The First To Raise My Hand (a career story)

26 May 2021. Colleen Blake with Bob Kaplan

A big influence on a woman growing up is how her father treats her. I got the full benefit of that. Every Saturday I'd go to the yard where he kept his construction equipment, and then we would go onto lunch at a nearby diner where other people—men like my father—were having lunch. I was always the only kid, certainly the only little girl. My dad would always laughingly introduce me as the "the smartest little girl in the United States."

A famous family story: I must have been about six. My father and I accompanied his brother and his family to JFK airport where they were bound for an Aer Lingus flight home. Somehow I got separated from the older cousins assigned to watch over me when we went up to the roof deck to watch the planes take off. All of a sudden I was alone. I saw an escalator and took it down to the concourse. I spotted a bank of phones, picked one up and got an Aer Lingus person. I told her, "I'm lost, how do I get back to the Aer Lingus lounge?" She said, "Tell me where you are." I told her, and she said, "Go out the door and make a right." I found the lounge easily. I wasn't nervous: my attitude was, "I'll figure this out." My father wasn't nervous either: "She'll find it." That perseverance streak is probably innate. I don't give up. Something's broken, I'll fix it. There's got to be a way to make it work.

My father, a big strapping guy, born in Ireland, came here in 1929. Everyone had a story about Tom, a really lively sort, life of the party, and very ambitious. Only as an adult did it occur to me, this is where I got my ambition from. In 1929 he joined his already emigrated brothers in the U.S. He was a sand hog—one of the workers who dug the Hudson tunnel, done in compressed air. It was very dangerous, he didn't like it and he wasn’t making enough money. So he decided to try brick laying, which he didn't know anything about. A friend taught him in the basement of our apartment building. It was a union job. He did that for 15-20 years and by the time I came along he had started his own construction business, something he had always wanted. Having his own business, and giving guys work to do, meant a lot to him.

My mother's mother also came here from Ireland, as an indentured servant to a family on Park Avenue, the cook. So my mother was born here but her family—and therefore mine— was very Old World.

My mother was very spirited, very social and a lot of fun. I always wanted to do things with her. And when I was ten or eleven, the World's Fair was going on in Queens, the NewYork City borough where we lived. It was the summer of 1964 or 1965.You could get in at half price on Mondays and Tuesdays. My mother, God bless her soul, took me every Monday and Tuesday. We took the subway that went by Shea Stadium and my father would pick us up there at 8 p.m. and we'd go home.

I could tell you to this day the pavilions of the Fair—"Tomorrow Land," and so on. Most of the things there were free once you paid the admission. It was an inexpensive way to entertain me. Every time we went, I'd ask her, "What pavilion, do you want to go to?" And every time she said, "You choose." In some pavilions you could see a film, in others you could ask questions. I was always the first one to raise my hand and ask a question. I was very curious. In the IBM pavilion you could sign up for a pen pal, and of course I did. For years I wrote to Eleonora in the Netherlands. There was a big wide world and I wanted to know all about it. I was lucky enough to have a family that encouraged that kind of thing.

But my father came down with a serious illness when I was about eleven. It had always amazed me to see how much strength he had. But he gradually became more and more weak and disabled. It got to the point where he had to give up his business. I saw how he dealt with so many setbacks, the adjustments he had to make one after another. He died when I was fifteen. It was hard on me, very hard.

Years later I ran across my diary from that time. Every day's entry started with a medical report on my father. I was startled. It was clear that his illness was at that time the most important thing in my life. I loved and respected him so much.

Once my father became so sick that he couldn't work, we had economic woes. Dealing with those money problems was another formative thing for me.

Too young to work—I couldn't get working papers until I was 16—I put a free advertisement in the weekly church bulletins in three parishes, offering to tutor. I did get jobs tutoring elementary school students and did that for two years. It's my enterprising side. Also, my older sisters, still living at home, had me run little errands all the time. Go to the cleaners, and so on. I started to call myself the Fleet of Foot Messenger Service and to charge them—25 cents to pick up clothes. Polishing shoes, which came later, cost more.

In high school I got a job at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. My first official job. It was a union job, Teamsters—I was a kitchen aide who delivered food trays to patients. I made what seemed to me at the time like a fortune.

Since the year my father died, I have never not had a paying job. Part time, full time, weekends, summers. I learned from all of them and the lessons stuck with me. I never wanted to worry about money again.

I went to the same girls' high school my sisters did. At that time when Irish Catholic women graduated high school, they got married and had babies. The few who went to work became nurses, teachers, secretaries. Those were the types of jobs available to them.

Incidentally, both my sisters were very successful. The older of my two sisters went to work at US Trust. Most of the women they hired were trained to be secretaries but she said she wanted to be in the purchasing department. She eventually became a vice-president. My middle sister did train to be a secretary, and eventually became the executive secretary to the CEO of Phelps Dodge. Interesting, it's the immigrant thing again: that ambitious streak.

By the time my high school class graduated, just eight or ten years after my sisters, the Irish Catholic woman's world had changed dramatically. Most of my class went to college. I was going to go to whatever school was the best among those that cost the least, but my high school math teacher suggested I apply to an Ivy League school. So my mother and I looked at the two Ivies in New York State—Columbia and Cornell—because I had qualified for a Regents Scholarship and you had to go to an in-state school to use it. I applied to Cornell and got in. The rest is history. If it weren't for that teacher, my life would have been very different. By the way, my high school guidance counselor had told me I'd never get in to an Ivy League college.

I was very fortunate with scholarships. Most important was a National Merit Scholarship sponsored by the Bricklayers Masons and Plasterers Union. I had been told that it was only for the children of living union members but I got it anyway. That was pretty cool.

I was so lucky. It was a fabulous childhood in its own way. It had its stumbling blocks but I never felt they were insurmountable and I really have been blessed meeting so many people who helped me.

Cornell was great for me. I loved being in a place where there were so many books, so much learning going on, so many smart people. In the course catalogue I came across a program called "College Scholar," which didn't require you to major in one subject but allowed you to design your own course of study. I applied and was accepted. I concentrated on healthcare, economics and policy but I was able to range widely. I just loved it—not just the academics, but also how much there was to the world that I hadn't known about, hadn't been exposed to. That cut both ways, though. My classmates seemed more worldly, more sophisticated. They had travelled extensively, they had gone away to summer camp, and I had never done any of that. Before college I had never been away from home. I learned to fend for myself, in part by keeping people at arm's length. That distance was my wall, my protection. I realize now I was afraid that they wouldn't understand me because I wasn't part of their world. But I learned that it was an unfounded worry, a stumbling block of my own making. So Cornell was an adjustment, but it worked out.

I went to Cornell thinking I was pre-med but I decided I didn't want to be a doctor. I ended up going to law school, perhaps for the wrong reason—I was worried about making money. I told myself, I need a job, I need a paycheck. Also, being a woman, I felt I needed some initials after my name—a credential. Serendipity: I loved law school. I worked like crazy, and did well.

Better yet, the practice of law itself proved to be a perfect fit for me. By nature, law is analytical. You have to ask lots of questions and do careful study, you view everything critically—and that's me. In the law, words matter. Can these words be construed differently? Is there a different way to read a statute? The logic behind it all made sense to me. I loved all of it.

Law is also very practical and that's me too. In law school I worked part-time in the Manhattan DA's office and I saw how the law could be put to use, how it affects people's lives.

The practice of law involves working with people, and it helps a lot if you are a people person too. You have to be able to read the client, read the other lawyers, read the room in a negotiation. 

Also, I fit well into an advisory role. I don't think I would have a problem being in charge but, in general, I'm not the decision maker. So often there is a problem that needs to be solved which might have five or six different areas to address. I can analyze those pieces separately and synthesize all of it. Then I give advice. I try to steer people toward the right decisions. And, frankly, the way you position those pieces often steers people to the approach you would take.

Coming out of law school, I got a pretty unique opportunity. It meant not going the traditional route, the usual route, of becoming an associate in a law firm. Instead, I went "in house" with a major corporation—which was normally something you’d do if didn't make partner in a law firm.

Allied Chemical had decided to hire some people right out of law school and make them general counsel of a product area. It was a pilot program tried out in a handful of Fortune 500 companies. It was a very good job but very experimental—with almost no training. I was one of 13 people hired, almost doubling the size of Allied's legal department. After about a year or two I was the only one still in the program. Then, in 1981, the company started to get into mergers & acquisitions in a big way. Up until then there had been very little activity in taking over other companies. It was unheard of. But suddenly it was a whole new ball game.

I knew nothing about M&A—back then, certainly none of it was taught in law schools—but I wanted to find out. The closest thing to it that I had done was work on contractual agreements, but I remember saying to myself, you can do this. So I managed to wheedle my way into the group doing this work and got a great education and experience—particularly in

integrating new businesses into Allied and selling the parts of an acquired company that didn't fit.

That set the path for my career in a totally unexpected way. I never had a grand plan. Honestly, I was just curious and thought I could figure things out. I didn't realize I was getting in "on the ground floor" of the M&A industry, which now is such a big part of the business world.

Being an M&A lawyer is pretty intense. You need to be a jack of all trades and you're the quarterback of the team. And every deal is different.

A big part of doing deals is, of course, negotiation. Everyone has to develop their own style, and it won't work if you pretend to be something you're not. Years ago it was not unusual for there to be twenty or thirty people in a negotiating session, and there was an element of being on stage. I remember one such meeting in which I took a very steadfast position on an issue and just refused to give in. But it turned out that I had my facts confused. Someone on my side of the table very quietly pointed that out to me. It was very embarrassing, but instead of making some kind of excuse I just said, "oopsie!" Instantly, the tension went out of the room. Somewhere along the way I realized that humor is useful. It puts people at ease. In that sense it's a powerful tool. 

I don't take myself too seriously. And I don't have a problem admitting I've made a mistake. Or admitting I don't get something. One time a banker was describing some new security, and everyone was madly taking notes, scribbling away. But it didn't make sense to me, so I said, "I don't understand," and all of a sudden other people chimed in, "Yeah, I didn't understand either."

I don't mind tackling something I don't know much about. I don't hesitate to do things that have not been done before or to do things in a different way. When something requires deep thought, I'll often take out a blank sheet of paper and literally start from scratch. Things don't have to be done the same way as before. My attitude has always been, let’s find a good way to fix this.

Although I was having a great run at Allied, I started to worry, not without reason, that Allied's deal machine might grind to a halt. I thought, if I don't go now, I'll retire here. So I started looking. I happened to talk to an attorney at leading New York law firm that was representing Allied in a transaction. I asked him for career advice, and he said, how about coming here? I never thought that firm would give me a job but they did. Initially, I was afraid to take it. You get very used to the world you're in. But I decided if it didn’t work out, it would be okay. Well, it worked out: I went there in May of 1986 and they made me partner on April 1 of 1988. Pretty fabulous.

Being an M&A lawyer at my firm was such a great job. I loved everything about it. I loved the deals, the doing of them, the thinking, the structuring, the negotiating. I met so many very smart people. And it was exciting to see "your" deal on the front page of the newspaper on Monday morning!

People have often asked me how being a woman has affected my career. I think it certainly has had an effect—sometimes on getting, or not getting, certain assignments or positions. I've also learned that there are several levels of that glass ceiling. There's being accepted as a lawyer, there's making partner and, again, there's being put in charge of the team, the person actually making decisions and not just giving legal advice on a significant transaction. Again, humor does help, especially because in a negotiation people tend to get uncomfortable when women shout or get angry. Maybe not fair but you to have to deal with it—and maybe it will change one day.

You know you really have made it when men give you a nickname – the ultimate compliment. Once, when I was the team leader in a particularly protracted, intense deal--working in the same conference room day-in and day-out for two weeks--someone jokingly referred to me as the "Deal Queen." It was good-hearted, and it stuck. Everyone started saying, where's the queen? Another time, in a complicated hostile takeover situation I advised the target board to set the record date for shareholder voting earlier than what was required. That settled down the volatility in the trading of the company's stock, which gave the company time to find a different buyer at a purchase price that was $1 billion higher. Months after that, a general counsel at a hedge fund told me that his colleagues had taken to calling that "doing an Eileen"—I've never been so flattered.

Now that I am semi-retired, I realize how hard I worked over the years and how much of my life was consumed by work. But I was lucky enough to have a great husband and two wonderful step-children who I am now able to enjoy more. I am also able to be there more for my kids. Maybe some of what I’ve learned will help them too.

I never wanted to worry about money and in the end I made more money than I ever planned to. Things have come full circle and my husband and I now happen to live on Park Avenue. But it wasn't really about money. It was about being the best you can be. I was raised to believe I can make my way in the world and that there was nothing I couldn’t do. That may sound old- fashioned but that was me.

I was very fortunate to have so many people help me at every step along the way. I wonder if I ever thanked them enough—I hope so. In turn, I'm giving back, helping first-generation kids at Cornell get established. I helped set up a fund for those kids and I'm very involved. These days you have to get an internship, unpaid, to get a job. These first-generation kids can't afford to work for no pay but, unless they do, they have nothing on their resume like the great (but unpaid) summer internships their classmates have. It's really hard for them. Anyway this fund gives these students a stipend so they don't need a paying summer job. It's a great program. So many people helped me in my life, gave me advice or even calmed me down at critical moments: taught me how to take a deep breath. Now I try to be that person for others.

I identified so much with my work that I was a little worried about working less. It's your identity and it's also a comfort zone. But I find I'm still raising my hand, trying new things— just different kinds of things—and never giving up. So it's a new phase of life but I'm calling upon old skills.

For instance, I've taken up swimming. I'm a person who has always loved the water and would take every opportunity to go in. So I didn’t have to overcome a fear of the water. But I wasn't a good swimmer. I could get from one side of the pool to the other but I wasn't doing anything right. A year ago I started taking classes. I've always wanted to be that person who could really swim, and now I'm becoming that person.

Sports were not part of my background, I wasn't raised to be athletic. I had a very Old World background, which ties into what girls did and didn't do back then. And this was pre-Title IX. The idea of being an athlete, why would you do that? Not if you're a girl and smart.

I've even taken up golf. Something just made me think, I can do this, and I'm going to do it seriously. So I tried something new and it's fabulous. Golf and swimming are making me healthy. I feel good. It's different for me to focus on that. But in a sense, I'm doing the same thing I've always done since I was a little girl—taking on new challenges, confident there is a way to make it work, and having fun doing it.