When Barclays vice chairman Barbara Byrne had lunch with Jesse Dylan, son of Bob Dylan, in New York last September, Dylan was bewildered. Byrne and Dylan had met through their mutual work with the Clinton Global Initiative. Byrne led Barclays’ strategic partnership with CGI, and Dylan’s media production company Wondros worked with CGI to create promotional movies.
Byrne had just told Dylan she was getting involved with movies herself. She had recently decided to back an independent film. “Barb,” Dylan said, “nobody backs an independent film.”
Byrne laughs as she recalls their meeting. She replied, “Nobody told me that nobody does it, Jesse.” She added, “Nobody ever told me that a woman couldn’t make it to vice chairman.”
Byrne, who has lived in Princeton for 25 years, is not one to shy away from a challenge. During her 28-year career at Lehman Brothers, she was the first and only woman in the company’s history to rise to the position of vice chairman. In her current job at Barclays Capital, as a vice chairman in Investment Banking, she oversees the firm’s relationships with international clients, including GE, Microsoft and IBM. American Banker recently named her third on its annual Most Powerful Women in Finance ranking—she’s moved up from fifth in 2013 and fourth in 2014.
So when she heard that backing an indie film might not be a good idea, Byrne’s resolve only grew. The film she was interested in is Equity, which was recently selected as one of 16 films to be screened in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival, held in Park City, Utah from Jan. 21–31. On Jan. 25, it was announced that Sony Pictures Classics had purchased worldwide rights to distribute the film.
The movie follows the investment banker character of Naomi Bishop, played by two-time Emmy Award winner Anna Gunn, as she works to bring a major technology company public. It’s being produced by Alysia Reiner, who currently stars in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and the actress and producer Sarah Megan Thomas, whose husband was a Vice President at Lehman Brothers. The film was written by screenwriter Amy Fox and is directed by Meera Menon, whose debut film Farah Goes Bang premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2013.
A pair of female producers working on a film that is written and directed by women and stars a woman is unusual in Hollywood, and it was the movie’s female-centric nature that first drew Byrne’s attention.
“It’s women telling stories about women,” Byrne says. “[They] are in powerful positions, difficult positions.They aren’t perfect, but they’re doing the job…it was a story I thought needed to be told.”
Last February, Byrne was at a dinner party with Candy Straight, a former vice president at Bankers Trust, who has also worked in private equity. In recent years, Straight has become involved in movie production, and she knew Reiner and Thomas, the film’s producers. Straight began talking to Byrne about the funding challenges the film faced. Reiner and Thomas are successful actresses, and they had recently set up a production company, Broad Street Pictures, to focus on making films with strong female protagonists. But Equity is the company’s first film, and both women are relatively untested as producers.
One striking similarity between Hollywood and Wall Street is that both are male-dominated worlds. But women on Wall Street have an advantage, Byrne argues. “As long as you’re performing and making money, you will rise if you stay in the game. In [Hollywood], you have to have a chance to prove you should be in the game. And that’s harder.” Without major financial support, it was unlikely that Reiner and Thomas’ film would get off the ground. And finding donors for what is often perceived to be a risky endeavor in the film industry—namely, a female-driven film—would be particularly challenging. “They had been told they wouldn’t be able to raise the money, that it would be impossible,” Byrne recounts. “And impossible things interest me.”
She agreed to meet with Reiner and Thomas, and she came away impressed by their initiative and the story they wanted to tell. They were committed to seeing broader female representation on the screen, and Byrne knew she was in a position to invest in a younger generation of women determined to make it in a typically male industry. “I did it to make a statement,” Byrne says. “I did it because you have to believe in something and in someone.”
Together, Byrne and Straight brought in other senior women from Wall Street, who were similarly intrigued by the challenge of funding a woman-centric independent film, as well as by the film’s subject matter. Ultimately, the majority of the film’s funding was raised by women. “We let a few men in, a few good men,” Byrne jokes. But with Byrne’s help, Equity has now become a film that is produced, written, directed, acted, and largely funded by women, telling a story about a woman in a male-oriented world.
Byrne’s support for the project is not only financial. She has been able to provide the filmmakers with insight into the daily reality of life on Wall Street, ensuring that the details of financial deal-making seen in the movie are accurate. She also met with lead Anna Gunn to discuss the nuances of being a woman working to make it on Wall Street. But Byrne is quick to note that the film’s protagonist is not an autobiographical depiction. “She’s unmarried and she’s in her early forties. She’s very driven…I’m 61, and I have four children. I’m very driven, but it’s a different life.”
Barbara Byrne’s own history on Wall Street spans 35 years, during which she has seen a shift in the way women are treated in the financial services industry. She started in finance in 1980, after four years of working in refining and marketing supply and distribution for Mobil Oil Corporation, while she studied finance in the evenings at New York University.
Leveraging her experience with Mobil, she found a job in investment banking at Lehman Brothers, covering the energy industry sector. The world of investment banking appealed to her. She was interested in the way that technology, politics, and capital markets come together. And she enjoyed the field’s intelligent, fast-paced environment.
When Byrne started, there were very few women in senior positions on Wall Street, particularly in the investment banking world, and Byrne is part of a small cohort of women that are among the first to have worked their way to the top. Even women today rarely see themselves represented at the top of the industry. Women hold only 2 percent of CEO positions in financial services companies, and among the 22 largest investment banks or financial companies, there has never been a female CEO. “I think the average number of women managing directors, which would be a senior position, is somewhere in the 15-18 percent range,” Byrne says, a figure which is borne out by research. “So it’s low. But it’s been a lot lower.”
As one of the few senior women in the field, she knows she can uniquely understand the challenges faced by women and can support junior women in the industry. “I don’t like to be patronized,” she says. “Nobody does. I don’t like to be told, ‘Oh, just sit down over there, everything’s going to be OK.’ I’m going to take a seat at the table, thank you very much. I’m going to have a point of view.”
But when workplaces suffer from a lack of diversity, she argues, it’s easy for those in the majority to inadvertently exclude minority viewpoints. Byrne has worked to demonstrate that making it easier to include women’s voices has tangible results. Last year, she helped launch Barclays’ Women in Leadership Index, which invests in companies with market capitalizations of at least $250 million and which also have either a female CEO or a board with a make-up of at least 25 percent women. Byrne says the stocks in the index have outperformed, an outcome she ties directly to the companies’ diversity of viewpoints.
“If you have people from different backgrounds and different perspectives sitting around making a decision, they may argue with each other, but they’re probably going to come to a better decision,” she says.
Byrne believes that ensuring that women’s voices are heard is the responsibility of those in leadership positions, even if that sometimes means pushing women towards roles for which they may feel unprepared. She points out that she benefited from such an experience in her own career. In 1998, Byrne was a top energy investment banker working on a major technology merger. When the deal was complete, the head of the division told Byrne he wanted her to run their enterprise technology business. Byrne was stunned; she felt wildly unqualified for the job. “I looked at him and I said, ‘I’m not sure I really want to do this.’ “He responded, “Did you think this was optional?”
The job was formative for Byrne. It was a difficult learning curve, and she managed a team with many members who were more familiar with the field than she was. But she credits the experience with helping to shape her into the executive she is today.
“It’s fun to actually make a living doing something that is a steep learning curve, and you’re learning all the time, and it keeps you engaged,” she says, noting that while she has found this in the financial world, it’s largely a world she fell into accidentally. Growing up in a working class family in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Byrne stayed local for college, attending Mount Holyoke College in nearby South Hadley on a scholarship. Her father, Howard Moakler, who worked as a mailman, had died when she was seven. After his death, her mother, Margaret, went to work as a clerk in the local housing authority.
“It’s funny, when you talk to people about what they became interested in, it’s often something they stumbled into, and that was true for me,” Byrne muses. Growing up, she had wanted to be an archaeologist, and at Mount Holyoke, she took courses on ancient art. But she also took an introductory economics course her freshman year, and she ended up sticking with it. “It just made sense to me. It was a framework through which the world made sense.”
Byrne was offered a job with Mobil upon graduation, and she relocated to New York City. In 1979, Byrne was at a party at the Williams Club of New York. There, she met Tom Byrne, who was in law school at Fordham University. The two married in 1985 at the Mount Holyoke College chapel.
Tom Byrne, son of former New Jersey governor Brendan Byrne, began his career as a lawyer on Wall Street and an arbitrator in securities cases for the NASD. He joined Lehman Brothers in 1986, where he specialized in institutional equities. He served on the staff of the Brady Commission that reported to President Ronald Reagan on the causes of the 1987 stock market crash, after which he wrote The Stock Index Futures Market: A Trader’s Insights and Strategies. In 1989 he joined Commodities Corporation (now Goldman Sachs) on Mount Lucas Road, and in 1999 he founded Byrne Asset Management LLC, now located on Nassau Street.
The couple lived in New York City until 1990. They had bought a house in Princeton in 1986, but didn’t move to town until after their second child was born. “We knew this is where we wanted to be,” she says.
Today, they live a little outside of downtown, near the Hun School, and they take advantage of all Princeton has to offer. They frequent the town’s many restaurants, with Blue Point Grill as a particular favorite. And with Barbara Byrne having played basketball growing up, and Tom Byrne as a ’76 Princeton alum, the couple particularly enjoys Princeton women’s basketball games.
All four of the Byrnes’ children are also Princeton grads, or are on their way to becoming one, and a big part of the town’s appeal for the couple was its suitability for raising kids. Brendan Byrne and his wife had elected to stay in Princeton after leaving the governor’s mansion, Morven, in 1982, so the couple had family in town. And the town’s character appealed to the couple. “I love the fact that it’s an academic community and has people of diverse beliefs and backgrounds,” says Byrne. “And the fact that I had my in-laws nearby, and family, was just the frosting on the cake.”
Byrne acknowledges that the intensity of the financial world can be tough when employees start families. After settling in Princeton, the couple had two more children, and Byrne says that her family faced the common challenge of balancing work with the demands of family life. But she says that while women may be particularly affected, it’s not an issue of there being a glass ceiling. “It’s an issue of how intense the field can be and the complexities that people have as they begin to have children and have other demands on their life. It can affect men as well as women…It is difficult, but you can make it work,” she says.
Today, the Byrnes’ youngest daughter, Kelly, 21, is a senior at Princeton University. Erin, 24, works at Amazon and Brendan, 23, is in Washington, working on Capitol Hill.
Their oldest daughter, Meaghan, 28, who graduated from Princeton University in 2010, is currently working towards an M.B.A. at Yale School of Management, where she’s considering a career in consulting or possibly following her mother into finance. She credits her mother as a role model who gave her a “growth mindset…about where I could take my career.” Still she says, growing up with a mother who believed so strongly in supporting women in business made those ideas seem obvious.
But she knows her mother’s experiences still inspire women today. When her mother held a “fireside chat” at Yale a few months ago, many of Meaghan’s friends were excited to hear her speak. “I think that seeing her through their eyes makes her path and her initiative seem much more unique than I understood them to be as a kid,” she says.
Meaghan says she and her siblings are excited to see their mother support Equity. “She’s in a position where she’s able to give back in a very specific way,” she says. Byrne herself is looking forward to the film’s premiere. Along with several of the movie’s other backers, she’ll head to Utah in January to watch the movie at Sundance. “I want it to…entertain and engage and educate,” she says. “I want women to say that they can do this, too.”
Sonner Kehrt is a freelance writer and a former Coast Guard officer who worked in the Arctic before returning to her New Jersey roots.
CORRECTION: The original post of this story said that Sony Pictures Classics had agreed to acquire worldwide distribution rights on Feb. 25, which is in the future.