In Profile

A Conversation With Melissa Cowan

The ‘Women in Pensions Network’

by P.E. Kelley

Mr. Kelley is managing editor of this magazine. Connect with him by e-mail:

Melissa Cowan, head of Business Development for Corporate Retirement Services at Morgan Stanley, is the president of the Women in Pensions Network (WiPN). This group, a 501(c)(6) non-profit, was formed in 2009 with a fairly direct aim: to enhance networking among professional women in the retirement planning space. Today, its 900 members, with an extended network of some 1700 professional women, have come to share a meaningful and reliable source of mentorship and advocacy. Moreover, the group engenders sponsorship and support among its participants as the erstwhile barriers to representation of women in the higher levels of corporate life begin to fall away. We spoke with Ms. Cowan about the genesis of the group, now in its tenth year, about the obstacles women still face in advancing into the C-Suite and onto its boards and about the new paths groups like WiPN provide for advancement, referral and professional growth.

PEK: How and why was WiPN organized?
MC: In any male-dominated industry, it’s easy for women to feel isolated. Women often are not as active in forming their own industry connections, touting their own accomplishments or asking for recommendations and referrals. As a result it can be hard for women to identify mentors and advocates to provide meaningful guidance and support. This was the impetus behind WiPN, which was formed in 2009. Several women in the industry envisioned an industry-specific organization that would help women connect with one another to share ideas, enhance their professional development, and advance their careers.

PEK: What kinds of programs does WiPN offer?
MC: We offer networking and professional development events at both the local and national levels. You will often see WiPN events held in conjunction with major industry events, and that’s where many people first heard about our organization. But now with more than two dozen regional chapters, we are providing more opportunities for women in the industry at all levels to connect with one another. In addition, WiPN created a Leadership Fellow program this year, which will allow us to send several of our members to premier female leadership programs around the country. We just announced the winners at our WiPN Event held in conjunction with the NAPA 401(k) Summit, and we actually awarded 5 fellowships because there was so much interest. Women are hungry for these kinds of opportunities and we’re pleased we can be of help!

We also offer a mentorship program and have heard all kinds of stories from women who have participated on either side of the mentorship relationship, describing how much they learned throughout the process and how much they enjoyed it. Finally, this year we are offering two members-only webinar series, including Wellth at Work, which addresses financial compensation as well as the wellbeing of feeling accomplished, recognized and aware; and EXCELerate, which will equip us with techniques and skills to address challenges and realities as we advance in the retirement industry.

PEK: What do members get out of WiPN?
MC: I think the biggest thing that members talk about is how refreshing it is to be among a group of other women in the industry – to share stories, to learn, to reach out when they have questions about a particular issue at work. Finding your tribe and having a sense of belonging is really important, and so we’re happy to be able to provide that for our members. Often women will reach out to fellow members in a city they might be traveling to: just to grab dinner together and to have a connection because of a shared interest. It’s an incredibly supportive group, and I think that’s really unique.

we have partnered with 2020 Women on Boards to help support the effort to increase the number of women on corporate boards. We want our own members to see themselves as board-worthy, which is often the first step in increasing the pool of qualified female candidates...

PEK: What does the current member base look like?
MC: We welcome and have representation from all segments of the retirement industry, and from all career levels. This is important to our organization, because we believe more women can benefit from our programs and benefit from identifying more senior women who could serve as mentors, whether formally or informally. We need to see more women coming up the ranks. Those of us who have been working in retirement for a while owe it to the younger generation to see that they see opportunities and why this can be such a fulfilling career.

PEK: How has WiPN grown over the years?
MC: Ten years in, WiPN has grown exponentially, especially in the past few years when we felt just a huge pent-up demand for people wanting to be involved. We now have more than two dozen regional chapters, more than 900 members, and almost 50 sponsors. I should point out that we have accomplished all of this as an all-volunteer organization. Our tremendous growth is a testament to the amazing women who have given their blood, sweat and tears in the name of advancing WiPN. I couldn’t be more proud, and it’s been an honor to follow in the footsteps of those who preceded me as president and to lead this incredible group.

PEK: How is WiPN funded?
MC: Well obviously, with more than 900 members, membership dues are extremely important. But our sponsors have made a huge difference in enabling us to increase our programming and the number of regional chapters. We are so appreciative of the nearly 50 companies that have been extremely generous not only with their financial support, but with promoting the organization within their firms.

PEK: How does the group advocate for women in the retirement industry?
MC: In addition to providing professional development programs for women in the industry, we have partnered with 2020 Women on Boards to help support the effort to increase the number of women on corporate boards. We want our own members to see themselves as board-worthy, which is often the first step in increasing the pool of qualified female candidates. Secondly, we hear from many of sponsors that although they’d like to hire more women, they can’t find enough qualified female candidates to fill open roles. WiPN is full of accomplished women, and so we’re working to connect the dots in this regard. We’re distributing job postings from our sponsors, making sure our members are aware of industry openings and increasing the likelihood that they’ll apply.

PEK: How can advisors get involved?
MC: Advisors have always represented an important component of WiPN, and we would love to see even more female advisors become WiPN members. Attending local and national events enables them to build closer relationships with women at all levels, often at firms with which they do business. Advisors provide a unique perspective on the industry and often offer to share their expertise and experience at events, but they can also benefit from our professional development programs, networking opportunities and access to our member directory.

PEK: What about men, do they have a part in your programming?
MC: Absolutely! Many of our male counterparts have provided great meeting spaces and participated as speakers at national and regional WiPN events . And although we don’t have everything in place just yet, we will be rolling out a new Advocate program that allows men in the industry to be recognized for their support and to stay informed about WiPN events and programs – hopefully so that they can continue to encourage female colleagues of theirs to get involved. And finally, men can advocate within their firms toto become WiPN sponsors – either at the national level or at the local level, by sponsoring a specific regional event. ◊