Samara Cohen is BlackRock’s newly named Chief Investment Officer of Exchange Traded Funds and Index Investments (EII). Learn more about Samara’s new role, career journey, experience being a BlackRock “Boomerang,” and her advice for people looking to break into the financial industry.
You are the newly named Chief Investment Officer of BlackRock’s ETF and Index Investments (EII) business. Can you walk us through your new role and expanded responsibilities?
In my new role, I lead the teams that run the world’s most transparent and accessible investment platform. We estimate that over 100 million people around the world access our index and ETF capabilities, which let them participate in economic growth and improve their financial well-being.
The teams that make up the EII Markets and Investment platform manage portfolios across more than 85 markets and 65 countries and aim to deliver market quality and uphold investment integrity. We sit in Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, New York, Atlanta and San Francisco, bringing global markets and a wide range of investment strategies to our clients.
In addition to managing our ETF and Index portfolios, our teams design the investment processes for new products and the architecture of our investment platform. We lead the industry in setting market standards and identifying ways to improve index construction and outcomes. At BlackRock, there is absolutely nothing passive about index investing! We ensure the ecosystem of liquidity; trade execution and post-trade service providers is robust and diverse so that we can grow and thrive across multiple market environments.
Indexation continues to modernize world markets and create new on-ramps for investors by providing affordable, diversified and transparent investment strategies. As CIO, my overarching goal is to challenge and empower the increasingly diverse group of women and men who manage our portfolios, identify ways to continuously improve our products/platform and develop the ETF and Index markets ecosystem.
What innovations or opportunities in the industry are you most excited about?
I’m most excited about the opportunity in front of us to increasingly personalize investor journeys with a more customized and innovative product suite.
The market volatility that characterized the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing demand for transparent and accessible products like ETFs challenged and tested our investment in scale operations. We delivered market quality and investment integrity despite historic market stressors and sharp spikes in trading velocity. ETFs and indexation have become part of the fabric of today’s global capital markets — improving transparency, access and resilience for investors around the world.
Now, our challenge is to provide the building blocks for more personalized investor portfolios. We are accessing new markets and strategies on behalf of our clients across countries and asset classes. One very exciting example of this for me is the incorporation of climate risk and opportunities. I have two children and four nieces, and it’s always been hard for me to explain my job to them in a way that they understand. However, they are all passionate about the environment (my daughter is the class representative to her school’s environmental action committee), and our sustainable climate-focused portfolios have given me a language to use with them to explain investing and what we do with our ETF and Index portfolios.
In a much broader sense, our sustainable and thematic products resonate with individual investors and make investing feel more important and relevant in their lives. I think this is key in how we will help more and more people achieve financial well-being.
You are a BlackRock “Boomerang” — meaning you began your professional career as an Analyst at BlackRock, left to pursue another career opportunity, and rejoined the firm again in 2015 as a Managing Director. Tell us a bit about your career journey and what led you back to BlackRock.
If you had asked me in high school which professional industry I’d be in, I never would have guessed financial services. I tell this to people all the time because I think if you have a passion for markets and investing, there is no “right” background or set of educational experiences. We have many investors on our team who would say the same.
I enjoyed math and science in high school, but my great passion was theater. I wasn’t an actor – I loved the backstage environment, stage management, directing and design. I went to college to major in theater but quickly found that I missed a more quantitative curriculum and tried an economics class, which I loved. I ended up graduating with dual degrees in Theater Arts (a B.A.) and Financial Engineering (a B.S. in Economics.)
I interviewed at BlackRock back in 1993. Having spent all my summers working in regional theaters, I really didn’t know what asset management was. However, I met three female partners at BlackRock, which was more than I met at any of the other investment banks I was also considering. Wanting to be close to them and follow in their footsteps inspired me to choose BlackRock.
I decided to go to business school after four years at BlackRock, and in between my first and second year, I interned on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs (GS). I absolutely loved the trading floor environment, which involved the levels of complex orchestration experienced in my theater production days, and I was thrilled to accept a full-time offer from GS upon graduation. I stayed there for 16 years!
What led me back to BlackRock? As my career progressed, I learned that I did my very best work when I had a clear sense of purpose behind my efforts. The financial crisis gave our industry an opportunity to assess how we might make markets safer and more efficient, and I wanted to be part of that. The more I learned about ETFs and Index Investing (and I had to Google “what is an ETF” in 2014), the greater conviction I had that ETFs would bring more transparency to markets around the world. I was incredibly excited to have an opportunity to be a part of that story – to join the team that would call themselves “champions of investor progress.”
In addition to your new role as CIO of EII, you are a deeply involved in several of BlackRock’s employee networks. How do you consider Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in your work, and why is it important?
My personal professional mission is to make world markets better, safer and more inclusive. With a diverse and inclusive investment team, we maximize our chance of success.
It is a privilege to be an advocate for our employee networks, where many of our colleagues share their personal stories and the challenges they have faced in life as well as at work. I’m not sure that all firms celebrate the bravery of people who bring their full selves to the office in that way – but they should! It is hard to do our best work if we don’t talk about our lives and the obstacles to our progress both inside and outside the office. I’ve been a part of women’s networks and a beneficiary of the networking, sponsorship and visibility that comes from investment in them. Being an advocate for networks like the Out & Allies Network; Asian, Middle Eastern & Allies Professional Network; Black Professionals & Allies Network and the Ability & Allies Network help me really learn and understand the tapestry of personal stories that make up our firm.
This helps me be a better recruiter, manager and leader. By reflecting on and challenging my own preconceptions, I can cast a wider lens on what success looks like at all levels of our organization and support the careers of new joiners and seasoned professionals with more empathy. This is why I feel so strongly that having the “right experience” isn’t the key prerequisite for a successful career as an investor. I’m proud of how far we’ve come in terms of diversity in our investment platform and the work we’re continuing to do to improve. By attracting and supporting people interested in the markets and connected to our purpose, I believe this effort will lead to even greater success as a result.
What advice would you give to women looking to break into the industry or grow their careers within it?
To women – or to anyone – interested in our industry but worried that they don’t see enough leaders who look like them, I would say, “Find your purpose and lean into your passion. The industry – and investors – will be better for it.”
I’m incredibly proud that BlackRock’s ETF and Index Markets & Investments leadership team is majority female. We may not know what will happen next year in the markets, but I have complete conviction that a leadership team that is passionate about the business case for diversity, will be behind tens of millions of investors navigating the markets more successfully.
Visit www.iShares.com to view a prospectus, which includes investment objectives, risks, fees, expenses and other information that you should read and consider carefully before investing. Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.
Carefully consider the Funds’ investment objectives, risk factors, and charges and expenses before investing. This and other information can be found in the Funds’ prospectuses or, if available, the summary prospectuses which may be obtained by visiting www.iShares.com or www.blackrock.com. Read the prospectus carefully before investing. Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.
This information should not be relied upon as research, investment advice, or a recommendation regarding any products, strategies, or any security in particular. This material is strictly for illustrative, educational, or informational purposes and is subject to change.
Prepared by BlackRock Investments, LLC, member FINRA.
©2021 BlackRock, Inc. All rights reserved. iSHARES and BLACKROCK are trademarks of BlackRock, Inc., or its subsidiaries in the United States and elsewhere. All other marks are the property of their respective owners.