LOS ANGELES — The organization Women in Public Finance is taking its annual conference out of Chicago for the first time.

The 21-year-old organization’s annual event will be held Oct. 26-27 at the Millenium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

Carmen Vargas, senior vice president-public finance at Samuel A. Ramirez & Co.
Carmen Vargas is helping to organize the first Los Angeles-based annual conference of Women in Public Finance.

WPF was originally conceived in the Midwest as a way for women in the field to network and have professional development opportunities and attend education events. It has spread to other states and now has 17 chapters.

"I believe that a few individuals, particularly Sarah Eubanks, who worked at S&P Global, felt a void for the prior decade and brought the issue to the forefront," said Courtney Shea, principal with Columbia Capital Management, LLC.

The organization was founded in 1996 by four Chicago-based public finance professionals — Eubanks, Nancy Remar, Lois Scott and Courtney Shea. It hosted 75 public finance professionals at its first conference, according to a 2015 Bond Buyer article.

In 2015, the organization had 12 chapters and 1,500 women as members. WIP changed its bylaws in 2010 to allow the formation of regional chapters, according to the organization's website.

It's hard to find numbers on how many women work in public finance, because the industry spans the public and private sectors and includes people at law firms, investment banks, advisors and other business lines. Of the more than 17,000 active members of the Government Finance Officers Association, 58% are women, according to its website.

Shea said there was probably a need for a women’s networking group in public finance long before the group formed.

As part of the group’s strategic plan, a decision was made to hold the event around the country, making it easier for more regional members to attend, said Carmen Vargas, senior vice president in public finance at Ramirez & Co. and a member of the WIP conference executive committee and chair of the program committee.

“It took a year to pull [the strategic plan] together,” Vargas said.

Los Angeles was selected as the first location away from the organization’s original home base, because California has three chapters, in San Diego, Los Angeles and northern California, said Vargas.

“We had a pretty large base — and in terms of ability to organize and plan, it has been pretty seamless, because we have the numbers out here,” said Vargas, a committee member tasked with organizing the panels, who started her public finance career 20 years ago.

They are expecting numbers similar to previous events, which have drawn 500 attendees.

Vargas served on WPF’s national board in 2012. The national board currently includes WIP-LA members.

“We have a lot of issuers and firms in Los Angeles,” said Natalie Brill, Los Angeles’ city debt manager and president of WPF-LA. “They thought the level of sponsorships would make it successful here.”

“We petitioned to have it here — there are two or three women on the national board from Los Angeles,” Brill said.

One of those women, Katie Koster, a managing director at Piper Jaffray, led efforts on the strategic plan for 2015-17.

Katie Koster
Katie Koster, a managing director with Piper Jaffray in Los Angeles, is on WIP's national board.

The impetus behind the strategic plan committee was to enhance the original mission for the organization as a networking aid and to organize educational activities and forums. The group also plans to hire an executive director and start charging an annual fee, according to the plan.

California also has a core of public finance women in leadership roles. The debt managers for San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco are women, Brill said.

“That is not true all over the country,” Brill said, adding that there are also women in leadership roles working in public finance in the private sector in the state.

“We announced it was going to be in Los Angeles during the 20th anniversary celebration in Chicago,” Brill said. “Who doesn’t want to come to L.A. – especially at the end of October?”

Brill, who currently has four employees working for her in LA’s debt management division, said she has had women leave her group to take on leadership roles. One is Marla Bleavins, who is the chief financial officer for the Port of Los Angeles.

This year’s theme will be mentorship, in recognition of the changes being wrought in the municipal bond industry with baby boomers retiring, or expected to retire in coming years, and some millennials with finance and analytical skills being wooed away by tech companies, organizers said.

The panel, which includes senior leaders in the public sector, banking and legal fields, will discuss recruiting, training and succession planning.

“I was the first Californian to be on the board – back in 2012,” Vargas said. WIP-LA was founded in January 2012.

The organization appealed to Vargas, because she realized that most of her mentors in the underwriting industry had been men.

“There weren’t a lot of women in the underwriting field,” said Vargas, adding that during her 20 years in the profession she has mentored younger women.

The $3 trillion municipal finance industry has always managed to be tightly knit and Vargas said the best way to move up is by networking with other public finance professionals.

“All of the different sectors in public finance have been supportive of our organization,” Vargas said.

Like Brill, Vargas said pulling together the national conference has not been as difficult as one would think. The executive committee has worked well together to pull it off, she said.

“It was challenging in the beginning, because there was the concept of “if we build it, will people come,” Vargas said. “But, she found there were sponsors unique to California, who had not contributed to Chicago’s event.”

Securing Mary Shapiro, chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission during the Obama years, as a guest speaker also was considered a coup.

Shapiro was the first woman to serve in that position and the only person to have served as chairman of both the SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

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