I'll give you an example. At one of the places that I worked, we were interviewing two candidates. One was a young athlete, white male, from a good school but not a great school, and the other was this kid from Singapore who had won a national investing competition and had majored in mathematics. I remember being blown away that the guys at my desk preferred the young baseball player from Bucknell to the Singaporean kid.
White: Why did you find that situation so striking?
Polk: It really highlights this strong institutional culture that is supportive of conformity. It's almost like Wall Street wants you to give up any sort of personality or flair or anything that makes you different so that you can focus entirely on being in service to this machine with the sole purpose of making money.
White: You talk a lot about women and your relationships with them in this book. But almost all of those relationships are personal ones. You hardly ever mention women in the workplace. That alone feels like a telling statement on gender dynamics at banks, particularly on the trading floor.
Polk: I think it's a funny and interesting point that you bring up. There were not a lot of women involved in my professional life. There were incredibly few women in the both the hedge fund and the trading floors that I worked at. The women that were there were often secretaries or receptionists.
White: My experience in the industry also suggests that trading remains largely a boys’ club. But do you think it’s because women aren’t getting hired or because once they are at banks, in certain roles, it’s hard for them to succeed in the same way as their peers?
Polk: You know, Sheryl Sandberg writes in Lean In how much less mentorship young ambitious women receive than men. It is way less likely that a woman starting out on Wall Street would be able to build that type of mentorship that I built with Marshall Masters [Polk’s mentor and boss], which is why I think it's incumbent upon men first of all to stop hitting on or degrading the women that work for them—which goes on very often. But in addition to that, to really take young women under their wing and give them the same, if not more, mentorship than the young men that it might be their first reaction to mentor.
White: You jumped ship within a few years of the economic collapse. If the crash hadn't happened, would you still be working on Wall Street?
Polk: There was a part of me that absolutely loved Wall Street, but also from the beginning there was this part of me that yearned to do something better in the world and help people and be of service. And the longer I was on Wall Street the more that part of myself grew and developed. I think it was only a matter of time before I left Wall Street, but that crash really opened my eyes in a much faster way than it would have otherwise.