29 Jun 2016
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Women of Wall Street Tell Their Story

Alumnae trio put a female focus on the new financial thriller Equity
by Constantine von Hoffman; photography by Chris Taggart

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Monica Mandelli (MBA 1998)

There’s no shortage of movies about Wall Street—Trading Places, The Big Short, Wall Street, Boiler Room, Margin Call, Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolf of Wall Street—to name but a few. Of course they portray Hollywood’s version of Wall Street, so accuracy is frequently subservient to the needs of the story.

“I saw Wolf of Wall Street,” says coproducer Linda Zwack Munger (MBA 1982), a former senior vice president in Lehman Brothers’ mortgage bond department. “It’s so unrealistic.”

In addition to not always doing a good job of portraying how Wall Street itself operates, these movies are also primarily about men, so they don’t accurately show who works on the Street either. Those two facts are part of the reason that Munger, along with fellow coproducer Cecilia Healy Herbert (MBA 1973) and Monica Mandelli (MBA 1998), became investors in Equity, a movie opening on July 29. While it is a drama, it was also created to reflect the actual challenges women face in working on the real Wall Street.

Munger, Mandelli, and Herbert were among a group of veteran Wall Street women invited in spring 2015 to meet with producers Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas as they were seeking potential investors. Reiner and Thomas made it clear they didn’t just want to make a movie about women; they also wanted it to be made and financed by women.

“These women were trying to make a movie written by a woman [Amy Fox], directed by a woman [Meera Menon], produced by women, and financed by women, in an industry where women have been largely underrepresented in all of these roles,” says Mandelli, who is managing director of the investment firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. “And the movie is a story about Wall Street, where women have also been underrepresented. So there were a lot of similarities in what they were trying to do and what all the women at that meeting were trying to do.”

For all that, Equity is anything but a capital-M message movie, says Munger. “It does not fall into the potential trap of advocating for ‘more equality for women on Wall Street,’” she notes. “It’s a great drama that is also an honest, accurate portrayal of Wall Street that happens to be from the women’s point of view.”

That isn’t just Munger’s opinion, either. The industry trade paper Variety described Equity as a “refreshingly female-skewed financial thriller [that] proves that the women of Wall Street can be just as cold-heartedly corrupt as the boys.” The Hollywood Reporter agreed, saying it “is a smart thriller set in the corporate world that disguises its modest budget with an intelligent script and good set of hooks.”

That said, by telling the story as it does and depicting the circumstances as it does, the movie will still send a message, says Mandelli. “The message is of women being ambitious, and that being okay, and the message of women wanting to make money and that being okay,” she says. “I think that historically that hasn’t been communicated much and it needs to be.”

Munger, Mandelli, and Herbert agree that, while the topic of the movie interested them, that alone wasn’t enough for them to invest. Even though they are all experts when it comes to stocks and bonds, in order to determine if Equity was worth the risk, they had to learn about movie making and the business of movies, both concepts of which were totally new to the trio.

“We didn’t go into this as a vanity project,” observes Munger. “We did our due diligence first, knowing there are enormous risks involved but that they’re calculated risks.”

What they found was a solid business plan whose first goal, once the film was completed, was to get it into the high-profile Sundance Film Festival, in the hope of finding a distributor. Much to the team’s delight, that goal was achieved when Sony Classics bought the film before its Sundance premiere.

All three women also learned firsthand about the “glamour” of movie making when they spent a day as extras on set. “It is so damned boring,” says Munger. “That day on set, shooting the scenes over and over, all I could think was, How do they have the patience to do this?”

In addition to whatever commercial success Equity may have, all three women hope it will draw more attention to the problems that women face in the workplace.

“I invested in it also as a passion project, because I’m extremely focused on diversity and inclusion in my professional life,” says Mandelli. “For all of us from HBS, we want to be a success in our careers, but we also want to give back.”

For Herbert who is chair of the board of iShares, Blackrock's $800 billion Exchange Traded Fund family, the movie will be a success if it gets people thinking about some broader issues of how women are viewed in society.

“I hope it furthers the conversation about successful women,” says Herbert. “It broaches issues of women and money, women and power. It raises the issue of whether women are fundamentally more ethical than men. It asks a lot of interesting questions, because it doesn’t wrap the issues in a nice tidy bow, in a June Cleaver kind of world.”

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1998, Section A
Class of MBA 1982, Section D
Class of MBA 1973, Section B

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