Sandy Urie, SOM ‘85: Career and Life Lessons

Sandy Urie, CEO of Cambridge Associates, an investment advising firm focused on foundations and endowments, remembers her parents’ advice growing up: “The only limiting factor for you will be yourself. Don’t let anyone else tell you that you can’t do something.” Urie took these words to heart. Accepting a job with Cambridge Associates after graduating from Yale SOM in 1985, Urie eventually became CEO of the organization, the first woman to hold this position. During her presentation at SOM, she shared some of the lessons she has gleaned about forging a balance between her career and family.

When she applied to business schools in 1983, Urie was working for the development office of Phillips Andover. Although she already managed a team of twenty, Urie noted that many schools were dismissive of her nine years of prior work experience simply because she was coming from the nonprofit sector. Yale SOM, however, recognized the value of her experience and offered Urie an opportunity to strengthen her skills in finance and management. She also came to Yale SOM with perhaps a fuller personal life than the average student; she was in the middle of a divorce, and arrived in New Haven with her 13-month-old daughter. Balancing the stresses of child care along with the strenuous academic demands of a first-year MBA student proved challenging, but Urie noted that her daughter added perspective to her life that she would never otherwise have had, and for which she would always be grateful.

After intensely focusing on finance in her first year, Urie took a summer internship in corporate finance at First Boston. She was not passionate about the job, and as she conducted her full-time job search, began to consider consulting. Cambridge Associates became a particular focus, as Phillips Andover had been a client of the company. In a bold move, Urie reached out directly to the firm co-founder Jim Bailey and to her surprise, he granted her a thirty-minute meeting. The meeting became a three-hour interview, and then a job offer.

While she had offers from other, more well-known firms, Urie decided that fit was far more important than prestige. Cambridge was quite small at the time, but she was excited to be able to work with clients in the nonprofit sector. In addition, Urie found the atmosphere to be much more family-oriented than other firms where she’d interviewed. She acknowledged that work and family life were sometimes difficult to juggle, and early in her career at Cambridge, Urie took a voluntary pay cut to reduce her hours and travel so she could spend more time with her daughter. Discussing the challenge of work-life balance, Urie noted it is often framed in terms of a tradeoff; however, she thinks this limited view overlooks what is gained for both her family and work. She began to recognize that life is asymmetrical; sometimes family demands will dominate, and at other times work will take priority.

As CEO, Urie has been highly successful in expanding the firm, which currently serves 900 clients in 27 countries. In October 2008, Cambridge avoided employee layoffs at a time when other investment firms were tightening their ranks. Urie accomplished this by leading her senior management to take pay cuts to save those jobs. At that time, she also instructed employees not to push clients for fees, but rather to focus on helping the clients manage their investments through the crisis. This management philosophy paid off, as Cambridge lost very few clients during the financial crisis and suffered minimal revenue loss in 2009.

In closing, Urie shared a few final words of wisdom from her years of experience: “Be nice to people. Don’t flaunt your intelligence. Be a problem solver and always pitch in to help. Be aware of, but don’t engage in, office politics. And retain a sense of humor, especially about yourself.” These lessons have helped Urie to forge an impressive career and embody Yale SOM’s vision of building leaders for business and society.