Columbia Investment Chief Blazes Trail Close to Her Harlem Roots

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It’s easy to call Kim Lew a pathbreaker.

Her journey has taken her from Harlem to Harvard University -- and now back to the Ivy League, this time as chief executive officer of Columbia University’s endowment, valued at about $13.5 billion. That post makes Lew, 54, part of an elite club of three women that oversee funds at the Ivies.

Born in Harlem to a Chinese father and an African-American mother who were teenagers at the time, Lew was raised in the Bronx. She landed a spot at Bronx High School of Science, one of New York’s top public schools, and then attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. It was a world away from her home.

Columbia Investment Chief Blazes Trail Close to Her Harlem Roots

“I didn’t just grow up in the Bronx, I grew up in the housing projects in the Bronx,” Lew said in a television interview on “Bloomberg Wealth with David Rubenstein.” “And there were very few people that went to college, let alone a college like Penn.”

After abandoning plans to be an accountant, she entered the credit training program at Chemical Bank, went to Harvard Business School and ended up in nonprofits. Her posts included helping lead private-equity investments at the Ford Foundation and becoming chief investment officer of Carnegie Corp. of New York.

In November, she moved to Columbia, taking over an investment office still smarting from the 2016 departure of N.P. “Narv” Narvekar, who led the school to some of its best returns and now runs Harvard’s endowment. Lew’s task will be to restore Columbia’s performance, a goal with urgency given that the fund returned 5.5% in the year ended June 2020 -- ranking it sixth out of the eight Ivies.

Lew’s interview with Rubenstein has been edited and condensed. It’s being broadcast Tuesday at 9 p.m. New York time.

Columbia Investment Chief Blazes Trail Close to Her Harlem Roots

Q: As you look at the investment environment, what makes you the most nervous? The most optimistic?

A: I’m most optimistic about technology. It’s solving so many of the world’s problems. I do believe that we’re going see solutions to the climate issue. The biotech field is awash with wonderful opportunities and brilliant people solving problems. I’m most pessimistic about so many large world problems that are not things that we as investors can predict the outcomes of. And since we can’t predict the outcomes of these sort of big, global, geopolitical issues, we’re trying to invest around them and trying to hedge as best we can.

Q: When you went to Wharton, did you say: These people are pretty smart, they have better backgrounds than I do, they’re wealthier?

A: It is much more apparent and much more challenging for students who come from poor backgrounds now than when I was there. The wealth
is conspicuous now in a way that wasn’t the case back then.

Q: In rising to be head of Columbia’s endowment, was the rise up hurt more by the fact that you’re a woman or a person of color? Or did it not affect you at all?

A: There are many challenges for women and people of color to get opportunities in this space, because it tends to be relationship driven and network driven. And obviously -- especially someone like me, who’s come from a background where I didn’t know anybody growing up that had relationships in this area -- your name is not as well known or you’re not as easily identified as others would be.

Q: What do you look for when you’re hiring managers?

A: I start with their strategy. Is their strategy unique? Does it offer the opportunity for them to make outsized returns? Then I look at their organization. Have they created and built an organization that supports their strategy and makes sense? Then I look at their alignment. Are they aligned with this institution and are they treating us as partners? Do they have high integrity? And are they thinking about the long term in the same way that we’re thinking about it?

Q: Sometimes alums and others say universities should disengage and not invest in oil or gas or other kinds of things that are socially controversial. How do you deal with those issues?

A: It is very important for the investment arm of any institution to be aligned with the values of an institution. On the other hand, as a chief executive officer of the endowment, I want to have as few restrictions as I possibly can because my principal goal is the return. But I don’t think that we can do that at the expense of values. And so Columbia has been very clear that they have a value around sustainability.

Columbia Investment Chief Blazes Trail Close to Her Harlem Roots

Q: What is the best investment advice you’ve ever received?

A: It’s the fact that we are in the business of taking risk. If you want to produce returns, you have to be willing to take risk and analyze and mitigate that risk the best you can. And to make sure that the return potential of an investment is equal to the risk. But you can’t avoid risk.

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