(Bloomberg) — In the long line of services promising to help women improve their lot at work, an entrant from a billionaire investor is attracting thousands of female financial professionals from around the world.
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Poker Power is a dozen course program created by long-time trader Jenny Just that uses the card game to teach risk-taking and negotiation techniques. Lessons, taught by seasoned players, start with basic skills, like how to read opponents and when to fold. Users then adapt those techniques to workplace scenarios, like asking for a raise. Then, they play Texas Hold ‘em with others over Zoom. (No money is at stake.)
Abbey Perkins, the chief information officer at StoneX Group Inc., a New York-based trading firm, was drawn to Poker Power as a way to elevate the other women at her firm. She had previously worked with its founder, Just, and its messaging resonated.
“All-in sounds like throwing all your chips on the table. Well, it isn’t,” she said. “It’s about being committed to the position you’ve taken.” In May, she brought the game to her firm. More than 125 of her colleagues played, and many are still playing.
There’s no shortage of books, classes, and consultancies targeting working women looking to level up their careers. And while it’s unlikely that any individual action will put a dent in the gender pay gap or flood women into the C-suite, the lure of a tangible solution is strong. Demand among female MBA students for Power Poker at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business was more than double the 100 spots offered. Almost 4,000 women in more than 20 countries including the U.S., Singapore and Taiwan have signed up to play.
For Cathy Jerome, a senior director in marketing for the Washington Wizards Basketball Team, the program blew other career-development opportunities out of the water. “There’s no comparison,” she said in an email.
Just, co-founder of Chicago-based Peak6 Investments, came up with the idea in 2019 with the hopes of recruiting more women to money-management roles, which tend to pay more. She’s had her own struggles with gender diversity at her firm — around 35% of traders at Peak6 are women — and industry figures are far worse. Women make up just 14% of the 25,000 money managers worldwide, according to data from Morningstar Inc.
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“Instead of a seminar, a rah-rah get together, I’m actually doing something tangible,” Just said. “It’s a really safe place to fail, and practice failing, and then getting back up and trying again.”
It’s free to play for individuals, but the bulk of users come from paying corporate clients, such as Morningstar, StoneX and the Kellogg School of Business, who offer it to their workers and students. Those who want private lessons can also pay $55-an-hour to meet with one of the platform’s teachers. Just’s company has its own gaming franchise, the eSports firm Evil Geniuses, but the poker venture runs separately.
Just got into poker when she brought in a coach to teach her 8th grade daughter in 2019. The idea was to improve her daughter’s tennis game, teaching her to become a more methodical player. “Some of the most senior leaders in the financial industry teach their kids poker at 5, 6, 7 years old,” Just said. “It’s a constructive, strategic game.”
Some of the most elite finance executives spend their free time at the card table. Hedge fund managers John Sabat and Whitney Tilson chair the Take ‘Em to School annual poker tournament fundraiser. (The vast majority of players each year are men.) In 2018, billionaire hedge fund manager David Einhorn placed 6th in a $1 million buy-in World Series of Poker tournament. A 2019 study out of the University of Alabama found that hedge fund managers who are skilled at playing poker are, on average, better fund managers. Just soon began playing with her own network of women at Peak6, and started extending the idea to more women she knew in finance. “This didn’t happen on purpose, it happened accidentally,” she said. “Sometimes you get lightning in a bottle.” When the pandemic hit, she built out the online program and hired professionals to teach.
Research has debunked the myth that women are worse negotiators than men. Studies have found that when women ask for raises or promotions, they’re more likely to be penalized, which can deter them from engaging in the process altogether. A poker class can’t change that dynamic that stunts so many women’s career growth.
Still, some women have said they’ve used skills learned playing poker to negotiate for better job offers and pay. “There’s really this behavior change that happens — in terms of how women show up when they’re negotiating, how assertive they’re able to be, how courageous they are, their resilience,” said Gail Berger, the deputy director of the Kellogg Center for Executive Women.
And at the very least, as a networking tool, it beats happy hour Zoom.
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