Women, Wall Street and Innovation: A Mixed Bag

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Two thousand attendees scooped up tickets for Deutsche Bank's 16th annual Women on Wall Street conference (they were gone 15 minutes after they became available). But when it came to assessing whether employers were in line with its theme - "Innovation: Ideas into Action" - they've had some less-than-exciting experiences.

The keynote speaker, author and social critic Steven Berlin Johnson, emphasized how good ideas tend to be born to those who network with people from a variety of backgrounds and professions. Julie Richardson, managing director at Providence Equity Partners, underscored the importance of financial and product innovation during down economies. And Alexandra Lebenthal, CEO at Alexandra & James and Lebenthal & Company, pointed out that innovators see order amid the chaos of a startup, and express that order to those around them. "The most important thing in innovation is the ability to communicate," she said.

Very motivating. But how does all this play out on Wall Street?

Kinjal Dalal, 26, a project manager for Deutsche Bank's GT Capital Markets, oversaw an innovative program that created a shared seating model. Over 18 months she helped implement the change, which resulted in 356 people sharing 250 desks. "The biggest challenge was behavioral changes," she said. Specifically, workers had to let go of having their own designated spaces. In the end, the project saved the bank $800,000.

Not all conference attendees felt so encouraged. One corporate bond trader said that while she sees room for innovation at the insurance company where she works, the corporate wrangling required to complete a project can be discouraging. When she created an early-career forum, "it was very challenging to get buy-in from top brass," she said. "It was amazing that something so simple, that didn't cost the company money and was not revolutionary was so challenging. People who have been recently hired joke that they have to get approval to buy a pen."

Meanwhile, a vice president of institutional marketing for a global bank said she's limited in her ability to be creative simply by the nature of the industry. "It's just the way the industry is," she believes. "If you want to be more creative you have to work for a smaller firm or in a different industry."

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