The first thing Private Equity International noticed when speaking to Joan Solotar, global head of Blackstone’s Private Wealth Solutions (PWS) group, was her willingness to be candid.
As we sat down together in a private room deep in the labyrinth that is London’s Berkeley Hotel, one of the first things she told us was, “Ask whatever you want.”
Not that Solotar has any reason to be coy. Since joining Blackstone 15 years ago, she has risen through the ranks to become the firm’s leading authority on private wealth, an area of the business that has gone from strength to strength under her leadership.
Once a relatively nascent segment of PE, private wealth now commands attention in its own right. According to Capgemini’s World Wealth Report 2022, the global high-net-worth individual population grew by 7.8 percent in 2021, while global wealth totals grew by 8 percent. By Capgemini’s calculations, this takes total global wealth up to approximately $86 trillion. To ignore such a vast – and growing – opportunity would certainly be foolhardy. Luckily for Blackstone, it has a steady hand steering the ship.
Over the past 12 months alone, Solotar has nearly doubled the size of Blackstone’s private wealth team, taking it from 160 professionals in October 2021 to around 300 by November 2022. This expansion covered most global markets, starting in Europe and spreading from there.
Speaking to PEI at the start of this expansion, Solotar said fundraising from private wealth channels accounted for roughly half of the $47 billion that Blackstone raised in Q3 2021, with the firm raising approximately $4 billion each month in perpetual capital alone via this channel. Capital raised via the PWS group feeds directly into LP capital for Blackstone’s funds – evidence that the channel is an integral part of how the alternatives giant raises money.
The short-term goal for Blackstone’s private wealth team is to reach $250 billion in private wealth assets under management by 2027 – a figure it could well hit ahead of that date, Solotar says. With the firm closing in on $1 trillion in assets under management as of September 2022, it goes to show what a sizeable proportion of capital private wealth accounts for at one of the biggest private equity fundraisers in the world.
Over the past few years, PEI has written plenty on the private wealth opportunity within PE, including previous in-depth looks at Blackstone’s PWS group. After this, we were still left with a question: who is the woman leading this business, and how did she get to where she is today?
Even in the middle of a frantic, pan-European business tour, and just hours before she was due to fly back home to New York, Solotar agreed to meet us on a cold November morning in London, giving us hours of her time and – most unusually for an interview about private markets – the recipe for her favourite shishito pepper salad.
After speaking to her peers about what it’s like to work with her, we quickly came to realise that her willingness to help should not have come as a surprise.
Leading the charge
Spearheading an expansion of PWS’s size would be a notable achievement for anyone. In an industry that is so heavily male-dominated, being a woman at the forefront of such a major operation is no mean feat.
“Whatever Joan says she’s going to do, she does,” says Rashmi Madan, senior managing director and head of EMEA in Blackstone’s PWS group. “She’s just one of those people who doesn’t let anything slip through the cracks… She is always available, always willing to serve Blackstone.”
According to McKinsey’s The state of diversity in global private markets: 2022 report, only 33 percent of roles across private equity globally are filled by women. This figure drops further when considering leadership positions: just 20 percent of managing directors and partners were female as of the end of 2021.
“All of my mentors have been men,” Solotar tells PEI. “Throughout my career, actually, almost all of my bosses have been male bosses, and all of my mentors have been male mentors.”
Level 20’s European gender diversity report 2022 found that the proportion of women working in senior investment roles within European private markets stands at an average of 10 percent. Of all the countries surveyed, just four had an average above that figure, while only one – Ireland – surpassed Level 20’s goal of 20 percent.
Yet the lack of women surrounding Solotar at most points in her career was not something that has slowed her down. Did she ever look around and think: there aren’t many women here, so maybe this career isn’t for me? Not once, she says.
“I was probably too naive to consider that. I wasn’t thinking, like perhaps many women my age were, ‘Well, let me choose a career where I could have a better balance with children, fewer hours…’ I just wasn’t thinking like that. I wanted to do something that was intellectually stimulating and interesting and where there potentially could be a good upward trajectory. That was it.”
Solotar isn’t the first woman to fill these shoes. Pilar Junco, now managing partner and chief client officer at AltamarCAM Partners, previously sat at the head of Blackstone’s private wealth table, working at the firm for 13 years across multiple roles before Solotar took over around seven years ago.
“She’s unflappable,” Junco says of Solotar. “And when you’re trying to build what she’s built, trying to do so many things at once… it’s very important to have a leader that’s just so calm and collected and together.”
Junco, who worked with Solotar for around five years, also notes that Solotar’s knack for analysis and problem solving is something that has helped her on her journey. “She has a very privileged mind in that respect. In an organisation like Blackstone that is more female now than [when] she started, that’s very valuable – having that… calm and collected way.”
Andy Sieg, president of Merrill Wealth Management, agrees: “Joan is an amazing partner… She is deeply respected for her decades of leadership and contributions to Wall Street, as well as her focus on diversity and the advancement of women in the industry.”
The first in her family to graduate from college, Solotar’s early interest in political science led her to believe she would go to law school. Instead, she enrolled in classes at the State University of New York’s school of business and fell in love with finance and markets.
“I was hired by First Boston… by an equity research analyst who wanted someone with strong computer programming skills to build these merger models for banks. And I had no idea what I was doing. I was figuring out bank balance sheets on the job,” she says. “That’s why I often refer to myself as ‘the accidental tourist’ – because it wasn’t all part of a great plan. I really didn’t even understand what equity research was before my first day of work.”
At that time, First Boston reimbursed employees for education, so Solotar applied for NYU’s MBA programme for finance. Upon being accepted, she went to school at night while working full time.
“I was promoted to research analyst, and I covered various sectors in financial services,” she says. “This was in the 1990s when a lot of companies were going public, like Goldman Sachs [and] Dean Witter, Discover – which became part of Morgan Stanley – and I worked on all of those. Pretty much every brokerage firm and asset management IPO that was happening in that whole period.”
There began her path to Blackstone. Hamilton ‘Tony’ James, the former executive vice-chairman who joined the firm in 2002 to help run its private equity and asset management business, contacted Solotar directly to see if she would be willing to come on board. “The firm in 2007 filed to go public, and he reached out to me to see if I would come help… build shareholder relations and run strategy.” After that, it was only a few years before she found her true calling.
“About seven years ago, I was asked to take on private wealth and build it out into a global business… It’s a long, winding story, and was not a direct path to where I am today.”
Blackstone’s decision to plant its flag in private wealth was one that predated Solotar. She tells us that the move formally began in around 2008-09, when the firm was discussing how to broaden its distribution.
“At that time, we were very focused on US pension funds,” she says. “We began to broaden out institutionally outside of the US and began exploring how best to approach private wealth. And I was involved in all of those discussions.”
The official launching of Blackstone’s private wealth business started in 2011; today, it has grown into a $233 billion business with offices in all major dealmaking hubs. The US-based firm opened offices in Paris and Zurich in 2021, and has made a series of hires in its Asia-Pacific team – where it has offices in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and Shanghai – over recent years.
Blackstone isn’t alone in deciding to pursue this relatively new line of business: across private markets, some of the biggest firms are opening up access to individual investors and developing products to match. In August, Apollo Global Management chief executive Marc Rowan said on the firm’s Q2 earnings call that its recently launched global wealth platform, Apollo Aligned Alternatives (AAA), had the potential to be “the largest fund across the Apollo platform by this time next year”.
AAA launched at the end of the second quarter with $15 billion of invested or committed capital – a mammoth amount for an area of private equity that, until very recently, was widely disregarded for being impractical.
The main reason why PE’s biggest hitters are suddenly open to the private wealth opportunity is one of diversification. As the denominator effect runs rampant through the traditional sources of LP capital, GPs have been forced to seek out new avenues, or risk falling behind.
Apollo’s Fund X, for example, will stay open until June this year in order to accommodate investors’ annual allocation targets, after only collecting about $14.5 billion as of late October against a $25 billion target. With some funds already struggling to meet their fundraising targets, GPs are turning to investors they may not have previously considered.
“There’s no doubt some US pension plans are getting their bearings right now and are trying to figure out where the market is going to go,” KKR’s co-chief executive Scott Nuttall told analysts on a 1 November earnings call. “We’re spending a lot of time with institutions we’ve never spent time with before.”
In spite of this about-turn, Marco Bizzozero, head of international at iCapital, tells PEI that some preconceptions about individual investors still stand in the way of the full democratisation of private markets. “The historical bottleneck in this industry in terms of having access to private markets was the significant amount of manual admin work… As a result of this, very often advisers were defensive in terms of approaching private markets for their clients because it was much more cumbersome compared to just subscribing to a liquid mutual fund.”
Another reason for hesitation on the part of GPs has been the education issue. Clare Gaskell, a partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, said at PEI’s Women in Private Markets Summit in December 2021: “The risk is that the more that retail investors, or less sophisticated investors, are targeted and able to invest… you end up almost with a convergence between the public and private markets… Clearly, the less experienced people are, the harder it will be for them to assess risk.”
This is an issue that Solotar herself acknowledges. “We’re trying to provide the education, the access to product, the investor services at the back end – but it doesn’t happen in a day or a quarter or a year. This is really a multi-year build-out.”
Dan Vene, co-founder and managing partner of iCapital and head of iCapital Marketplace, tells PEI that the Blackstone PWS team’s adherence to educating investors on private wealth has been noticeable throughout the two firms’ partnership. PWS invested in iCapital in 2018 in a move designed to further streamline its operations.
“The Blackstone team’s commitment to private wealth goes far beyond simply structuring and distributing these investment opportunities, which they have done in a very innovative way,” he says. “It also includes an incredible focus on adviser training and industry-leading education about the role of alternative investments in meeting client objectives.”
Joan Solotar tells Private Equity International how her parents’ passion for education helped her arrive at where she is today.
When asked by PEI whether she dreamed of participating in private equity as a child, Solotar laughed.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian until high school… My dad always used to tell the story of how I would bring home stray animals into the apartment, including stray cats. I brought home a wounded bird.”
Though this career didn’t quite come to fruition, Solotar also possessed a love of numbers that would serve her well. “When I was very young, my uncle would take a piece of paper and just write numbers straight down. And I loved sitting there and adding them, which might sound a little strange. I still enjoy puzzles [and] anything analytical.”
All members of her family supported her penchant for learning as she grew up. “For both of my parents, education was a top priority… When I went to business school, I would pass my books on to my father, who would read every one of them.” Perhaps because her parents hadn’t had the opportunities she had, they were both incredibly committed to Solotar’s own education.
“My father migrated to the US from Germany. November 1938. Jewish. They left literally the night before Kristallnacht. So, when he arrived in the US, my grandparents, who unfortunately had to leave everything there, placed him into a vocational school… He graduated, got drafted into the army, and by the time he came back, he just needed to work. So he didn’t go to college, but was brilliant and very self-educated.”
In turn, this mentality has been passed on to Solotar’s children, neither of whom work in finance but are described by Solotar as being “capable”, “devoted” and “hard-working”. In a 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review, Solotar wrote an essay containing advice for young women, entitled Truths for our Daughters. This, she tells PEI, was primarily aimed at her daughter as she began her journey through the corporate world.
“It made me reflect on my own journey. I also think about how, at that time, women’s networks and women’s groups were focusing their energy within finance, and much of it was centred around what women can’t do. And I saw plenty of examples of women who were successful and happy in their careers, and I thought: aren’t we better served by sharing what works rather than just focusing on what doesn’t work?”
The advice she shared in that essay still holds value today, Solotar believes, in spite of the progress private markets have made in terms of welcoming women into the executive ranks in the years since.
“But that doesn’t mean there’s a playbook,” she adds. “I think it’s so individualistic. You have to find where your issues lie or your potential derailers or what makes you uncomfortable.
“Upon reflection, what I realised is you can’t impose your own experience and confidence that you built on someone else. They have to go through the test – they have to find it for themselves.”
Growing new roots
This build-out officially began with the aforementioned expansion of Solotar’s private wealth team. Today, there are around 35 senior employees, including managing directors and senior managing directors, reporting to Solotar.
Notable hires in recent years have included Michael Mostert in Switzerland from Schroders and Anthony Guerra in France from Goldman Sachs in June 2021; Catherine Ow from Wellington Management as MD of Blackstone PWS’s marketing team in Singapore in summer 2022; and the appointment of Samantha Lin from Franklin Templeton in a newly created role in Hong Kong, also in summer 2022. Madan, who previously worked at JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley, was brought in from another side of the business to lead the PWS EMEA division in 2021.
“As alternative investments have evolved,” says Sieg, “[Solotar] has been at the forefront of innovation and the move towards greater accessibility for individual investors.”
In terms of how her business has sought out talented, capable new people to join the team, Solotar says that being well-versed in alternatives is not the first thing she looks for: rather, it’s about the person’s capacity for collaboration and decision-making. “The people that we’re hiring are not fit-for-purpose individuals: we’re really looking for athletes who have skills where we think we can train them in alternatives… I want to hire people who are collaborative. I can’t stress that enough. We are so team-orientated… We work better that way.
“Some people prefer to be free-floating molecules or just like to put their heads down and work. That doesn’t work as well in our business.”
Now that this stage of the expansion is complete, what comes next?
“There are three areas we will grow: one will be new products that we launch. Second will be new regions and new distribution partners. And third will be within our current distribution partners, just increasing our market share across them. Those are all in the early stages.
“We will continue to grow, but we are at critical mass now,” Solotar says. “Given the number of people we’ve onboarded, the new offices we’ve opened, I’d say it’s still very early in the development of the business.”
Planting a flag
McKinsey’s diversity report found that the share of minorities within PE investing teams – related to gender, ethnicity, race and more – declines with seniority. While the data shows that the industry has almost reached gender parity in entry-level roles, with women filling 48 percent of these positions, it is when women try to advance their careers that they begin to face problems. “Even senior-level women struggle to break into ‘the room where it happens’,” the report notes, adding that only 9 percent of investment committee members are women, despite making up 14 percent of C-suite roles.
Still, there have been improvements: the share of female employees in investing roles grew by 2 percentage points in 2021, driven mostly by a 9 point increase in women at the entry level, the report states. AltamarCAM’s Junco credits this kind of progress to the women who have claimed their places at the top of the ladder.
“We ended up convincing the men to change [certain] policies because we said, ‘You have daughters… Would you want your very well, expensively educated daughters to work here?’ And that changed it,” Junco tells PEI. “[Blackstone president and COO] Jon Gray was amazing. He has four daughters, and he totally gets it.”
Solotar adds that it can’t only be down to women to make progress: “I certainly think it takes a village, and one person can’t make the change. It has to be the collaboration of women and men at the firm that really want to make the change.”
Encouraging women to apply is the key first step, she adds; this led to her going onto campuses and speaking directly to sophomore women about private equity case studies, résumés, required skills and so on.
“What we found was that their male counterparts on campus were calling their friends who worked in private equity to learn all of that, but women by and large felt like that was cheating.”
Even so, the progress has been clear: just 10 years ago, the incoming class each year was around 15 percent female, Solotar says. Today, it’s close to 50 percent.
Recognising that joining private equity can be daunting, Solotar says her management style centres on support and providing feedback. “Some people describe their work environments as sink or swim, which I will never understand. When my kids were learning to swim, I gave them swimming lessons – I didn’t just toss them into a pool. So, when people join the firm, we wrap our arms around them and work to make them successful.”
This is something that her peers have noticed, and value highly. Junco notes: “Another thing that’s great about [Solotar] is she took time to listen and to give feedback… She was always a person dedicated to her team.”
Madan concurs: “She’s a master at leading team meetings and providing a forum for junior professionals and encouraging them to voice their opinions and ideas. It breeds a culture that’s quite impressive, making every individual motivated and coming prepared – because she really listens. She doesn’t necessarily agree with every opinion, but she listens to every opinion.”
She adds: “For me, watching the way Joan works… is a masterclass in leadership.”
It’s evident from speaking to the people surrounding Solotar – both those who work alongside her and those who don’t – that her influence is far-reaching and long-lasting.
Kathleen McCarthy, global co-head of real estate at Blackstone and a close colleague of Solotar’s, tells PEI: “What I think makes Joan so special to so many women… is that Joan lives out what we are all trying to be, which is to be an exceptional professional and an exceptional human being in all aspects of our lives. All of us are trying to have that full life, and Joan is showing us how to do it.”
Vene agrees, noting that, from the perspective of a partner rather than a co-worker, Solotar’s management is one of the Blackstone PWS team’s greatest assets. “Joan is an incredibly intelligent and forward-thinking executive, while also being one of the most straightforward and ‘real’ people I have had the pleasure to work with in the industry.”
As Blackstone’s PWS group continues to grow in both number and geographical spread, having such a calm and focused figurehead will surely guide it through any rough waters ahead.
When asked how she’d like to be thought of upon her retirement from the industry, Solotar says: “I’d like to be remembered as the person who not only built a great business, but fostered a fantastic and inclusive culture.”
Though early in her private wealth journey, she has clearly already succeeded with this goal. As Madan notes, “When you grow up, you want to be Joan.
To access more Blackstone insights, analysis and data, click here