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Halla Tomasdottir: A feminine response to Iceland's financial crash

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It sure used to be a lot easier to be from Iceland, because until a couple of years ago, people knew hardly anything about us, and I could basically come out here and say only good things about us. But in the last couple of years we've become infamous for a couple of things. First, of course, the economic meltdown. It actually got so bad that somebody put our country up for sale on eBay. (Laughter) Ninety-nine pence was the starting price and no reserve. Then there was the volcano that interrupted the travel plans of almost all of you and many of your friends, including President Obama. By the way, the pronunciation is "Eyjafjallajokull." None of your media got it right.

(Laughter)

But I'm not here to share these stories about these two things exactly. I'm here to tell you the story of Audur Capital, which is a financial firm founded by me and Kristin -- who you see in the picture -- in the spring of 2007, just over a year before the economic collapse hit. Why would two women who were enjoying successful careers in investment banking in the corporate sector leave to found a financial services firm? Well let it suffice to say that we felt a bit overwhelmed with testosterone. And I'm not here to say that men are to blame for the crisis and what happened in my country. But I can surely tell you that in my country, much like on Wall Street and the city of London and elsewhere, men were at the helm of the game of the financial sector, and that kind of lack of diversity and sameness leads to disastrous problems.

(Applause)

So we decided, a bit fed-up with this world and also with the strong feeling in our stomach that this wasn't sustainable, to found a financial services firm based on our values, and we decided to incorporate feminine values into the world of finance. Raised quite a few eyebrows in Iceland. We weren't known as the typical "women" women in Iceland up until then. So it was almost like coming out of the closet to actually talk about the fact that we were women and that we believed that we had a set of values and a way of doing business that would be more sustainable than what we had experienced until then. And we got a great group of people to join us -- principled people with great skills, and investors with a vision and values to match ours. And together we got through the eye of the financial storm in Iceland without taking any direct losses to our equity or to the funds of our clients. And although I want to thank the talented people of our company foremost for that -- and also there's a factor of luck and timing -- we are absolutely convinced that we did this because of our values.

So let me share with you our values. We believe in risk awareness. What does that mean? We believe that you should always understand the risks that you're taking, and we will not invest in things we don't understand. Not a complicated thing. But in 2007, at the height of the sub-prime and all the complicated financial structures, it was quite opposite to the reckless risk-taking behaviors that we saw on the market. We also believe in straight-talking, telling it as it is, using simple language that people understand, telling people about the downsides as well as the potential upsides, and even telling the bad news that no one wants to utter, like our lack of belief in the sustainability of the Icelandic financial sector that already we had months before the collapse hit us. And, although we do work in the financial sector, where Excel is king, we believe in emotional capital. And we believe that doing emotional due diligence is just as important as doing financial due diligence. It is actually people that make money and lose money, not Excel spreadsheets.

(Applause)

Last, but not least, we believe in profit with principles. We care how we make our profit. So while we want to make economic profit for ourselves and our customers, we are willing to do it with a long-term view, and we like to have a wider definition of profits than just the economic profit in the next quarter. So we like to see profits, plus positive social and environmental benefits, when we invest.

But it wasn't just about the values, although we are convinced that they matter. It was also about a business opportunity. It's the female trend, and it's the sustainability trend, that are going to create some of the most interesting investment opportunities in the years to come. The whole thing about the female trend is not about women being better than men; it is actually about women being different from men, bringing different values and different ways to the table. So what do you get? You get better decision-making, and you get less herd behavior, and both of those things hit your bottom line with very positive results.

But one has to wonder, now that we've had this financial sector collapse upon us in Iceland -- and by the way, Europe looks pretty bad right now, and many would say that you in America are heading for some more trouble as well. Now that we've had all that happen, and we have all this data out there telling us that it's much better to have diversity around the decision-making tables, will we see business and finance change? Will government change?

Well I'll give you my straight talk about this. I have days that I believe, but I have days that I'm full of doubt. Have you seen the incredible urge out there to rebuild the very things that failed us? (Applause) Einstein said that this was the definition of insanity -- to do the same things over and over again, hoping for a different outcome. So I guess the world is insane, because I see entirely too much of doing the same things over and over again, hoping that this time it's not going to collapse upon us. I want to see more revolutionary thinking, and I remain hopeful. Like TED, I believe in people. And I know that consumers are becoming more conscious, and they are going to start voting with their wallets, and they are going to change the face of business and finance from the outside, if they don't do it from the inside.

But I'm more of the revolutionary, and I should be; I'm from Iceland. We have a long history of strong, courageous, independent women, ever since the Viking age. And I want to tell you when I first realized that women matter to the economy and to the society, I was seven -- it happened to be my mother's birthday -- October 24, 1975. Women in Iceland took the day off. From work or from home, they took the day off, and nothing worked in Iceland. (Laughter) They marched into the center of Reykjavik, and they put women's issues onto the agenda. And some say this was the start of a global movement. For me it was the start of a long journey, but I decided that day to matter. Five years later, Iceland elected Vigdis Finnbogadottir as their president -- first female to become head of state, single mom, a breast cancer survivor who had had one of her breasts removed. And at one of the campaign sessions, she had one of her male contenders allude to the fact that she couldn't become president -- she was a woman, and even half a woman. That night she won the election, because she came back -- not just because of his crappy behavior -- but she came back and said, "Well, I'm actually not going to breastfeed the Icelandic nation; I'm going to lead it."

(Applause)

So I've had incredibly many women role models that have influenced who I am and where I am today. But in spite of that, I went through the first 10 or 15 years of my career mostly in denial of being a woman. Started in corporate America, and I was absolutely convinced that it was just about the individual, that women and men would have just the same opportunities. But I've come to conclude lately that it isn't like that. We are not the same, and it's great. Because of our differences, we create and sustain life. So we should embrace our difference and aim for challenge.

The final thought I want to leave with you is that I'm fed up with this tyranny of either/or choices in life -- either it's men or it's women. We need to start embracing the beauty of balance. So let's move away from thinking about business here and philanthropy there, and let's start thinking about doing good business. That's how we change the world. That's the only sustainable future.

Thank you.

(Applause)

Video Details

Duration: 9 minutes and 28 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Director: TED.com
Views: 213
Posted by: tedtalks on Dec 8, 2010

Halla Tomasdottir managed to take her company Audur Capital through the eye of the financial storm in Iceland by applying 5 traditionally "feminine" values to financial services. At TEDWomen, she talks about these values and the importance of balance.

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