Podcast: Women @ RopesTalk: Conversation with Adela Cepeda (Mercer Funds) & Susan Rhee (Jackson National Asset Management)

February 16, 2022
37:51 minutes

In this episode of Women @ RopesTalk, asset management partner Paulita Pike speaks with Adela Cepeda and Susan Rhee, two women who have had successful careers in the registered funds industry. Adela is a finance consultant and entrepreneur who serves on the boards of UBS Funds, Pathway Funds and Mercer Funds, where she is chair. Adela also is a co-founder of Angeles Investors, the first investment club focused on funding Latinx startups. Susan is senior vice president and general counsel of Jackson National Asset Management, a Chicago-based asset manager with more than $260 billion in assets. Adela and Susan talk about how they built professional and personal support systems to further their careers, and share advice for how to navigate demanding professions. They also discuss how they approach DE&I as women from diverse backgrounds.


Paulita PikePaulita Pike: Welcome, and thank you for joining us on our latest installment of Women @ RopesTalk, a podcast series brought to you by the Women's Forum at Ropes & Gray. In this podcast, we spotlight extraordinary women who have had successful careers and interesting lives, and are also making a positive impact in their workplaces and in their communities. We feature women attorneys at Ropes & Gray in conversation with prominent women clients, industry leaders, entrepreneurs and others, about their careers and what's led to their successes, the challenges they’ve faced, and the hard-earned wisdom they've acquired. I’m Paulita Pike, the managing partner of Ropes and Gray’s Chicago office and a partner in the firm’s asset management group. I represent every type of registered product, including open-end and closed-end funds, ETFs, funds of hedge funds, and funds investing in private equity. My work with investment advisers often involves structuring innovative investment products and navigating the regulatory and compliance hurdles associated with bringing these products to market.

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing you to two people, each of whom is a force of nature in her own right. Adela Cepeda has had a 40-plus year career in finance, both in New York and in Chicago. She's a top-ranked municipal adviser in the U.S. and has served as a corporate finance executive at top financial services firms. Adela serves on a number of corporate and fund boards, including BMO Financial Corp., the UBS Fund, the Mercer Funds, and the Pathway Funds. Most recently, Adela has co-founded Angeles Investors, the first investment club focused on funding Latinx startups. We represent Adela in her role as the director of the Mercer Funds and also represent Angeles. Adela is not an attorney, but she has had a career that everyone should want to highlight, and is certainly one of the savviest purchasers of legal services with whom we work.

Speaking of savvy purchasers of legal services, the other force of nature who has agreed to be a guest today is Susan Rhee. Susan is the senior vice president and general counsel of Jackson National Asset Management, affectionately known as JNAM. The fund group managed by JNAM has close to $200 billion under management and about 130 funds. I have worked with Susan since 2003 and can vouch for the fact that she is not only smart and practical, she is also a fantastic leader and just a pleasure to work with. Susan, as the general counsel of JNAM, is also the chief legal officer of the JNL Funds, which we represent along with their independent trustees.

Thank you both so very much for taking time to speak with us today. I'd like to just say at the start that we don't typically have two guests during these podcasts, but in the registered fund industry, there are two very important client bases. The general counsel of the investment adviser is critical to our relationship when we represent the adviser or the funds that it sponsors. The other important client base is represented by the independent directors to whom we report when we serve as fund counsel or independent directors’ counsel. I thought it would be important and interesting in exploring the incredibly successful careers of our two guests to touch on the two sides of the coin that are important to us when working in the registered fund industry.

I also know that both Susan and Adela are focused on diversity on their teams and in the boardroom, and that it would be instructive to hear their thoughts on DE&I generally, as well as how they think of it when retaining outside counsel. So, with this introduction, let's just jump into it. Susan, why don't we start with you? I think it would be really interesting to hear about your career trajectory—how you got into the law, how you find yourself where you are, and whether you expected that this would be where you found yourself after so many years in practice?

Susan RheeSusan Rhee: Thank you, Paulita, for the invitation to participate—I'm very excited to be part of this. I have been with Jackson National Asset Management, JNAM as you noted, for the last 21 years. I've been general counsel for the last 11 years. I think I knew right away in high school that I wanted to go to law school, maybe because my mother just said that I argued every little point during my teenage years and that I would make a great lawyer. And I said, "Hmm, that's not a bad idea," and kind of ran with it. I'm very rules-based—I like to know what is permitted, not permitted. I'm kind of Type A that way, so it was actually a very natural fit. I was very fortunate in my career that my first job out of law school was in the mutual funds space at a ‘40 Act funds shop and, because I love the industry, just continued focusing my career in this industry. I came to Jackson in 2000, and I have been here ever since. I’m primarily responsible for the legal and compliance departments at JNAM. After looking back 21 years, and I think 18 years with you, Paulita, I look back and feel very fortunate to have worked with so many people over the years that have become friends and colleagues, and that I just learned a ton from—and just looking forward to what lies ahead.

Paulita Pike: I could see you as a young child sort of debating various issues with your mom, so that certainly rings true. Adela, you clearly didn't have designs on the law or you would've been a lawyer, because you could have been anything you wanted to, but I’m really curious as to how you found your way to finance and what that career has looked like for you? And then, how that also translated into your role on the board of so many different fund groups?

Adela CepedaAdela Cepeda: Thank you, Paulita, and I'm so thrilled to participate here with you and with Susan. As an immigrant—I came to this country at the age of six—I think the objective my parents planted in my head was that I should be a doctor, but I think even in high school, I was talking about being an international lawyer. I can't remember why senior year in college I didn't apply to law school—I applied to business school. I had already been heavily involved in business all through my college years. I was the manager of the travel group for students. I worked every summer in business internships. It looked like I might go work for AT&T. After getting into business school, it was recommended that I take a couple of years off, and this is what got me into finance.

Women at Harvard Business School supposedly had more difficulty with the quantitative aspects of the program, and the dean there suggested I take a two-year work program that involved as much quantitative analysis as possible—and so, I went to work on Wall Street. In honesty, all the guys were doing that anyway. It was a little bit foreign because the education I had was more general in scope, and so, I didn't learn accounting specifically. I didn't learn a lot of the basics that I would end up having to do day in and day out for many long hours as a Wall Street analyst, but that led to my interest in finance. It was just so challenging, and I wanted to be very comfortable in it as I was in other fields. I had studied economics, but this was harder on a day-to-day basis. And that challenge kept me there for over a decade as a Wall Street investment banker where I had to learn all about equities, fixed income products, all the tools that would help a thriving company succeed and access capital, and a great deal of involvement with the capital markets. That was also such an exciting aspect of my career—being in the markets, trying to figure out when was a good time to enter, to raise money for clients. I ended up using that tool all of my professional career as, ultimately, the last 20 years as an adviser to municipalities seeking to enter the market, so understanding deeply the bond market. But the markets are very related, so you have to know both.

Then I got on a board as a young woman in my 30s in 1992. It was a closed-end fund. It was fixed income. It was convertibles. Convertibles are still kind of a little bit different, but I had sold a lot of those as a concept to growing companies, and that was my entry. One situation led to another to where I'm chairing three of the boards right now, mutual fund boards. And I just am fascinated—I learned so much. It's just a thrill when you work at something that you enjoy and you learn—it makes it so much easier. It's great to work with you and your firm, Paulita, as well.

Paulita Pike: Thank you, Adela. It is our sincere privilege to work with you—you’re just a terrific director. The trajectory that you related highlights all that you bring to the table as a director, but I think it also highlights the idea that it is important in any career trajectory to really pursue the things that challenge us and that interest us, and those can take you in different directions, really, and some unexpected ones, which was also sort of the point you were making, Susan. I don't think most attorneys grow up wanting to be a mutual funds lawyer, and yet, you have found yourself in that role. In that role, I'd be curious to hear what are you most proud of in your career to date? And what do you think are some of your most notable accomplishments, wins, highlights, or things that you would highlight?

Susan Rhee: I would say as far as what I'm most proud of to date is that I've managed to keep the company that I love out of regulatory trouble. That's really what my job is, and I am blessed to work with an executive team who has been together, on average, for about 15-16 years, which I think in this day and age, that's not easy to find. But that has all contributed to JNAM being able to constantly find ways to make sure we're previewing what we think is coming down the pike regulatorily, so we're ready. And all the executives are all in on just being diligent, regardless of what their roles might be in the company. So, from a legal perspective, I have to say that is what I am most proud of to date.

From a personal perspective, I am so happy that my kids are somewhat normal and sane—I have two teenagers. I have some young moms that I do work with, and I'm sure you do too, and I feel like those times when my kids were little, it's been a couple of years now, but I feel like that was probably the most challenging—I think it is for most career professionals that are women that are trying to balance motherhood and developing their career trajectory, and really focusing on both. And as anyone that has gone through will tell you that when someone says you can do both equally well, I don't think that's true. I think that there are moments when you can do both well, but there'll be moments when you do one better than the other. But in the end, I think I found over the last 20 years looking back, it all sort of evens out. I always tell the women that I'm working with that it might just seem so hard right now, especially when children are so small, that it's never going to pass, but it will. I don't think there is a professional woman out there that has regretted not sticking through it and focusing on themselves when they needed to, to get to where they needed to be. So, from a personal basis, I had a ton of help—family, friends, my husband, and everything else—but I think you have to find that support system. And that's one of the things where when I am talking to young women who are starting their professions, I think that's something that I try to focus on—that it's not always going to be this hard, and no matter how hard it is, you're going to thank yourself later when you get through it all.

Paulita Pike: Susan, that is such an excellent point. All of us who are professional women, but also have children, can relate to that exact dynamic and, I think, the message that you're conveying, which is, “if it's important to you, try to find a way to make it work,” certainly resonates with me, as does the idea that it takes a support system. By ourselves, it's something that's very hard to pull off. Adela, you, too, have children, and I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this point?

Adela Cepeda: I have three children, and yes, I would have to say that they are the proudest thing in my life, or what I am most proud of in my life. I had to raise them by myself—the last 26 years I've been a widow—and they were very young, but I always had such incredible support, even when my husband was sick for years, two or so years before he died. My mother stayed with me—she left her home to be here. I had an aunt who stayed with me while my children were young, the first six years. And I always tried to have all kinds of help because I recognized that the career demanded a certain level of attention, and I had to prioritize. I always encourage young women to get help. Of course, the best is when you have a partner that helps you along—that’s just great in every respect. I wasn't lucky that way and had to go it alone. And always, it's the challenge of balancing everything. When they're younger, they don't understand why you can't be there, even a soccer game, the recital, whatever it is. It was very hard to do it back when my kids were young. I think that one of the positive outcomes of this pandemic (there are very few), but one of them is that women can do a lot more things remotely in a professional career. This isn't true for other women in other careers or in other work, but for professional women, this has become much more viable. And it's much clearer that a lot can be done from a computer at home, so hopefully, this will make it easier for women both in finance and in the asset management industry. We've seen a lot of the work be done completely remotely—it’s fascinating to me.

Paulita Pike: Yes, that is an excellent observation, of course, because I think there are a lot of people out there, and I'm one of them, that thinks we will never go entirely back to the world as it existed. There are likely to be some lasting changes, and depending on the profession or the industry, the changes may be more or less significant. But I think this pandemic has caused people and professionals to reevaluate a lot of premises that perhaps seemed set in stone pre-pandemic. You both hit on the idea or the importance of a support system in personal lives when you're pursuing a career. I also have found, at least in the course of my career, that it's almost equally important to have a professional support system, whether it be in the form of mentorship, advocacy, or professional friends. I'd be curious to hear (maybe we start with you, Adela) on the extent to which you've found that in your career and the importance that that had, and where did you find it? Did you search it out? Did it find you? Did you develop it? How did that work for you?

Adela Cepeda: I didn't have a lot of mentors. There were such few women in the industry, but there were men that I worked for that taught me a lot of the essentials that took me to learn how to do new business. And so the next step, in terms of generating business, I got to observe firsthand and gave me a lot of room there to develop. So, that was extremely helpful—different ones at different times. Throughout the career, different people opening doors for board positions—people that might have known me in a non-profit board environment that thought that my handling of certain finance committee matters, indicated a strength in this area and invited me to potentially join them on a corporate board position. As you know, Paulita, I'm very engaged in many organizations in Chicago and have had the opportunity that way to meet many people. Some of it is spontaneous, and sometimes, I identify interests and opportunities, and I'm not shy about asking about, “How does this happen? Are there opportunities there?” I ask and see what's available or I’m referred to other people. So, that kind of network has helped me a great deal in terms of developing the board presence that I currently have, and it helped me in generating business for my firm, as well. I've had to be more on the outside seeking to build both a business and this presence in the boardroom.

Paulita Pike: Two things you mentioned, Adela, that stand out particularly in your remarks. One is that you get involved in things that you like and that you're interested in. And unexpectedly, doors will open or doors that you didn't expect would open, suddenly open, and that you walk through them and you explore those possibilities because I think that for those of us who have been in the professional realm for a number of years, that's probably in some way a shared experience, even if it's in different realms or areas of professional life. The other piece, which you noted, is that if there is something of interest, that it's important to pursue it. I think you always have to be mindful of how you pursue it, and some situations are more delicate than others, but to really identify the things that are of interest and to go after them, which I think also is something that resonates with me. Susan, how about your professional support system? Did you find mentors and advocates? Was your experience maybe a little more like Adela's? How would you describe that piece of your trajectory?

Susan Rhee: I think because I've been at one firm for so long, a lot of my professional support system, I have to say, was found through JNAM. My first mentor was an attorney, actually, at one of our outside counsel firms who has been in the variable annuity space for decades. She has since retired the last five or six years, but from a professional perspective, she was my first mentor. She was one of the first women to work at the SEC, so she was a trailblazer in her own right. She really taught me to stand my ground, especially when you're learning a new area of the law (and insurance work definitely was not my area of expertise). You need someone to guide you, not only legally, but also to be able to speak confidently in something that you may not be 100% confident of, which you're only going to get after doing it for years and years. I also had several women colleagues who worked at Jackson—we're all about the same age, but we all had different work experiences. One of my close friends who retired had come up through the law firm trajectory, a more traditional route, and when you are working in this industry, you are going to go through periods professionally where you're questioning what are your next steps. Do you stay? Do you go? What should I be doing at this juncture in my career? And those were the times when the few women that I had befriended through work really played a key role as a sanity check, and just even to talk about work/life balance, kids, and everything else.

Then personally, my number one is my sister. She also is an attorney, but very different career path. She works in M&A, but to my one job at Jackson the last 20 years, she's probably had four or five, so we've had very different perspectives. She's always my first go-to when I'm having a bit of a quandary of some sort. So thankfully, I've had plenty of women that I've been able to lean on and grow from over the last couple of years. And not to give slight to the men that I've worked with. Most of the men that I've worked with and grown from have been my bosses and who I directly reported into—very different personality styles. I've learned from my first boss that you don't have to be the loudest voice in the room to be heard. He had much more of a low-key type of style of management, and so, I think one of the things he said to me: "You don't have to be the bull in the china shop all the time. You can get your message across in a different manner." So, I've had one or two men that I really have valued their advice over the years, as well.

Paulita Pike: What's interesting about everything you just relayed is that you have been exposed to a diversity of styles, a diversity of genders, a diversity of views. And it's a credit as much to those people who've been involved in your trajectory as it is to you that you've realized that every person really you're interacting with in a meaningful way has something you can take away and learn from, and something that can contribute to the way that you develop as a professional, which is also something that resonates. Adela, I know that you didn't have all the mentorship and the experience with women that Susan did, but is there a piece of advice or something that somebody said or did in the course of your career that has stuck with you?

Adela Cepeda: Somebody pointed out that you have to really know what you're talking about, and that seems simple, but I've never been one to assume, “I'll just wing it, and tomorrow I'll go to the meeting and I can do it.” I'm very studious about what I have to do. We were generalists in investment banking—we had to learn the industry, the company's position in it, and the company's finances before pitching an idea, and so, that became my discipline. I do a lot of homework before moving forward with an idea, before execution. You can't always know everything, that's impossible, but you have to really do good homework.

Paulita Pike: That is so important because it's not always easy to say, "I don't know." But what is within somebody's control is to prepare and to be as well prepared as possible, and that always tends to shine through. And I agree that it's an important attribute in any career, in any sort of professional trajectory. I want to come back for a second as we're beginning to wrap this up to the comment you made, Adela, at the start, which is that you came to this country as an immigrant. I, too, have come to this country as an immigrant. Susan, I know that you have an immigrant story as well. And so, I would love to hear your thoughts. Susan, why don't we begin with you on diversity, and specifically, how you think about diversity in your workplace, in your team, how you see diversity has played out on the JNL board and just your thoughts generally about DE&I?

Susan Rhee: I think the interesting thing about DE&I is how the definition of what it is in my mind continues to evolve. A couple of years ago, when you talked about diversity, I think the first thing that came to people's minds was more gender diversity. And although that is still a goal that people are working for, especially in the asset management space, as we all know, it's expanded beyond that. As far as the workplace goes, Jackson has been very dedicated and involved in trying to bring this front and center. There is a tension in some respects in that, “Okay, so we are here from the DE&I perspective—how do we increase these numbers?” But until you are hiring someone or expanding your workforce, it's hard. Those are the only opportunities you have in order to recruit people that have a diverse background than the current workforce that we have. As far as my team goes in the legal department, and in the compliance department, we have I want to say more women than men from a gender diversity perspective, which I think in the legal profession, you tend to find that from a lot of in-house positions. I guess from a diversity perspective, as an Asian American, I'm the only one at this point for my group. Until we're ready to hire someone and expand our working group, unfortunately for my department, I don't see an opportunity. But where there is opportunity, it is education. Jackson has created a lot of groups for people to participate in to get exposed to just educate themselves. We've been really supportive, and there's executive sponsors for all of these committees that we have.

As far as the JNL Funds board, I think we have a very good balance of gender—men and women ratio. I think we have a really good balance of even professional backgrounds, and I think it's made the board definitely stronger. They have very different perspectives on issues which has been educational for management and for the board. But most importantly, the board is cognizant of the importance of DE&I. Whenever they are looking for trustees, that is one of the things that they do consider. Our current board—we're not currently looking to expand the board, but I do think they are looking at it from a different perspective. They're looking at it from our service providers, our sub-advisers. What are they doing for DE&I? How are we factoring that in our selection process? So, there are other ways if you can't do it in an objective measure of headcount that you could still be a support system and push through DE&I initiatives at firms.

Paulita Pike: Susan, you're exactly right. And Adela, I know you have a lot of experience on this for many reasons, including in the fund boardroom, which can be and tends to be a little more fluid than operating companies. How have you approached DE&I as a fund director?

Adela Cepeda: So, it comes from how I built my business, which I had for over 20 years. It was diverse from day one, not just because I was the founder and president of it, but because I immediately hired diverse people. My first hire was an African American young man, very bright, ended up having a very strong career in finance. I became known as someone that would hire people from Wall Street when it is a fact that on Wall Street, with the ups and downs, during the downs, it's the minority professionals that go first, really. And so, I would have access to people with great talent, and they would help me advance the firm. I was very strong about their participation at the table. As a director, it's great that I'm selected, and I'm the first always, but I don't want to be the first and only for too long. And so, the next opportunity to add a board member, I’d look for there to be another woman, another minority—and I've been very direct about this. But I've also helped because I bring names to the table that can just change the perception of others around that may think, "We need a finance person or someone with an accounting background—there won't be a minority person in that." Well, you know, there are, and I'll bring you five or six names, and then the choice becomes very clear and much easier to make, I think. So, I can say that all my boards there's a high degree of diversity on them—I'm very proud of that, by the way.

Paulita Pike: Appropriately so. I think you've both highlighted the recognition that when diversity of every type is represented, there is a wealth and a richness to the fabric of perspectives, discussion, and the path that either an organization or a board will follow. I can share with you that we are tremendously focused on the very issues and recognize the very values that are embedded and the benefits of having diverse perspectives at Ropes & Gray. And we, too, are working hard to increase the diverse representation at all levels of the firm among all professionals, attorneys and support staff. So, a lot more work to be done on that space for everybody, we think, but you've got to start someplace. And you're both right that when the opportunity arises, one, we need to look for opportunities, but two, when there is an opportunity, it's important to be focused on that. So, to wrap up, I think I would be totally remiss and really deprive our listeners of an important question if I didn't ask each of you the following (and Adela, why don't we start with you), which is: What advice do you offer women who are getting started in their careers? Is there a particular nugget that you would leave us with?

Adela Cepeda: Learn the basics well. Learn them until you're comfortable describing them, doing it, and make sure it's something you enjoy because when you enjoy it, it really isn't work anymore. But learn it well. I think that's the best advice I can give.

Susan Rhee: I think the one thing that I would say going back to women starting their professional career and starting a family is that guilt is kind of a wasted emotion. There's nothing you can do—you're going to have those feelings—but it's giving 100% to each role when you can and just knowing that you did your best and that that has to be enough.

Paulita Pike: That's fantastic advice. Talk about a wealth of advice and richness of information—it’s right here on this podcast. And really, we are super grateful to both of you for having dedicated this time. We know you have very busy schedules. This was just really terrific. Adela and Susan—thank you both so much. And as always, thanks to our listeners. For more information about Ropes & Gray's Women's Forum and our women attorneys, please visit www.ropesgray.com/women. You can also subscribe to this series wherever you typically listen to podcasts, including on AppleGoogle and Spotify. Thanks again for listening.

For more information or to contact Adela Cepeda, please visit her website, or for Susan Rhee, please visit her LinkedIn profile.

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