During her career, Catherine M. Keating, a 1987 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, has been in charge of hundreds of billions of dollars in investment assets for clients.

That's "billions" with a "b."

The current president and CEO of the asset management firm Commonfund, whose client base consists mainly of nonprofits, Keating will deliver the commencement address to the Class of 2017 on May 21.

She joined Commonfund in 2015, as just its fifth CEO in its 45 year history and its first female CEO, after overseeing more than $700 billion in client assets at JPMorgan.

Beyond helping her clients, which these days include colleges and universities, among others, Keating strives to contribute to the communities where she lives and works. UVA Law asked Keating a few questions about her professional life and involvements in anticipation of her formal remarks.

Are you excited about coming back to the Law School to speak? Is this the first time you've spoken here?

In fact, it is. Yes, absolutely, I am excited. I'm also stunned and humbled. When the dean called me, I said, "Really, you can do better. I'm not a practicing lawyer anymore." And she said, "Well, our students voted. They want to hear from you!"

What makes a good asset manager?

First of all, asset management is a team business. It's not an individual business. As investors, none of us can accomplish very much alone. We rely on our colleagues for research and insight and experience. Asset management is a profession that requires strong analytical skills — we're evaluating companies and managers and balance sheets — and strong decision-making skills. It also requires patience, because outcomes are best measured over time, and fortitude, because markets are cyclical and you have to be able to withstand down years.  I think strong asset managers have all of these qualities. Managing investments is also managing risks. You have to have a good mindset about risk and what can go wrong.

But if you turn it around and measure an asset manager the way clients do, then it's all about investment performance. Period. That's how you ought to measure an asset manager: are you delivering good investment performance to your clients, and are you helping them to have better and more sustainable financial futures because of the decisions you're making for them?

Why did you make the leap from JPMorgan to Commonfund?

It gave me the opportunity to combine full time, every day, my profession of trying to generate good investment outcomes for clients, with something that's a personal passion of mine, which is the work of the nonprofit community. Almost all of our clients here at Commonfund are nonprofit organizations, so they are the institutions that educate us, care for us when we are sick, and enhance our lives with art and culture.

How have nonprofits affected your life personally?

I am the oldest of four kids. My dad died when I was 8 years old. My mother ultimately remarried, and I gained a wonderful new father. But there was a period of time when the Catholic school my brothers, sister and I attended, the Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops we were members of, and the college [Villanova University] that was generous enough to pay for everything for me, were very important to my family and me. The nonprofit community had a huge impact on my life.

As I've gone through my professional life, I've tried to contribute in the ways that I can. I sit on the board of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York City. I was on the board of my college for over a decade, and served as the chair for a couple of years. I am on the board of the Inner City Scholarship Fund in New York City, which provides scholarships for low-income children to attend Catholic schools.

Do you think often about the rarity of being female in a male-dominated industry? Do you feel a responsibility to help the next generation of women?

Definitely. One of the things about the investment management industry is that it's not as diverse as the population. At this point there's simply no debate: Diverse teams lead to better business results and to better investment returns. Diversity is not only the right thing to do, it leads to better businesses and stronger portfolios.

I'm thrilled to be part of the industry, but I am absolutely committed to having an industry that, when I leave it, is more diverse — I hope — than when I started.

Diversity is a significant opportunity in our industry. We need more women and people of color. Marian Wright Edelman said something to the effect of, "If you can't see it, you can't be it." That really struck home to me. Because one of the industry’s challenges is that many people don't see it; they don’t see the asset management industry as a career possibility.

I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, and I saw many inspiring career role models, but they tended to be in teaching, law, medicine, media and public service. Those are fabulous professions, but it was only after I went to law school and began to work with investment companies that I began to see investing as a career opportunity.

You asked me about being the first woman CEO of Commonfund, and the first woman board chair of Villanova. It’s not about being the first. It’s about not being the last, and supporting other women in the way so many women and men have supported me.

How did your work as a lawyer set your path?

At Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, I was part of the Tax and Personal Law Department. I had the privilege of working with wealthy families that had built businesses, since that's how wealth tends to be created in this country. Some of these businesses were in the asset management industry. So I learned how important investing is. I learned about some of the challenges that investors face. I learned about the regulatory landscape of the investment management industry. I assumed that my career would continue on as a legal adviser. No one was more surprised than I was when I got a call to work for an investment firm.

I never had a career plan. I really didn't. I just hoped that I would look back some day and say that my education and my work were able to improve lives. The legal profession can do that; the asset management industry can do that; and nonprofits do that every day.

Update: Keating is now senior executive vice president and global head of wealth management for BNY Mellon.

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