Named one of the 10 Best University Endowment Managers by Business Insider in 2010, Long Island-native Ellen J. Ellison became the University of Illinois Foundation’s chief investment officer in January 2013. Ms. Ellison’s appointment to the UIF marked the beginning of a new strategy of internal management for what is now its $1.49 billion endowment. Her 30-year career to that point included positions as executive director of investments for the University of Miami, chief investment officer for J.I.K. Investment Services, Inc., a family business also in Miami and senior vice president at Fiduciary Trust Company International. She received her BA from Mount Holyoke College, an MBA from Columbia University and is a Chartered Financial Analyst.
Ms. Ellison was recently named on Trusted Insight’s ranked list of The Top 30 Most Influential Women In University Endowments. She graciously spoke with Trusted Insight about her experience as a chief investment officer and the world of university endowment investing on September 1. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Trusted Insight: Were you surprised to learn that there are 30 women in university endowment investing?
Ellen Ellison: I was surprised to be named one of the Top 30 Most Influential Women in University Endowment Investing. My 13-year-old son said, “Mom, guess what, there are 30 women in university endowment investing and you are number 25!”
Trusted Insight: Women tend to be better represented in university endowment investing than in other areas of business and finance, like hedge funds, for example. Do you have any ideas about why that might be?
Ellen Ellison: I spoke on a panel at Columbia Business School in February on this topic. There are 97 endowments above $1 billion and a third were run by women.
It is true that historically there are more women in university endowment investing than other fields of finance/business. [I think] the long-term benchmark appeals to people who want to be judged on results. It’s also more flexible, allowing for a better work/life balance. Women are good investors; good stewards of long-term capital so there’s no reason there should be a paucity of women in finance.
Trusted Insight: I was surprised to learn that you received your BA in French literature and that you speak four languages. That doesn’t seem like the typical background for a CIO.
Ellen Ellison: I was recruited right out of Mt. Holyoke to become an investment banker and worked as a portfolio manager for the first half of my career. Everyone I knew on Wall Street in the early 80s had degrees in literature, philosophy, other liberal arts from ivy league schools.
Trusted Insight: How would you compare your earlier career as an investment banker and money manager to being the CIO at UIF?
Ellen Ellison: As much as I loved managing money, I enjoy managing across a range of different strategies. In endowment investing you deal with all asset classes, so it’s a very broadening experience and intellectually satisfying.
Trusted Insight: How has your position as CIO differed from that of your predecessors there?
Ellen Ellison: The previous portfolio was managed by a number of large fund-to-fund providers. They hired me at a time when the institution decided to move to direct management relationships.
Trusted Insight: Have you noticed any trends in endowment investing since you’ve been at the UIF?
Ellen Ellison: Moving away from US equities over the past 18 months-to-two years to other parts of the world. If the downdraft in July and August continues, there will certainly be other more attractive areas. We’ve allocated more to Japan and Northern Europe as far as developed markets are concerned and I foresee doing more investments in China, the turbulence there won’t last. We are also engaging in some smaller strategies that aren’t on the radar screen such as agriculture, litigation finance, certain direct credit finance and global activism across a number of strategies.
Trusted Insight: Do you have any advice for new female graduates interested in entering the world of business/finance/endowment investing?
Ellen Ellison: First, I don’t perceive these fields as male dominated. I worked for a firm run by women for a long time, and 50% of the staff managing portfolios were women. I also went to an all woman’s college where leadership roles were held by women.
Endowments and foundations are good apprenticeship businesses. It’s a good environment for women who enjoy investing and solving puzzles. You must have excellent communication skills – writing, public speaking. Most people in this role are passionate about investing. We go all over the world to find the best investment ideas. It’s good for people who enjoy research, people who enjoy “close reading." Because of my literary background I’m used to analyzing texts and a lot of our job is paying close attention to details. A CFA may be more important than an MBA if you want to play a pure investment role.
Trusted Insight: Can you speak about something new and interesting related to your tenure here?
Ellen Ellison: I’ve created a summer internship program that can lead to a full-time, post graduate position that takes three years to complete. We hire four students in the summer after junior year, giving them broad exposure, then pick one of four to continue, who is hired after he/she graduates. The program is three years so the students can get their CFAs. Participating students (all from U. of Illinois) have a variety of backgrounds, not necessarily business, but also engineers, liberal arts.
Trusted Insight: Can you tell me about an accomplishment of yours that you feel proud of?
Ellen Ellison: The team of six or seven people working together here. I’m proud of the people I’ve been able to attract to the foundation; this office was built out from scratch. We’re moving forward in an independent way, and it’s all been put into place in the last two and half years. The endowment’s performance has been fine, but it’s too early to assess whether our approach is successful. We had a big exposure to the U.S. stock market before I started so we were on the right side of the global [bull market in equities].