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Finding Your Voice: Career Advice from Karen Reynolds Sharkey (MBA ‘98)

By Alyssa Brewer

Karen Reynolds Sharkey (MBA ‘98), a leader in the finance world who launched and continues to lead the national business owner strategy at Bank of America’s Private Bank, is channeling her years of experience into supporting female entrepreneurs and business leaders.

Driven by a desire for a career on Wall Street, Karen Reynolds Sharkey joined J.P. Morgan after completing her undergraduate degree at Rutgers University. She completed the part-time MBA program at Stern while working on the trading floor in equity derivatives, then moved to San Francisco to head up a team covering the West Coast. As she moved into senior leadership positions, Sharkey’s career brought her back to New York, followed by a transition into the private banking sector with Bank of America.

Sharkey is currently also focusing on research on women entrepreneurs to both understand how they have succeeded and what their unique needs and perspectives are as business owners. She learned that women entrepreneurs are often more reluctant to take on debt, which in the long run can limit the growth of their businesses.

“If you want to expand your business, you need capital,” she says, noting that women receive far less venture capital funding than male entrepreneurs. “I’m working on education on being bankable and being lendable. Taking on debt isn’t a failure, it’s helping grow your business.”

Sharing her story with current MBA students at a recent Stern Women in Business event, Sharkey highlighted lessons she has learned as a senior leader in the finance world.

On seizing opportunities:

Sharkey reflects that she had always set out to create her own path, which allowed her to feel comfortable even in novel or challenging settings, such as being one of the few women on the trading floor early in her career. But she notes that passing on a new position or responsibility because it seems like too big of a step is likely to only limit your career growth. 

“Be open to new opportunities,” she says. “With each one that came my way, I didn’t know if I was prepared for it.”

On networking and support systems:

Sharkey emphasizes that building and maintaining a strong network is essential in today’s world, but notes that it’s also important to know what you’re looking for and what you can offer in these professional relationships. 

“When you ask to meet, make sure you know what you want to ask of the other person,” Sharkey says. “I’m happy to have coffee, but to help I need to know, what is the ask? What do they want? Is it a door I can open for them, is it more general career advice?”

Sharkey also highlights the power of building connections and support networks within one’s own organization and team.

“One of the things we can do as senior women is to take a junior woman to a meeting with us,” she says. “And if you’re in the more junior position, ask if you can join the meeting.” 

On having the important conversations:

“Companies are much more aware now that people need movement in their careers,” Sharkey says. “Have those discussions with your manager about what you’re interested in. As the supervisor, if I can start thinking about what they want, I can start thinking about other managers with open roles that might be a good fit.”

She strongly advises going through a reflective process every few years to assess one’s current career positioning and desired next move. While not every manager will be as open-minded in supporting those moves, this is where leveraging one’s outside network to have these conversations comes in. 

Sharkey also urges proactively having conversations with your supervisor about compensation, coming prepared to detail what you and your team have accomplished over the course of the year.

“The conversations about compensation might not get easier over time, but you will get better at them, and they are so important,” she says. “Make sure you’re representing yourself and your team.”

On finding your persona and voice:

Setting the right tone often comes with a unique set of challenges for female leaders, which Sharkey has navigated throughout her career as she has moved to increasingly senior roles. 

“I strive to be open and vulnerable with my team, so they see me as a person they can talk to,” she says. “But we can bring different sides of ourselves forward at different times. It might be different when you’re in the boardroom defending your business plan.”

She also urges women to capitalize on it when they have to be in the room with leaders at their organizations, including seeking opportunities to be able to speak on the research or unique expertise they’ve contributed to the meeting or project.

“If you’re in the room and can have a speaking part—add value,” she says. “Speak up ladies. You have to start getting your voice out there.”

On giving back and paying it forward: 

Sharkey is a former board member for the New York Women’s Foundation and is currently on the NYC Founder’s Council of Cradles to Crayons. She advocates for getting involved in these kinds of organizations as both a way to contribute your time and skills to important causes, but also to meet and network with people you might not otherwise encounter.

“What are you passionate about? Volunteering for organizations like this can be another outlet for your skills outside your job.”

She also encourages today’s MBA students and early-career professionals to think about how they will support those who come after them in their fields.

“You’re going to be the leaders next. How can you help others succeed?”

This story was originally published in the Alumni News and Features section of the Stern website

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