• Laura Hay, Leadership |

The next time I meet a woman with bright-eyed dreams but self-doubts, I’ll tell her about Grace Vandecruze. This inspiring woman went from being a wide-eyed teen immigrant to Managing Director of Grace Global Capital, an admired boutique consulting firm to the financial industry.

Grace turned her grandmother’s advice – and a realization that women must do more than work hard – to beat discrimination and scale the towers of Wall Street and mountaintops on three continents.

Believing beyond your humble origins:

Few might have predicted Grace’s future professional and personal ascent, since her parents and seven kids emigrated from Guyana to Brooklyn, New York, when Grace was 14 years old. However, Grace recounted how she and her grandmother shared a positive spirit: “I was always intrigued with learning about the unknown and diving into complex areas. And, my grandmother would always tell me to ‘Believe beyond your limits.’”

Grace demonstrated this ambition on her first day at her US high school, when an aptitude test recommended that she study accounting. She confided to me that, “Coming from a very small country with a limited perspective, I didn’t know anything about accounting, but I said, ‘Okay, let me pursue this totally unknown area.’ It turned out that accounting was as easy as breathing for me.”

Hard work is not enough:

Although Grace’s academic talent and work ethic propelled her into Manhattan’s corporate canyons, she soon realized the challenges ahead: “When I started working, I saw the lack of diversity in the workplace and I had this feeling of isolation. My response at the time was to keep my head down, work as hard as I can, and let my outstanding work speak for itself.”

However, ambition and hard work was not enough to distinguish herself in the workplace. Grace soon discovered that this approach did not break down the barriers, which was compounded by a supervisor’s demeaning humor about women and various racial groups. Finding her voice to speak on sensitive matters in a diplomatic manner was a key lesson that Grace learned very early in her career. Grace found the courage to engage her supervisor and speak up on creating a more supportive team environment. This approach has served her well whether Grace is advising her clients or scaling mountain peaks.

Build relationships to move forward:

In addition to hard work, she realized that in order to be successful, she needed to build a network. That meant to develop her “relationship currency” with her team members and other professionals in the industry. Grace began to cultivate deeper relationships with supervisors who were instrumental in writing letters of recommendations for acceptance into the Wharton School of Finance. In addition, she began to network with other professionals across the industry and seved as treasurer for the National Association of African-American Accountants.

“The biggest piece of advice I’d give to women starting out is that, as much as you may focus on doing a great job, it is not enough to excel. We have to reach beyond our comfort zones and cultivate relationships with people around us because they will become mentors and sponsors as we move up the corporate ladder.”

Climbing peaks to move mountains:

Leaving one’s comfort zone is a recurring theme for Grace that helped her tackle new challenges. In fact, even when she earned a lofty title of Managing Director on Wall Street – the first African-American woman to reach this post at her firm – Grace welcomed new risks.

Among the fresh challenges that attracted her attention: Grace enlisted in a 14-day expedition up a 20,000-foot peak in Bhutan, led by a Wharton School professor who urged executives to leave their comfort zones and build their leadership skills.

“I knew that taking two weeks off my new job would come at a tremendous sacrifice, but the lessons I learned in the mountains came very quickly,” says Grace. So much so, that 15 years later Grace continues to climb mountains with the group. To date, they have scaled 25 peaks over 100,000 feet, in tribute to a team-member who died on that first Bhutanese trek.

Grace eagerly describes her lessons from mountaineering: “When you are outside of your comfort zone, there is so much out of your control, and it’s critical that you plan your strategy with precision and be ready to adjust with the conditions. As you climb, you are disrupted at every step and you have to form unity with your team-members and support each other along the journey. In addition, mindset becomes more important than footsteps. There is a level of focus, GRIT and courage in an uncertain landscape that will make the difference between success or failure, survival or extinction, and life or death. In a world of extremes where the stakes are high, having a growth strategy outside of your comfort zone is essential.”

But Grace also points out the lessons learned in the valleys, versus the summits. She described how, last year during a warm-up hike, before climbing Europe’s highest peak, she lost her footing and began sliding down the mountain. “I slammed into a rock and, although nothing was broken, I felt an immense psychological setback after falling from such a height and knowing that the next day I had to embark on the summit. The lesson for me - whether you are climbing a mountain or sitting in your office - is that you have to get back up, find the resilience to go forward, with the support of caring team-members.”

There’s no doubt that Grace has honoured her grandmother’s advice, as she continues to believe in herself beyond limits, and she urges everyone to, “Seek difficult journeys, as long as your heart tells you to do it.”

I also want to highlight the importance of Grace’s message to start networking early in your career, as soon as you start working. In Grace’s words, “You will need that network, and the advice and support that comes with it, since it will sustain you through difficult times and help accelerate your career.”

For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.Kpmg/mindthegap.

More about Grace Vandecruze: Grace is Managing Director, Grace Global Capital LLC, which provides financial advisory, restructuring, and valuation services to organizations around the world. Applying her 20 years of experience as an investment banker, primarily focused on the financial services industry, Grace is an insurance investment banking expert, advising companies and insurance regulators on mergers & acquisitions, financings, capital strategies, valuation, restructuring, private placements, due diligence and other transactions. After earning a Bachelor of Business Administration, Accounting, degree from Pace University, Grace spent seven years working as a financial auditor in public accounting. After entering the capital markets, Grace rose from an analyst with a major Wall Street brokerage to managing director of a global consulting firm. Grace has an MBA in Finance from Wharton School. She has served on numerous philanthropic boards and has participated in Wharton Leadership Treks, climbing 25 mountains on three continents.

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