Helping Companies Make Transformational Decisions

Reprinted from Traditions, Summer 2019
August 7, 2019

Maria Moores Watts ’00 was one of those kids who was involved in everything. As a student at Cretin-Derham Hall, she played soccer, golf, and hockey, sang in the choir, participated in NHS, competed in speech, and took advantage of every opportunity available to her.

“There’s no better time than high school to explore and fail,” she said. “So I tried everything.”

She hasn’t been failing much in the two decades since she graduated. After high school, she attended Centenary College in Louisiana — she insisted on attending school in a state that didn’t touch Minnesota — where she played Division I soccer, sang in the choir and was President of her sorority, Chi Omega. She started exploring her career options early with different internships every summer.

“I saw what the most successful students a few years ahead of me were doing and followed their progression,” she explained. “I tried different things until something sparked my interest.”

Right out of undergrad, she was recruited to join a middle-market investment bank as an Analyst. It’s a grueling job, requiring 100+ hour weeks, on average. During that time, Watts regularly worked from 8 am to 2 am, often working those same long hours on weekends. After two years, it’s either up or out.

Watts moved up.

After four years of climbing the ladder, and just a year after becoming an Associate, Watts had to make an unusual move. Her husband was accepted into business school in Chicago, and they needed to relocate. That meant she would need to find a lateral position, in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis with the entire investment banking industry in turmoil.

Baird, fortunately — both for Watts and for them — recognized her talent and hired her as most banks were shedding staff, on one condition. She needed to earn an MBA from a top tier business school. So, she attended Northwestern University, earning an MBA in 2.5 years on Saturdays while working 80 hours a week.

She was promoted to Vice President, finished her degree shortly thereafter, and was successively promoted to Director, then Managing Director — the highest position for an industry banker. At age 35, Maria was the youngest banker promoted to Managing Director in the history of Baird.

Maria forged new ground on the family front as well. When she was pregnant with her first child, there were no precedents for having a baby while working in investment banking at Baird. The maternity policy was for administrative staff; no one knew what to do about maternity leave for someone in a role like Watts’. So, she created her own policy and encouraged Baird to take a customized approach to other female bankers’ future maternity leaves to encourage retention. Her vocal approach to “one-size does not fit all” allowed her, and other female bankers since then, to continue moving forward in their careers while growing their families. Maria is now the proud mother of a six-year-old and four-year-old. The flexible maternity policy is something she is most pleased to have contributed to the Baird culture.

Emma Gergen ’04, Vice President at Carlson Private Capital Partners, connected with Watts when she was earning her MBA at Northwestern. “Maria has been an amazing leader in the finance industry, and has a reputation for being both very knowledgeable about industry trends and offering outstanding client service. It’s not easy to reach the level of Managing Director at a firm such as Baird; it takes a lot of hard work to deliver results for clients and the firm.”

Watts’ passion for her work is obvious. Those long hours seem to roll off her back, because she truly loves what she does.

“I love being surrounded by people who’ve created and built businesses,” she said. “I love helping companies make transformational decisions, or making the most significant decision in many entrepreneurs’ lives go well.”

That passion has taken her far. At only 37, Watts is in the upper echelon of Baird — less than ten percent of people who start as Analysts ever make it to Managing Director. There’s not much farther up the ladder for her to climb. So she’s trained her sights at pulling other people up behind her.

“There’s still a real lack of diversity, especially gender diversity, in investment banking and finance, in general,” she said.

She regularly speaks to colleges and women’s groups about career opportunities in investment banking. As part of Pipeline Angels, an organization dedicated to supporting women and minority-run businesses, she provides mentorship and financial capital to help early-stage entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

“There are very few women at the table,” she explained. “That’s why I spend so much time talking to people who are exploring careers in investment banking,” she said. She advises other women to be hard charging, assertive, and focused. “You have to be focused on your career as one of your main priorities. You have to come to grips with the fact that you don’t have time for everything. For me, my priorities are family and career. I guess I’ll develop some hobbies when I retire,” she joked.

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