When Winnetka native Lauren Hamlin received her MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in 2014, she was one of only two women in a class of 800 graduates to go into private equity. For Hamlin, now a principal at Merit Capital Partners, the lopsided numbers had to be taken in stride as she rose to the myriad challenges of her work.
At Merit, Hamlin identifies potential investments across the country, analyzing and scrutinizing to find the best possible opportunities for the firm, serving on boards of directors at those businesses that make the cut, and then spending years working closely with management to improve and grow each company. “I love the work,” says Hamlin. “It’s exciting to be involved in so many different industries and to strategize with the management teams to develop the initiatives that help them grow
But in the early years before reaching this point in her career, she confided to a close friend, “it just feels weird to be the only woman.” Hamlin’s friend’s response really stuck: “She said, ‘you know, people are going to remember you better because you aren’t just another one of the guys. You are different because you are a woman. You bring a different perspective forward.’”
Hamlin now passes these wise words on as she mentors aspiring young women and lectures and participates in business forums to increase the number of women in private equity. An analysis by Prequin, a London-based investment data company, found only 19.4 percent of private equity employees worldwide are women and within that only 11.5 percent have senior roles.
She regularly participates in panel discussions that are part of the “Women as CEOs, Investors, Directors, and Executives” classes taught by friend and associate Alyssa Rapp, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Questions posed to Hamlin in these discussions are oft-repeated: “How do you survive in such a male-dominated field?” And, “How do you manage this job not just as a woman, but also as a mother?”
Her answers don’t change, but she believes the industry will. “There is a growing focus on having more gender balance and cultural diversity in boards and private equity firms,” says Hamlin. “Investors are pushing for this. So things are evolving.”
But change is slow, so Hamlin’s advice to women coming into this who feel the lack of representation? “Don’t focus on it—just be the best that you can be. If you work really hard and stick with it, you will gain invaluable experience. Because you are there and you have a different perspective than some of your other male co-workers, it is a plus for you, and for your firm.”
Perhaps even more crucial, she tells them, “Turn around and help the next woman behind you. It’s so important to give back—to be a sounding board and to help each other. When I came up, there were not a lot of female role models. I wish it had been different then, but we can help make it different for the women who are coming up now.”
As the first female member of the advisory board for Invest for Kids, the Midwest investment ideas conference that raises money for Chicago children’s charities, Hamlin noted that there weren’t nearly enough women attending and speaking at the conference. So, joined by co-chair Stacy Devine (CIO of RPTC Inc. ), she organized a Women’s Leadership Event bringing together female leaders in Chicago and top-class female speakers from around the world to network and talk about investment topics. The Women’s Leadership event is scheduled this year on June 8.
“We are doing everything we can to promote involvement by more of the talented women who have lacked representation at the conference and in our industry. Instead of focusing on where the industry isn’t, we are focusing on what we can do to change what is,” she says.
Hamlin doesn’t gloss over the challenges of balancing her job with the dedication needed to raise two young children, Hadley, 6, and James, 4. There is a lot of required travel, and late nights can make things difficult. “But it is the same for top-level women in any industry,” says Hamlin. “If you look at senior women in banking or consulting, for example, you’ll see the same thing. It’s hard, but it’s doable.”
To get through, she says she relies on help from those in her inner circle—her husband, Jake, is her ideal partner, and her parents also live nearby. She is very intentional about the time she spends with her kids. “Whatever we are doing together, I keep the focus on them. If I go to watch them at a lesson or event, I really watch them. I’m not on my cell phone.”
Growing up in Winnetka, Hamlin showed an aptitude for math early on, followed by an interest in finance, and then a degree at Vanderbilt University. Because Vanderbilt didn’t have an undergraduate business degree, she pursued an MBA at Booth. She met Jake when they both worked as analysts for the same bank after college.
In addition to their shared commitment to family, they find synergies in their charity work, supporting organizations that help underprivileged youth such as the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, where Hamlin is on the Board of Directors, as well as animal-advocacy groups.
“I’m a huge animal lover,” says Hamlin, who has dogs and horses. Horses, in fact, have been a constant passion and stress reliever in Hamlin’s life.
“It all started with a 50-cent pony ride when I was 3,” she laughs. Riding lessons followed when Hamlin was 5, and as a skilled equestrian, she competed as a member of the Region 2 Team in the North American Young Rider Championships in 2007—the Junior Olympics.
As has been the case with her work and her family, intent focus is what makes each riding experience most fulfilling. “You have to focus a lot when your sport centers on a 1,300-pound animal with a brain—quite a bit different than a soccer ball, which I also enjoyed in high school,” Hamlin smiles. “It’s all about harmony, making sure the animal’s needs are met and you are doing the best for them.”
Looking ahead, Hamlin sees a bright future for women joining the private equity field. “There are continually more female college graduates entering the private equity arena. My advice to those women would be to pick great mentors; they will help shape your career.”