Alumni Q&A: Laurie Gabriel

The Alumni Series aims to create a diverse collection of experiences at Tufts through highlighting notable alumni.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Laurie Gabriel (J ’76) graduated from Tufts in 1976 with a bachelor of arts in economics. After her time at Tufts, she has held several positions at Wellington Management Company, including managing partner, director of global research and director of quantitative research. Since her retirement from Wellington in 2008, she serves on the Tufts Board of Trustees and is currently vice chair of the Board of Trustees at The Nature Conservancy.

Tufts Daily (TD): What were some memorable classes or professors you had at Tufts?

Laurie Gabriel (LG): Well, okay, so first of all, I graduated in 1976. So it’s been a really long time. I was an economics major; I was fascinated by the field of economics. I loved the fact that there were no solid answers; it was always “on the one hand, on the other hand,” so that everything was kind of a puzzle.

But in terms of classes that actually benefited my career, I have to point to a couple. One was statistics, which was part of the economics department. The other one — again, this is way back in the ’70s — was a programming course that some of my engineering friends talked me into. So I took a pass/fail course in FORTRAN, which is now a dead language. But it meant that when I joined Wellington Management Company, which is where I spent my entire career, I was literally one of two people in the firm who knew how to write a computer program on the fly. It was a time when computers were just starting to really be used in the investment business, for analysis of investment opportunities, so it was very, very timely. And it was a real differentiator for me. The course was then called ES-2, and you had to go to the basement of Miller, where the one computer on campus was located, if you actually wanted to put something into the computer and receive output.

I also have to point to my participation on the men’s sailing team. I learned a lot about winning and losing, competing hard and the power of teamwork. We were national champions my senior year, and that item on my resume was another differentiator.

TD: You spent your entire career at Wellington. What was your path there?

LG: Very interestingly, when I was graduating from Tufts, I got two job offers on the same day. And one was for a management training program at an insurance company in Boston, and the other was at Wellington Management Company. And honestly, it was partly naiveté, and partly it was the people that I met in the course of interviewing, that convinced me to take the Wellington job. When I started working at Wellington, I believe my annual salary that first year was $7,800. And the job at the insurance company would have started at $10,000. So I gave up a significant percentage of money to go work at Wellington. And it was just really was something about the company’s size, the vibe and the people … I met there, that drew me to Wellington.

TD: Once you got there, how did you decide which paths within the firm interested you?

LG: I was pretty opportunistic. I started my career at Wellington in the back office. As I mentioned, my very minimal computer skills got me my first promotion into this new area in the investment world called quantitative research, and I really enjoyed that. I think the combination of statistics and having a little programming [knowledge] was very beneficial at that point in time. I stayed in quantitative research for quite a while. But I think Wellington was small enough and my interests were broad enough, that when different opportunities came up, I was interested to pursue them. So for a while I worked in our relationship management area, working primarily with mutual fund clients. Then I headed our trust company subsidiary. Then I moved back to quantitative research. I eventually became the director of quantitative research, and then the director of all of research. But there was no plan. There was no strategy. It was more about, “Here’s an opportunity. I think I’m ready for it. The company also thinks I’m ready for it. So I’m going to go for it.” I was definitely fortunate. I think one the challenges for people getting into the field today is that the investment field is so specialized that it’s hard to move across channels. And I would definitely encourage people to do that if they see the opportunity.

TD: So what were your favorite and least favorite positions you held at Wellington and why?

LG: Well, I don’t think I can answer favorite and least favorite, because every job had parts I loved and parts that were not as great. There are a couple of lessons that I learned about different roles. One was when I was working side by side with a person who had to be the smartest person in the room, and had to show that to other people. And the lesson was that job satisfaction is not always about the content of the job. Sometimes it is about the work environment around you. And I think if there was ever a point I was considering leaving Wellington, it was because that was a toxic, unpleasant everyday work experience. Another lesson I learned was when I was a portfolio manager, which is an incredibly difficult job. If you get it right 55% of the time, you’re doing really well. But 45% of time, you’re wrong, you look and feel wrong, and that’s hard to live with. As hard as portfolio management is, managing people is even harder, because the decisions you have to make in managing people affect their lives. It’s very, very stressful, and very important to do the best job you possibly can. But the other thing about managing portfolios — and this can be good or bad — is that you get a report card every day when the markets close. When you’re managing people, and later in my career, most of my job was about people management; there’s no report card. And the actual work is largely done by the people who work for you, so you have to find satisfaction in the success of the people you’re helping to develop. And that’s a skill that needs to be learned.

TD: In light of recent statements from Larry Fink of BlackRock and many other executives in asset management, how do you feel about the rise of environmental, social and governance (ESG)-based investing? Do you think it’s possible for ESG to make a real impact in the field?

LG: I believe that this is a long-term trend, not just a fad. I think individuals, myself included, think about incorporating their values in their investment portfolio as well as in their lives. And I think increasingly, foundations and endowments are thinking about mission-related investing or program-related investing. Laws are changing, or the interpretation of laws are changing, to allow more institutions to move in that direction. The field is growing. ESG is not right for everybody and of course, ESG means something different to virtually everyone. I work with one not-for-profit that’s a conservation organization, and they have a relatively small endowment, around $65 million. We undertook a study of ESG investing for them. They are starting to incorporate that throughout their portfolio, starting with public investments, with a focus on environmental factors, primarily. But as you may know, when Tufts looked at something different, which was divestment from fossil fuels a few years ago. The decision was made not to divest the endowment from fossil fuels. That certainly is an important issue, but it’s not one that directly aligns with the institution’s mission of research and education.

TD: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a trustee?

LG: Well, one of the issues I was most involved in was the question of divestment from fossil fuels. Divestment in general, was something I had looked at while at Wellington, whether it was Northern Ireland, or South Africa or tobacco. So that was one challenge. The trustees face plenty of challenges, and it’s not an easy job. I know a concern that we all had was around medical transport for alcohol or drugs; I’m glad to note we’ve made progress there over the years. I think the student life review that took place last year was an important look into how students are living on campus. I am on the Administration and Finance Committee, where we are focused on budgets, funding, tuition and how to balance everything. That’s always a challenge.

TD: Do you have any suggestions for students who are environmentally conscious to make an impact on these issues and have their voices heard within the university setting, especially in light of pro-divestment student advocacy?

LG:  I have seen a lot of changes at Tufts since that divestment report was submitted and approved, and I hope you have too, whether it’s the new sustainability house that’s being built down in CoHo, or the courses and degrees that have been introduced around the issues of conservation, environmental protection and water usage. I think the new cogeneration plant, the increase in solar, these are the kinds of things the university has put in place because these are the things that can ensure Tufts acts as a good citizen in the world. And I see the students recycling and being cognizant of their electricity usage and just exhibiting a generally greater focus on the environmental impact they are having. [With regards to divestment], I’ll tell you one anecdote. I was going to a meeting. I think it was on Earth Day. There were people around Ballou arguing for divestment at the same time there were people marching around Ballou, arguing for divestment from private prison companies and from companies doing business in Israel. And to me, this is one of the challenges of divestment. If you choose to divest from one thing, what are the limits? And, you know, one person’s social issue is different from the next person’s social issue.

I think the biggest thing that students collectively can do to have an impact on environmental issues is to push for political change, and particularly a U.S. energy policy, which moves us to reducing carbon and shifting to a clean energy economy.

TD: Does Tufts think about, rather than divesting from these types of companies, trying to have a positive environmental influence through taking an active approach and talking to the companies we invest in?

LG: We do think about that. This gets a little technical, but virtually all of Tufts’ investments are in commingled funds. When you’re in commingled funds, the managers of the fund make the decisions about which companies to invest in. You can’t have every investor in the funds voting their share of the proxy differently. [However], we do ask our managers if they are considering ESG principles in their decision-making.

TD: Is there anything that you think most students do not know about the Board of Trustees that you wish they did?

LG: Well, that’s a great question. I don’t know if the students realize how much time the trustees spend thinking about them, thinking about their life on campus, thinking about what’s working well and what could be improved. I think sometimes, we’re viewed as these separate people that are just chatting about policies and strategy. But we do think a lot about the students and their life on campus.

TD: What is one piece of advice you would give to graduating seniors today?

LG: Well, this is going to sound oversimplified, and maybe even trite, but I really, really believe you have to love the work that you’re doing. And sometimes you have to search for something to love in the work that you’re doing. But it’s too big a part of your life not to enjoy it, not to feel good about what you’re doing and not to feel passionate about the role that you’re playing. Every job has rotten parts, that’s why they call it work. But I think you can find the ‘good’ in most jobs. For example, when I was managing a mutual fund portfolio, I liked to think about the people who were saving for their children’s education or building a retirement nest egg. If I was running an endowment portfolio, I liked to think about how the endowment would be better able to carry out its mission if I did a good job. Those are the kinds of things which made me feel good about work. A second piece of advice is to work for a company where you admire the culture, you respect and like the people that you’re working with and you feel good about whatever it is that the company is doing or producing.