Traci Lerner appears to have found the secret to a balanced and meaningful life. A portfolio manager who works side by side with her husband, Mark, she built a successful Baltimore‐based hedge fund (later converted into a family office) while raising four children. For decades, she has engaged in extensive philanthropic service geared toward social change.
Traci has been an active board member at The Johns Hopkins Hospital (chairing both its endowment and pension committees), as well as being on the Johns Hopkins University Investment Committee. She was a longstanding board member of The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, and continues her board support with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Additionally, she has left her mark on the Baltimore community as a founder of charter school, KIPP: Baltimore as well as the collaborative Baltimore’s Promise. In all of these activities, she employs the combination of commitment and thoughtfulness that she models in her professional and family life.
As one of the new NYU Board of Trustee members, she hopes to bring an outsider’s perspective, boundless energy, and a willingness to listen first, and then act.
Unlike a lot of Board members, you’re not an alum. What drew you to NYU?
For years, I’ve focused on promoting equal access for young people to education and healthcare and the opportunities they can provide. This is at the heart of my work with the KIPP Schools in Baltimore, which is focused on the lower through middle school grades—helping young people pursue a career and earn a living wage.
When NYU announced that it was making its medical school tuition‐free, I took notice. Providing the benefit of a graduate education to those who will most benefit from it, and who will, in turn most benefit society, is the natural extension of the work I’ve been doing at the K‐12 and undergraduate levels. Making medical school accessible to the cream of upcoming generations is truly visionary. So, when Bill (William Berkley) asked me [to join the Board], that was one of the principal reasons I accepted. It made me feel like I could make a meaningful contribution to one of the world’s great universities.
What is the first thing you want to do as an NYU trustee?
I am definitely in listening mode. I want to better understand NYU’s broad approach—both in NYC and around the world—and then understand where my skill set matches where the University is headed.
What gets you energized in the morning?
When I get up, the first thing I do is try to figure out what happened overnight in the markets and where the different pieces of the puzzle have fallen. I still find it challenging. Even after all this time, it doesn’t feel like work.
I enjoy being part of the team that my husband and I have developed over the years. We have extraordinarily different, but complementary, skillsets that have allowed us to flourish in countless ways for more than three decades. Mark is very good at process, and I need more instant gratification. I can come up with an idea, and he’ll be better at reading the documents and taking it through.
What is your proudest achievement?
My proudest achievement is definitely the family we’ve built and the relationships we have with our children and grandchildren—while also having a meaningful career and playing a role in the larger community.
My kids have always known how important professional accomplishment is to me personally—and the extent to which I love my work. That said, I’ve worked very hard at structuring my work so as not to take away from them. I would wake up early and work so that I could focus on them when we were together. When I absolutely needed to work, my kids have always understood.
They’re also passionate about what they do, although their interests lie outside of the investment world. And that’s fine. We always said, you can do whatever you want but you have to approach it fully committed and with passion.
How did the idea for your business come to you?
I worked for a Wall Street firm for nine years, at a white shoe firm where women weren’t going to make a lot of progress. It was near the beginning of the hedge fund era, and I realized if I wanted to do what I wanted to do, I would have to leave the firm. So, I did, and I never looked back.
Mark and I didn’t want to commute, so we moved to Baltimore where he was from. He was getting ready to buy a private company and was taking the summer to work on business plans. So, I asked him, “How do you feel about putting your plans on hold for six months and helping me raise capital?” He said “sure”—that was June 1991—and we started the fund in October 1991, with Mark having no intention of staying long‐term. But we were having a lot of fun working together so we thought, “Why should we stop?”
What excites you most about your work?
I love the problem‐solving of the markets. I’m a very logical person and I like looking at external forces and figuring out how to tackle the problems of businesses. But there are days that frustrate me, because sometimes you get it really right and sometimes you get it really wrong. I think anybody who lives and breathes the market knows just how complicated it can be.
What hurdles have you had to overcome in your career?
It wasn’t easy being female on a trading desk in the ’80s, so I think that comes with a lot of natural hurdles, of having to prove yourself and having to be a little tougher and to work harder to get ahead. I was fortunate to have an amazing mentor at Dillon Read who gave me opportunities and support.
“When NYU announced that it was making its medical school tuition‐free, I took notice.”
– NYU Trustee Traci Lerner
What’s something your children have learned from you?
This goes back to the answer to one of the previous questions, which is to pursue your goals wholeheartedly and with passion. My oldest child only ever wanted to be a teacher, but when she was graduating from Penn, she began to think that maybe she should interview for consulting jobs. She is smart and driven and these were considered the hot jobs on campus. So, she would ask me to help her prep for interviews. I told her, of course, I would help her, but that she really shouldn’t do this just because it was what other people wanted. You’ve got to do what you want or it’s just not going to work in the long run.
She accepted a position with Teach for America, loved it and has enjoyed an extraordinary career as a teacher and dean.
What career would you pursue in an alternate universe?
I always wanted to go to medical school. I didn’t because in college I was petrified to take physics. If I had taken physics, I would have been a doctor. I probably know more than most lay people about COVID owing to my innate curiosity as well as a voracious desire to learn as much as I can about matters that impact investing. My kids tell me that I practice medicine at home; probably a mixed blessing for them!
Whom do you most admire?
The people I admire most are people who have figured out how to balance work and family, and not trade their success for their time with their kids. I think we need to model for our kids that you can do what you want to do and still raise a solid family. I certainly admire people for their accomplishments—I think, for instance, Janet Yellen has done an amazing job—but in the real world, it’s the people who have walked that line and found that balance who really impress me.
What is your greatest hope for NYU?
I’d like to see NYU continue on the path where a diverse group of students can benefit from accessibility to a great education in which they can thrive and be happy.
What’s your best advice for an NYU student today?
I’m not sure how much NYU will like this answer, but I would tell a freshman that they will learn as much outside the classroom as inside, so take all the opportunities that come your way and meet as many people as possible.
What advice do you have for women pursuing a career in your male‐dominated industry?
Find a mentor, and one who they can talk to and ask anything they want, who will be honest with them. I had a mentor who was incredibly tough, but he was willing to give me a chance, and that was the break I needed.
What drives your philanthropic pursuits?
With regard to helping young people, we are passionate in our desire to confront the challenges of equitable opportunity in healthcare, housing, food insecurity and education. In the case of the latter, we are committed to hitting both sides of the equation. If we don’t give students a first‐rate K‐12 education, it’s impossible to expect them to gain admission, let alone thrive in college. And even when colleges as capable as NYU have students who are really smart and are admitted, many of these young people need significant extra support to succeed. We need to anticipate and provide for that—to both get more people who are less fortunate to go to college and also provide the tools they need to get through.