government was structured; we were anti-institutional, but we ran a series of referendums.
DP: Have you felt like finance is a male-dominated industry?
NP: I was just going to say, I attribute in part how I ended up being so comfortable going to Wall Street in the early days as directly connected to my time at Princeton, where there were very few women. I remembered someone interviewing me, and saying 'you could be a consultant, or you could be an investment banker.' I always liked math and economics, and was less of a verbal person. This person said, 'women don’t go to Wall Street.' I remember thinking, I just came out of a school where there weren’t that many women, so I wasn’t particularly troubled by the environment. I wasn’t thinking about it with a political point of view — I didn’t go to Princeton because I wanted to help integrate it. I felt lucky. if I had been born four years earlier, I couldn’t have gone to Princeton. I felt the same on Wall Street — I was there when they were first hiring women. I was the third or fourth year that these firms brought professional women in. By the grace of God, it was just timing.
DP: Do you feel like Wall Street has becomemore accommodating of women?
NP: I can’t really answer that, because 20 odd years ago I left the big firm and I work for a privately-owned partnership. I can tell you that there’s a lot of women at our firm doing wonderfully, but I don’t have a handle on the statistics. The big difference is what exists today that didn’t a generation ago is the role models for success. There are enough women that have succeeded as compared to in my year, where it was a sea of suits and you ventured into new territory. Now any young woman coming into the business can at least look up. Maybe there’s not as many as we would like, but there are plenty of examples of women who have done brilliantly.
DP: You wrote a story for [Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In foundation. Do you think her work has been important in establishing role models for women?
NP: I think that what Sheryl, who I have a lot of admiration for, what she is trying to do with that platform is great. It’s been surprising how many women I’ve heard from based on my story. I’m not that public of a person, Sheryl asked me to do it, and people are drawn to personal stories. If you’re a young woman and you don’t necessarily have access to women who have come before, the stories make it much more accessible.
DP: Did motherhood change anything for you?
NP: Motherhood is one of the great joys of my life. I’d say that even if I had ended up with a child who wasn’t a Tiger [Emma Scully ’12]. We’re very close. I think the most fun thing for me was when she went to Princeton. I remember freshman year, her friends would ask me what it was like "in the old days.’ I texted my rooommates and said 'this is really sad.' To go to campus when Emma was there, when Shirley [Tilghman] was president, the institution was not recognizable in regard to the full integration of women on campus.
DP: You founded the Women in Leadership Initiative at Princeton. Can you talk about that?
NP: That was really because when I was a young alumni trustee, I had a reasonably high profile. I used to tease that it was out of self-preservation that we founded Women in Leadership. There was a period of time, whenever they wanted women alums, they were calling the same three names. We said “this is ridiculous. There are all of these great women. Let’s get them involved.” We got involved with Andrea Jung (’79), Heidi Miller (’74), who subsequently served on the board for years. The Women in Leadership Initiative gave women an excuse to get back involved, they just needed an opportunity. It was a wonderful catalyst. When we had events, there were many women who may not have come to Reunions, but were really attracted to this where they knew there would be hundreds of women on campus.
DP: What was your experience like as trustee?
NP: I actually served three terms as a trustee, for 24 years. I was a Young Alumni trustee then a Charter Trustee. I had some time off, probably for good behavior, then came back from 2005-2015. In the early days, I was involved in the early reports of undergraduate life, and it was from that report that the residential colleges were born. We had an active role in that and saw big changes. I was involved in the South African days establishing the policy of disassociation, of saying that the idea that one would sell stocks as a political protest is not sufficient. We are participants in a larger community, and if there is an entity or corporation doing something that we can’t reconcile ourselves with, we have to think about it holistically and dissociate. It’s not a symbolic gesture of not just owning their stocks. I think that’s a policy that Princeton should be hugely proud of, and I was very involved in it. Most recently, I co-chaired the capital campaign with Robert Murley ’72. It was a great honor when [former President] Shirley [Tilghman] asked me to. I was also on the presidential selection after Shirley announced her retirement.
DP: What inspired you and your husband’s [Robert Scully ’72] philanthropic commitment to Princeton?
NP: We have been deeply fortunate in our lives, and we had careers beyond our wildest dreams. With financial success comes a general responsibility. Princeton has been a large part of our lives. We’ve historically done most of what we’ve done anonymously. As a leader of the capital campaign, we waited until the end to see what needed funding, and neuroscience was so important to Shirley. Shirley encouraged us to make sure, just as she did with Meg Whitman ['77], that a woman supporting the University was doing it in a public way. Normally, named buildings isn’t where our philanthropy has been historically, but we were sensitive to the desire that the naming can really reflect the increasing diversity of Princeton’s population.
DP: What advice would you give to undergraduates interested in finance?
NP: I had a wonderful opportunity at Solomon Brothers and Allen and Company to serve very exciting growth industries and help entrepreneurs build companies. You go to work every day and can’t believe what human potential allows for. Most of what I’ve done has been specific to a few industries. I can’t think of anything more interesting. Finance is a very broad field; my husband had a very successful career at Wall Street and our days looked very different from each other. What I would say is that finance as a title is a little bit like medicine as a title, in that it’s in the specialty that you chose. It’s the subset that you have to pick what is best for you. Money managing is very flexible and good for women, there are great women traders too, and women on the research side of finance. The nomenclature is so broad that it allows for all kinds of different opportunities for people, if you want to work for a big or small company, research, if you’re analytical or mathematical and doing trading models. I would urge people to experiment and see where the best fit for them is within the industry.