For nearly 20 years, financial advisor and entrepreneur Laura Rittenhouse has attended the famed Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting known as Warren Buffett’s annual “Woodstock for capitalists.” As the author of a book that Buffett himself endorsed—and a friend of his—Rittenhouse was often invited to speak with investors at the conference. “I would go into a room and realize that in a room of 100-200 people,” she says, “I was one of count-them-on-one-hand women in the room.”
Women aren’t just missing from legacy conferences like the Berkshire Hathaway meeting. They’re vastly underrepresented across the $69 trillion asset management industry. According to a recent Knight Foundation study, women-owned and minority-owned investment companies account for about 8.6% of all asset management firms. (The study defines ownership as 25% or higher.) And when it comes to the assets managed by those women—which Rittenhouse and company are now referring to as AUFM, short for assets under female management—their value is about 1% of total assets under management. The study also found that diverse funds—across mutual funds, hedge funds, and private equity and real estate firms—perform just as well, if not better than other funds.
That’s why Barbara Ann Bernard, the founder of hedge fund Wincrest Capital, has been mulling the idea of creating a conference for female investors. And after speaking at the Berkshire Hathaway meeting last year, Bernard teamed up with Rittenhouse and Kim Shannon, the founder and CEO of Sionna Investment Management, to do just that. “I just felt that there were so many excuses out there,” Bernard says. “The institutional investors say they can’t find the women, and the women say they can’t find the institutional investors. So I thought, why don’t we introduce them? The genesis of the conference for me was: Let’s take the excuses away.”
This Friday marks the first convening of the Variant Perspectives conference, which the trio are staging against the backdrop of the three-day Buffett-palooza in Omaha, Nebraska. That’s no coincidence. “It’s just an amazing opportunity to leverage the attention that is around the Berkshire Hathaway meeting, with 20,000 attendees and global press coverage,” Rittenhouse says of the timing. “We want to take advantage of the visibility and integrity of the meeting.”
Though Rittenhouse describes the meeting as “focused on women and women investors,” it is intentionally not framed as a conference only for women. Though the conference agenda includes sessions with allocators who are investing in women and female asset managers who started their own funds, the overall objective is to be inclusive and bring men into the conversation. In fact, the conference is already fully booked. “I know we’ve really succeeded when we get emails from men saying they’re so excited to bring their daughters,” Bernard says.
When compared to, say, the tech industry, the barriers to entry for women in asset management are even higher. “You can’t really launch [a fund] with less than $100 million,” Bernard says. She adds that unlike other conferences she has attended, this one isn’t just concerned with discussing the problem so much as finding solutions, and with a clear objective in mind: To double AUFM by 2020, and to keep doubling that number each year going forward. “We have a problem,” Bernard says. “Why are we uninvestable? Tell us, and in turn, we can help you.”
Rittenhouse and Bernard hope that the term AUFM—and what it represents—sticks. “Laura and I were having a glass of wine and discussing the conference,” Bernard recounts, “and I said, ‘Laura, we need to increase AUFM! It’s my new favorite four-letter word.’ We laughed, and then I said, ‘Because size matters!” And we really laughed.” (In fact, that exchange inspired the conference hashtag: #SizeMattersGrowAUFM.)
The organizers intend for Variant Perspectives to be more than just a one-off event—that it will not only be a recurring conference, but also find its way to other cities and reach women who don’t have a chance to attend this weekend. But in the meantime, Bernard thinks the inaugural meeting—and its veiled title, which is a nod to a term used in value investing—may draw even unsuspecting attendees at the Berkshire Hathaway meeting.
“The reason I called it ‘Variant Perspectives’ is because I thought it would be quite funny if you just thought it was a normal investing conference,” Bernard says. “It is a variant perspective, right?”