The Alumni Society Kicks Off Second Leadership Summit

The Alumni Society’s Leadership Summit kicked off with a discussion between members Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri and Heather von Zuben.


Words by Mary Kenney // Photo by Sheila Barabad


NEW YORK CITY—Working hard, alone, won’t make you a leader. That was one of several takeaways from a discussion between Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri and Heather von Zuben of Goldman Sachs.

The Alumni Society’s second annual Leadership Summit kicked off Thursday morning with a networking breakfast at the Hudson Mercantile. The first event of the day, at 9:30 a.m., was von Zuben and Vazquez-Ubarri’s discussion.

Von Zuben is featured as a member of the Class of 2016 in The Alumni Society’s magazine and media, and Vazquez-Ubarri is a member of the advisory board for The Alumni Society. Class members featured by The Alumni Society are nominated and selected by the organization’s advisory board.

Von Zuben spoke in The Alumni Society magazine about her realization, post-law school, that she was not interested in the traditional path of a lawyer. She spoke with her fiancé about going back to school, this time for a doctorate, but he convinced her to spend a year in the work force before heading back to school.

When von Zuben explored Goldman Sachs, every employee she met was excited about his or her role. Vazquez-Ubarri agreed that seeing that enthusiasm within an organization is very attractive to diverse, qualified talent.

“If you’re willing to work hard, even if you’re not entirely sure what direction you’re going to go in, people will trust you with assignments, and that will help you grow within your organization,” von Zuben says.

When she first joined Goldman Sachs, von Zuben didn’t understand the business but realized her love for connecting with other people and her legal background would help her become trusted by colleagues. “It’s helpful and important to be seen as someone who can be trusted with the work, but you need more to be seen as a leader,” she says.

When von Zuben had a daughter, she spoke with her boss about the change in her life. “I said, it’s not clicking for me. I can’t be the last person to leave every night anymore.” She asked to be assigned a culture mentor, and that changed her trajectory.

She was shocked to find that most people at the company found her shy. Her mentor assured her that, in the next year, she could turn that perception around. “I thought, ‘Wow, that sounds exhausting,’ ” she says, to the laughter of the crowd.

Von Zuben worked on, as she describes, “the most senior version” of herself in order to cultivate her role as a leader. She says there are many different types of leaders in many organizations—player-coaches, people who are brusque, people who quickly make decisions, and many more. Her strength is not letting go of an idea; she perseveres even through criticism if she’s sure of her plan.

“Ultimately, to be impactful, you have to be willing to challenge other leaders and not back down when you know something is right or true,” von Zuben says. “That is going to make a difference.”

Vazquez-Ubarri agrees and said that mind-set is important not just internally but also when working with clients. Learning that, she adds, happens when you are partnered with a skilled mentor.

“We often want mentors we agree with and who seem like us,” Vazquez-Ubarri says, alluding to a theme of The Alumni Society, which is to break through that perception to promote diversity. “You need a little of both—someone who agrees with you sometimes, but who also challenges you because they think differently.”

Von Zuben, who mentors regularly in her current role, agrees. “Let’s be clear, I’m the only one whose mom has visited the office,” she says, drawing more laughter. “I don’t have to have commonality with everyone on my desk about how often they talk to their mom, but I need to have enough commonality to foster trust.

“The way you create impact is by developing relationships,” she adds.

Frustration happens between mentors and mentees, von Zuben acknowledges, and that’s normal. But people need to overcome those frustrations to work together and learn from one another. And make no mistake—that’s a two-way street.

Cultivating relationships and matching your personality to your workload—not necessarily the personalities of your co-workers—is never easy, von Zuben admits. But it can be done, and it will shape your role as a leader.

“Everyone has a personal brand. It may not always be accurate, and whether it is or not, you have to work to shape it to be what you need,” von Zuben says.

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