American business magnate Michael Milken is a feminist

May 2, 2014

Among his many titles – financial genius, convicted felon, consummate philanthropist – it turns out the “junk bond king” Michael Milken has a thing for women, just not in that usual Wall Street way.

During the 2014 Milken Global Conference held in Beverly Hills last week, a three-day confab for business titans focused on the future of the world, Milken repeatedly used his public platform to celebrate the achievements and contributions of women.

It began at a small cocktail gathering for women on Wednesday evening, featuring an impressive panel of business leaders including PR Crisis Manager Judy Smith (upon whom the character Olivia Pope from ABC’s “Scandal” is based and who, most famously, handled the scandal of all scandals, the Clinton/Lewinsky affair), Nancy Dubuc, the president and CEO of A+E Networks, and Molly Ashby, CEO of Solera Capital LLC on Wall Street.

Milken was one of a handful of men to attend. Although his public appearances were mainly reserved for the larger, headlining panels, Milken made a point of taking the stage to offer a personal editorial on women’s progress in the business world. Looking back on his more than four-decade career, he recounted a history of gender inequality in the financial industry.

During the 1980s, when he was in a career transition, Milken said he spent three months consulting for a financial firm. When he met with the lead partner at the firm, he asked him, “Who is the smartest person here?” The partner replied—(duh)–“Me.”

Three months later, after Milken had assessed the company, he went back to that same partner with some unexpected news: “You’re not the smartest person here,” Milken recalled saying. That title belonged to a woman Milken had met in another department who was not only financially savvy but tech savvy – and had become one of the first in her field to computerize the tax code.

“Why isn’t she a partner?” Milken lobbed at the head of the firm. On stage, Milken widened his eyes and gave a little smirk. “A Woooomaaaaan?” he mimicked the partner as saying in response, “as partner?” His voice rose and fell in mock astonishment.

In those days, female partnership at major financial firms was so infrequent that is was as shocking as it was unfair. Milken then rattled off some statistics about female advancement over the years, bragging about the many women who work for him.

He offered truly lavish praise for Milken Institute managing director Mindy Silverstein, who sat among the hundred or so women in the audience.

“She’s my boss,” Milken said with obvious reverence. He noted her round-the-clock work hours, early morning emails and meticulous conference planning. He told the crowd that it was Silverstein who had invited him to an illustrious dinner with a foreign head of state earlier that week, which was a little hard to believe considering Milken’s own venerable clout. And yet, that was how it happened: “Keep inviting me to those dinners,” he told her, looking over as she gleamed.

It was the kind of sincere-sounding talk that suggests deep regard for women in general. It makes you wonder about his wife. In fact, Milken met his longtime spouse, Lori Anne Hackel in the seventh grade; they began dating in high school and eventually married in 1968. Today they have three children and six grandchildren, according to Milken’s personal Website. He mentioned her briefly at the closing plenary, during the panel “Leaders on Leadership” with billionaire hotelier Steve Wynn and former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, now the president of the University of California system.

Again, Milken made a fuss over women – this time, in front of the entire conference – talking about how far women have come, how a record 1,000-plus women had registered and attended the Global Conference this year etc., etc., before giving Napolitano the courtesy of the first introduction. And the first opportunity to speak.

I’ve never met Michael Milken face to face. But after hearing his overtures to women at Global Conference, I want to.

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