Wash U and Kim Lew, Part 2

October 15, 2021 by Ted Seides

In the first half of “Wash U and Kim Lew,” I suggested the not-so-shocking revelation that what gets reported in the media isn’t quite right. Scott Wilson led Washington University of St. Louis to an extraordinary 65% return in 2021, but the news missed the real story. Scott’s novel approach to concentrating positions drove the return and may well continue to shine for years to come.

In other news, Institutional Investor bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award on Kim Lew last month. Yes, Kim is a superstar and worthy of the accolade, but the timing of the award is a bit bizarre. Kim’s career trajectory recently rose to her biggest stage yet. What transpires from here is likely to blow the doors off anything she has done so far.

Kim is the ultimate underdog. She grew up in the Bronx, the daughter of a Chinese immigrant father and an African American mother who met at age 13, gave birth to her at age 17, and are still married today. She was smart as a whip and attended Bronx High School of Science and University of Pennsylvania, moved to Wall Street, and found her way to Harvard Business School.  It’s safe to say her childhood neighbors didn’t follow a similar path.

What makes Kim special is the blend of skills she brings to the table as a leader. She is sharp as a tack on issues, and warm as they come with people. She expresses her opinions with directness, feistiness, and unarming authenticity. At the same time, she delivers her message with a smile that melts your heart. When Kim rose to Co-CIO at Carnegie Corporation alongside Meredith Jenkins, both of them thought the arrangement was a terrible idea doomed to fail and threaten their friendship. Today, they are as close as twin sisters. The team that worked under Kim at Carnegie contends she was the best boss they’ve ever had. Great money managers by reputation are not usually great managers of people. Kim is an exception.

Attached to her off-the-charts EQ is the mindset of an outsider. Kim understands the necessity of taking risk. Her parents gave her an example early on, and she’s followed that path ever since. She is an independent thinker who believes in the necessity of all the pieces in an organization coming together for success. In today’s environment focused on diversity and ESG, Kim proudly stands up as a Blasian trailblazer (a term I heard for the first time from her) who deftly embraced divestment from fossil fuels as an obvious alignment with the mission of Columbia University.

Taking the helm at Columbia’s $10 billion endowment is no easy task. The war chest of capital has underperformed in recent years and moving it around is like steering a tanker ship, not a fleet boat. Piling on the challenge, Kim joined Columbia during the pandemic and has had one hand tied behind her back in leading her team virtually.

That said, Kim loves a challenge, and she has a plan. It might take some time before Kim puts her imprint on the office culture and more time before she impacts results. But like Scott Wilson, my money is on Kim. In Wash U and Kim Lew, we have a novel approach and a unique leader taking our industry to the next level. The press gave it a shot, but it missed the real story. In this case, the truth is better than fiction (or in this case, facts).