#WomenInFinance Learn from Experience — An Interview with Sylvia Bell, COO, Investment Management Division, Teacher Retirement System of Texas
If you want to know what makes Texas unique, ask Sylvia Bell, COO of the Investment Management Division at Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS). She’ll tell you there’s a “Texas Way” of doing things: a mindset that involves visualizing success for any challenge, then mapping a clear plan to go after it. We talked with Sylvia about how she’s adopted this mindset to successfully take on the most challenging role of her career to date: ensuring the retirement security of nearly 1.6 million Texans.
You’ve been COO for the Investment Management Division at TRS for nine years. What aspects of your role have been most rewarding, and which ones have you found most challenging?
Going to work every day knowing that my organization is directly responsible for the financial futures of so many individuals — teachers, school administrators, cafeteria workers, school bus drivers — is both remarkably rewarding and motivating. It’s also incredibly personal. One in every 20 Texans is impacted by what we do — that means the people you serve could be your neighbors, your family and your friends. It’s a huge responsibility and it inspires you to always do your best.
One of the biggest challenges we face at TRS is that we don’t have unlimited access to resources like budget or staff. But that just means we need to be especially creative in how we use the resources we do have. For instance, it’s critical that we have the right people in the right roles and that everyone in the organization is connected to our mission. Taking a “small but mighty” approach is how we’re constantly able to raise our game. The challenge is what I enjoy the most.
Prior to joining TRS, you held roles at Deloitte, Oracle and J.P. Morgan — all companies that are increasingly data- and technology-driven. How did these experiences prepare you to succeed at TRS?
I’ve been fortunate to work at a number of really great companies that have pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me advance my career. When I was ready to move into investment management at TRS, the skills I had developed at my previous companies translated incredibly well. For example, my appreciation of the value that tools like cloud technology bring to our jobs every day — something I gained during my time at Oracle — has helped me see how new technologies can support our growth goals at TRS, from streamlining internal work processes to delivering a seamless user experience for our portfolio managers.
Lessons learned are an important takeaway from every role. And not just the hard skills — culture, team-building and creativity are of equal or greater value. Across companies and even industries, the more you can apply what you’ve learned, the better prepared you are to achieve success in your next role.
How is TRS addressing the market trends that are challenging the financial industry right now?
Based on our size — in both assets and members — we’re navigating the same challenges that all global investment managers face in today’s economy. The access to unique and competitive investment opportunities, and recruiting and retaining diverse investment talent top the list of our current challenges. What’s changing is our mindset: how we can better approach these challenges and develop new ways to stay ahead of our competition.
We also share the same goals as our investment manager peers. We are competing every day for new growth opportunities in a low return world, managing fees without compromising alpha targets, and investing with an eye toward the long term. Not to mention, of course, remaining laser-focused on taking great care of both our retirees and our active members.
Lessons learned are an important takeaway from every role — and not just the hard skills. Culture, team-building and creativity are of equal or greater value.
You led the TRS Emerging Manager Program from 2015 until recently, where you were responsible for a $1.5 billion portfolio of small and diverse managers. The program is one of the largest Emerging Manager (EM) Programs in the US — what is the purpose behind this program, and how did it develop?
Taking over the Emerging Manager Program — and having a prominent role in its success — was a highlight of my career. This was one of those opportunities where the skills I had developed and my background in Investment Operations gave me the confidence to take on a project that was outside of my job description.
The goal of the EM program is to identify and build the next generation of high-performing managers. Working with the TRS Board of Trustees and the CIO, I started by identifying things that had to be done to reinvigorate the program, and then developing and implementing an action plan. Our vision of success: generate alpha, increase diversity and build strong relationships that can graduate to the larger pension trust (the Trust). Very quickly, we went from low interest in the program to everyone being engaged in its growth. This year, the TRS Board of Trustees approved permanent funding for the program, setting aside $3 billion to be allocated over the next three to five years. I’m very excited about how far we’ve come and I look forward to seeing the program continue to innovate and grow.
Diversity in financial services is a hot topic. To date, more than half of committed capital within the EM program has been allocated to diverse managers. How are these emerging managers creating a community and “paying it forward”?
It’s important to note that while the Emerging Managers Program is “diversity aware,” there are no diversity-specific requirements. We could have selected better-known managers for the program, but our focus was on choosing managers we felt were best positioned to meet the established goals for alpha generation and growth for the Trust. That said, based on the many studies that directly correlate diverse leadership with outperformance, it’s not surprising that so many of the program’s success stories involve diverse managers.
Through networking and educational activities like our annual Texas Emerging Manager conference, which drew a record 1,600 registrants to Austin this past February, managers in the program gain industry insights from their peers and best practices on how to work with institutional investors like TRS. As these managers graduate from the program into the Trust, lessons learned from their tenure are instrumental in selecting the next group of participants.
What career advice would you give your younger self?
First, take more risks. The financial world — and the world in general — is all about risk-adjusted return. Don’t be afraid to raise your hand for that high-profile project or a role that’s outside your immediate area of expertise — you never know when the answer will be yes. You can’t reap big benefits without taking risk.
Second, think big when it comes to networking. Having a network inside your company or your industry is very helpful, of course, but why stop there? Find people that you admire — women or men who you believe represent your values and how you think. Learn about people who are doing remarkable things in any industry. Social media makes it so much easier to connect with people that you don’t cross paths with regularly. And finally, be mindful to include people of different cultures in your network. A diverse network is a strong network.
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