Fearlessly Curious Voices: Learning hungrily & leading authentically with Merrill’s Stacey Gaine

Partner & Chief Client Officer Nancy Schulman sits down with Merrill’s Head of Wealth Management Marketing, Stacey Gaine, to talk about being authentic and fearless, the power of personalization, and breaking into a male-dominated industry. Stacey began her career at Smith Barney before beginning her 17-year long tenure at Merrill. 

Listen to their conversation above. 


Stacey Gaine: My parents really taught us, instilled in us in a way, that there was no other choice, that you were above no one in life. But that also meant no one was above you. And that gives you a great sense of maybe sometimes false, but always fearlessness. Because if you’re all equal, then you’re all standing at the same level. 

Nancy Schulman: Thank you for meeting with me today, Stacey. So, why are we here? In 1987, Congress designated March as Women’s History Month. It’s about honoring the achievements and contributions of women of all backgrounds. 

And every year they have a different theme. And the theme this year is about recognizing women who speak up and lead change in their fields. It’s something very near and dear to Sullivan’s heart and something we identify with. As a woman-owned and primarily women-led company, one of our characteristics is looking for people, we say, who have fearless curiosity. 

We decided that to contribute to the conversations that are going on this month, that we would speak with other women who live the same values as part of our community. Immediately, you came to mind.  Now, since everybody doesn’t know you, we’d like to start by asking you a few things about who you are, what your background is, what you’re doing right now. I’m going to ask you to take it away a little bit. 

SG: All right. Well, first of all, thank you so much. That’s a huge honor. I love this topic. So a little bit about me I would say first and foremost I’m a mom. I became a mom kind of late in life after I’d worked a really long time, and it’s a fun part of my life. I am happily married. I’m an avid skier. I’m a mediocre but committed golfer. 

And then I am a person who really loves my job. I love to work. I love going to work. I always have. And I particularly like the job I’m in now. Right now, I’m running the marketing for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management – and I’m also running product marketing across all of wealth. That includes the Bank of America Private Bank. 

NS: When you think about how you got where you are today, is it from fearlessness or your curiosity or some combo of both? 

SG: I think it’s a hundred percent of both. Sometimes my life allows me to be more one or the other, but I am always both. I did get raised by hippie parents. We traveled the country in a red Volkswagen camper van. I have a pack of brothers who I adore. 

My parents really taught us, instilled in us in a way, that there was no other choice, that you were above no one in life. But that also meant no one was above you. And that gives you a great sense of maybe sometimes false, but always fearlessness. Because if you’re all equal, then you’re all standing at the same level. 

I would say that’s one part of me. And then I’ve always been curious. I’ve done a lot of different things, but people intrigue me. I love people and I love learning new things. And I mostly love learning new things from other people. 

NS: I think another reason we thought about you is that I know we’ve known each other for almost two decades – way back when you weren’t a marketing person, you weren’t doing branding. You weren’t running advertising campaigns, all those things that you’re doing today.  

How did you have the courage to make a pivot like that? 

SG: You know what? It didn’t feel as courageous as it probably does looking back. So, I was a biochemistry major in college and I decided to balk on medical school. And so I got a job at Smith Barney, and I knew nothing. 

And I jumped right in, and I learned a ton from amazing people who taught me really well. And they appreciated the fact that I would work as hard as they needed me to work. And so, I was at that point willing to make up for any lack of knowledge by just working super hard. And I was wildly curious. And I didn’t have an ego in it. So, I ended up running some amazing products in the U.S. and in Europe and Asia and was with Smith Barney for a long time.   

And then when I went over to Merrill, they really pulled me over because of, I think, my ability to connect different people. They needed someone to run and build a product marketing world that understood product. And so, I taught myself marketing with a lot of help from a lot of smart, amazing humans who really nurtured me.  

I just loved that – not knowing and jumping in, learning from the best, pulling people in who are really good at it and picking their brain.  

And again, that curious, fearless combo – I didn’t really think through that it would be that hard. And by the way, it never was that hard. I tell women that a lot. I have to track, but I’m living proof that you do not have to track in any pattern. 

NS: When we talk about fearlessness, it can take many different forms. What does it mean to you? And how does it help you as a leader? 

SG: So I think when you’re fearless, you have perfect respect for all people. I will tell you what I live in fear of is being that leader that doesn’t hear the truth from others. I’ve worked for so many amazing people, but there’s been a couple rotten eggs in the bunch and all of them had one thing in common. They didn’t listen. They were so sure they were right, or they were so fearful of being wrong was probably the reality. So, I really try to just to approach it with the combination of being curious, the willingness to build it from the bottom up if I have to, to understand it. At Smith Barney, the CEO used to welcome me in to like give him my opinion and I’d do it. And looking back, it was probably I was the only one willing to do it. 

And I’ve tried to build a culture on my team where my team can tell me anything. That to me is smart fearlessness because you’re not walking yourself into a brick wall.  

NS: Do you think that it’s helpful or hinders women today to be fearless? 

SG: I think it’s style. Sometimes women try to be fearless by being rude. I don’t think you need to be rude. You can be direct without being rude. And I think if you asked my kids, they’d say I was really soft, like a wimp. And if you ask my team, they’d say I was tough. 

I think you have to be yourself. And I feel like I am both. I am soft, and I am tough. And so, I feel like women try to replicate what they think is fearless instead of being authentic to themselves. And I think if you are authentic to yourself, then people will learn to appreciate you, even if sometimes you’re a little tougher than they want. 

I think being authentic as a woman is so important. We’re always trying to be who somebody else wants us to be. And instead of just appreciating that we’re great. Just be who you are, be great, be fearless. And I think the rest eventually works itself out. 

NS: I’m curious about what you’re curious about right now, about the business, the world, the market, anything outside of work. 

SG: I’m curious in how personalization continues to help people. We talk so much about data and there is something amazingly convenient. I have kids in college, they can have a bad day in like six clicks, I can have something delivered to their doorsteps from Target. And that’s amazing to me – that’s power and personalization and digitalization. But where does it go? And how do we, at work with finances, help people? How do we gear that personalization for max client benefit? So I think about that all the time. 

And one thing that I think about all the time and very relevant to this topic is why are women not taking more of an interest in investing? So, they have the superpowers to do it right. And I’m not putting all women, half the population, or all men in the other half of the population into stereotypes, because I don’t really believe in that. But we do see that women – smart, powerful women – lack either the confidence or the interest or the engagement in owning and driving their investment portfolio. And whether that’s with help or not, I don’t care. But that’s empowerment. 

You can get in there and own your own money and drive that money into a greater return and drive towards your goals. That’s a game changer. Good portfolio construction driving towards goals should be something women should engage with. And they’re good at it when they do. They check their egos at the door, they learn, they engage. We’re not afraid to say, well, why wouldn’t I be in private equity? What does it mean to me to manage money?  

SG: They tend to have better outcomes, marginally better outcomes, but better outcomes than a lot of men. So how do we get them to see that and feel empowered about it?  

NS: Give me some thoughts on what the companies today can do to best support young female talent, and I know you’re doing a lot of that in your current role. 

SG: That’s really the best part of my role. I love that part. I was kind of in the age when I started where there were no women. So on Wall Street, I’m old enough that most meetings I went to had only an assistant who then we called the secretary who brought in the snacks. That was the only role of women at that time. 

I feel like the world’s gotten so much better than when I started, but we all, men and women, come in different shapes, sizes, every thought process, and we all have learned that the best decision-making comes with that diverse thought process. So, we need to embrace a culture that continues to allow people to be in that group and bring their authentic selves there in a way that works well. And I think women struggle with that. Men struggle with it too, but women struggle with it a little more than men. And I think the more women [that] are leaders and the more women get promoted. 

And I’d love to just have the next generation of women take us to that next place. But we as women leaders have to pull them up. Pull them up, not allow them to talk about how to be better people – talk about getting promoted. 

NS: Right. I love this. And I work in a company where there are a lot of women leaders and a lot of women who look up and aspire to be a woman leader. It’s one of the reasons that they chose to come to work here. So, it’s something that I have to remember. They’re watching and looking every day. And I need to give the right advice and right signals. So that’s my job. 

So, my last question is, what advice would you give the next generation of female leaders? 

SG: I would say the number one thing would be not to take yourself so seriously. If I look back at the mistakes that I made, I don’t spend a lot of time looking back at mistakes because I think it’s really unhealthy, but I definitely have some that I think about. Every one of those I took myself too seriously. I wish I had enjoyed the ride a little bit more. I think wisdom gives you the ability to step back and laugh. Be like, “Oh my God, that was a train wreck,” and not lose sleep over it. Just move forward.  

And probably the second thing – but this is really hindsight – like I would not have known this young is. I always thought I could change people for the better. And sometimes you can’t. And  sometimes you need to move on. I’ve had too many bosses to even count. And almost all of them have been great. 

But I did have a couple of creeps, and I wish I had left quicker. And I remember going to talk to my mentors and being like, “okay, here’s the situation.” And they’re like, “okay, we’re going to help you get a new job.” And I was like, “what?”  I thought they were going to help me change that person. And you’re not going to change that person. Work for smart, great people that you can learn from. And then get out, move on – even laterally if that stops being true. 

NS: I think that’s great advice. You need to take your career in your own hands and help shape it. And if it’s not working for you, it’s okay to be fearless and courageous and say, “Okay, I’m going to step forward and say, ‘I need to do something else right now.’”  

Thank you for taking the time, sharing your thoughts about female leadership, fearlessness, and curiosity. We all look up to you and you have been a fearless leader for a lot of people in our company as well. 

SG: You know I enjoy every minute of it. Thank you so much, Nance. This was wonderful.