Janet Yellen: Rising to Power Via Empathy
By Nicole Casperson
Since the U.S. Congress established the Federal Reserve Board in 1913, it had always been led by men that prioritized the needs of Wall Street and the financial industry.
But when Janet Louise Yellen became the first female chair of the institution 100 years after its inception, she had a vision of a central bank system that was responsive to the needs of the public, not just the interests of the financial industry.
She sought to ensure that the Fed would consider the needs of the average American and not solely those of the powerful financial elite. Janet worked to ensure that the Fed’s decisions and actions would benefit the nation and not just a privileged few.
Named the “Ruth Bader Ginsburg of Economics,” Janet is one 76-year-old badass that continues to change our country for the better. And our fintech community can learn a lot from her values and practices.
She’s a symbol of progress, someone who played in a man’s game and rose to the top. Wielding empathy as her weapon to break through glass ceiling after ceiling, this is her story.
Janet grew up in a middle-class Jewish home in Brooklyn, New York.
Brilliant from a young age, she graduated high school as valedictorian and graduated from Brown summa cum laude with an economics degree.
And… then received her M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from Yale. No biggie.
Her career began as a passionate economics educator. Janet taught as a professor at several top-notch schools, including Harvard, The London School of Economics, and UC Berkeley (where she was the 2nd woman ever to receive tenure at the Haas Business School).
She achieved more than success but radiated brilliantly in a primarily masculine academic atmosphere. Amidst her job as a professor, she had to deal with a predominantly male communal circle that largely ignored her. Yet, unflustered, she composed groundbreaking research on economics that remains a reference today.
Janet’s time in front of the classroom as a beloved teacher led her to her 1st job with the Fed, working as an economist for the Federal Reserve Board. She worked on dozens of committees and became President of the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco.
As proven throughout her career, Janet was not afraid of being a pioneer for women in her field. As a result, she achieved 3 important firsts for American women, paving the way for others to follow in her footsteps.
First up, Janet left her role at the Fed and headed to the White House to serve as the primary economic advisor to President Clinton.
She was the first woman to sit as Chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) and oversaw a critical study on the gender pay gap. Yet, in government, she had to withstand intimidation and condescension from the male-dominated Clinton administration.
Second, Janet was the first woman chair of the Federal Reserve Board. During the Obama administration, she was preferred to preside over the Federal Reserve but was not even taken into account until a congregation of males and females in the Senate pushed for her.
She was nominated by Obama in 2013, who appointed her “for her sound judgment and ability to build consensus.” He also acknowledged her critical contributions to and understanding of monetary policy.
In other words, Janet speaks the language of the American people and has more institutional knowledge than practically anyone in her field. She’s a verified queen in every sense and an advocate that almost everyone on both sides of the aisle can get behind.
Third up, last year, President Joe Biden nominated Janet Yellen as the 78th head of the U.S. Treasury and the first woman.
The Senate confirmed her on January 26th, 2021.
When then-President-elect Joe Biden announced his intent to nominate Janet Yellen for secretary of the treasury, he joked that “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda should write a musical about her.
“We might have to ask Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the musical about the first secretary of the treasury, ‘Hamilton,’ to write another musical for the first woman secretary of the treasury — Yellen,” he said.
Dessa, a member of the hip-hop collective Doomtree and one of the artists who contributed to “The Hamilton Mixtape,” came up with “Who’s Yellen Now?” which you can listen to here.
Aside from these three major firsts, she is also the first person of any gender to have held all 3 positions.
She was also awarded the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government in 2017.
During her acceptance speech, Janet said, “The Federal Reserve’s very effective in setting monetary policy depends on the public’s assured confidence that we act only in its interest.”
Janet has always been a woman of the people at heart, and a firm believer in the importance that the Fed remain independent, empowering the institution to serve people as human beings, not as statistics.
Her radical empathy is something that has defined her career. So much so that Owen Ullmann wrote a book on her titled, “Empathy Economics: Janet Yellen’s Remarkable Rise to Power and Her Drive to Spread Prosperity to All.”
Attempting to prove that her incredible career success is directly correlated to her empathetic approach to everyone, Janet has never stopped backing people and workers throughout her career as a policy leader and economist.
Her moral compass has remained steadfast, despite the power she has increasingly acquired in a government struggling with corruption and bi-partisan aggression.
She serves as a constant reminder that, at its heart, economics is about people.
Statistics are not just numbers. Those numbers represent human beings and communities, often ones that are suffering.
Janet understands that and is here to respond with urgency and policy.
Her iconic status is more than her achievements and role as a trailblazer who has led the way for women. It’s her stamina and grit to keep at it.
She never saw herself as an oppressed individual but as someone on this earth to empower marginalized communities.
She owns her power in every sense of the word. As fintech leaders, we can learn from her journey and improve and bring more representation into the industry so fintech can uphold its promise of inclusivity and access, too.