Wall Street Women Awards Winner: Elaine Kaven – Lifetime Achievement

Lifetime Achievement Award“Given to women with more than two decades of senior management experience on Wall Street, who have achieved the pinnacles of success and acted as role models to younger generations of women and men.”

Elaine Kaven, executive vice president, chief compliance officer, StockCross

Chance favors the prepared mind.

During the span of Elaine Kaven’s 30 years on Wall Street, things have happened that were beyond her control: firms have gone under and changed hands, staff have departed, and markets crashed. But she has managed to not only survive, but even excel, thanks to her constant state of readiness, during a career that has spanned from the Ford presidency to the Obama administration.

“I think one thing has been helpful in my career is not limiting oneself to a particular piece of the business,” Kaven said. Having a breadth of knowledge offsets chance, she added. “You can be doing a terrific job with a terrific firm, and things just happen-the firm goes out of business or merges. I’ve survived many things and been able to stay with StockCross in various capacities by being prepared.”

[See All The 2013 Wall Street Women Winners]

The Buffalo, New York native began her career in finance right out of college at the University of Buffalo in 1978. In the midst of a recession, armed with a liberal arts degree and a master’s in education, she was open to all possibilities.

“I wasn’t thinking about Wall Street at all,” she recalled. “Jobs were very limited, and I was looking into the publishing industry, given my experience in writing and literature.”

Traveling from New York to Boston in search of publishing job, Kaven was referred to regional brokerage firm Burbank & Co., where she figured she could work until locating a job in writing. But here chance played a part-the brokerage was looking for a writer.

“I didn’t exactly have a finance background and hadn’t taken a math course since high school,” Kaven said. “But they were looking for someone who could do some writing and research.”

The firm, she added, was typical for its time: very few women, mostly male. But Kaven made the most of her opportunity at the firm, a member of the Boston Stock Exchange, and learned everything she could, from trading to operations to product to how the exchanges worked. She worked with Burbank’s executive vice president and landed an invite to the Boston Security Traders Association conference.

Burbank was later sold to AG Edwards, where Kaven continued to work, focusing on tax-advantaged investments. She then joined StockCross, also headquartered in Boston. Formed in 1971, the firm was one of the original discount brokers, before the likes of E*Trade or Scottrade appeared. Kaven was again one of a handful of women. It was 1983. She has been with StockCross through a cross-country move, leadership changes, myriad equity market events and tribulations and technological changes.

So how does one stay in the trading business, let alone at a single firm, for 30 years? Kaven said her strategy was to be flexible and adaptable.

“The more you know, the more valuable you are,” she said. “Don’t be tied to any niche area where you understand only aspect of our industry and [lack the] ability to do anything else if something happens, or to discover new and exciting challenges. Be flexible.”

Kaven also stressed that having a broad and deep knowledge base can transform a dull day job into a exciting lifelong career. Her ability to learn and her love of learning have kept her in her seat at StockCross, where she now works in the compliance group in the firm’s Beverly Hills, Calif. headquarters. But one thing hasn’t changed, and that is her love of industry and desire for knowledge.

“It’s always better if you can come to work every day and enjoy it, which I think is rooted in the idea that the more you know, the more interesting the job becomes,” Kaven said. “Seek out new knowledge and it might open up other avenues to pursue, and makes the work more personally rewarding as well.”