"When you put 40 smart and gorgeous women together, great things will just happen," said Linda Zhang, senior portfolio manager at Windhaven Investment Management in Boston.
Earlier this year, Zhang helped to found Women in ETFs (WE), a platform for women in the industry to connect, support and inspire each other. The idea came about after she ran into an old colleague -- Joanne Hill, head of institutional investment strategy at ProShare Advisors -- during an Inside ETFs conference in Florida in 2013.
"We looked around this huge conference, there were very few of us who were women," said Zhang, who is WE's vice president. "We were convinced there were other people like us. We thought perhaps we can start something."
Zhang and Hill discussed their idea with Sue Thompson, head of institutional asset management and RIA for BlackRock. Thompson, an industry veteran, responded excitedly. Soon, others came on board: Michelle Mikos, ETF business development director at Invesco PowerShares, and Deborah Fuhr, managing partner at ETFGI, a research firm in London.
On July 31, WE announced its nine-member board of directors. Besides Zhang, it includes Thompson and Hill as co-presidents, Fuhr as external organization liaison, and Mikos as secretary. Industry legend and securities attorney Kathleen Moriarty -- nicknamed "SPDR Woman" for her role in the SPDR S&P 500's ( SPY ) debut in 1993 -- also serves on the board.
In recent months, WE has organized professional development events and launched a website as well as a LinkedIn group . The organization now has chapters in Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington DC, Toronto, London, Paris and Frankfurt.
The Chicago chapter will launch in conjunction with the fifth annual Morningstar ETF Conference in that city on Sept. 17.
Gender issues weren't always on Zhang's radar. She grew up in the city of Harbin in northeast China, where her mother was a doctor and medical professor. Her own interests veered toward business.
"I have always been a curious observer of economic affairs," she said. "This might have to do with the era I grew up in, when China transformed from an inefficient planned economy to one with vibrant private enterprises."
Inspired by her mother, Zhang racked up a string of achievements: going to Canada for college; getting a Ph.D. in finance in the U.S.; managing assets for MFS, BlackRock and State Street; publishing articles in investment journals; and lecturing about investing in ETFs .
The financial industry's lack of gender balance came into focus for Zhang when she started hearing the stories of women colleagues. "I started realizing perhaps the place could be better by bringing different perspectives," she said.
That led, eventually, to WE. The group also hopes to emulate 85 Broads (the group's name is a wordplay on the address of Goldman Sachs -- 85 Broad Street) and 100 Women in Hedge Funds, whose members aim to educate the general public about investing in the stock market .
"Interest from women in the industry has been very strong," said Thompson.
And not just the women. "We have men asking if they can be honorary members," Zhang said. "They work with female colleagues, work for female bosses."
WE has found support from both the ETF and broader financial industries. State Street Global Advisors sponsored the kickoff of the Boston regional chapter in June. Its senior management raised the toast at the event, sharing their vision of gender balance in the workplace. BlackRock offered the use of its global offices and teleconferencing facilities when WE's 40 regional leaders needed to meet.
"The industry overall is on a very good trend of embracing more women," Zhang said. "But right now there's still more that needs to be done."