The CEO of Nasdaq asks herself two questions to keep her career and her company moving forward

August 15, 2018
Written By: Bert Kreischer

Adena Friedman: My mom really has been my hero because she grew up in a world where being a stay-at-home mom was very much the path of choice. And she was a stay-at-home mom, and she was awesome at it. But when I was 9, she realized that she really wanted to have a career of her own, and she had a real desire to become a lawyer. Her dad was a lawyer, and I think she really had great respect for what he did. And so she went back to law school and then became an estates-and-trusts lawyer, and then became the first woman partner in her firm. And just watching her progress and really transform her own life into something that was just so meaningful for her was really, really important for me to see, and I think that's why she became a hero.

Richard Feloni: Did that change your relationship with her as well?

Friedman: She was amazing, because she still was there to make dinner most nights — although my dad did start making dinner a couple nights a week, which was really cool too. He really changed some of his work habits so that he could be around.

They were never kind of overbearing parents in any regard at all, but it also forced me to be a little more independent as I got older and became a teenager, which I think was actually good for me. And so it changed the relationship just a little bit, but she was always there when I needed her. Always.

Feloni: And your dad, he was CIO at T. Rowe Price?

Friedman: That's right.

Feloni: Did that influence you wanting to get into finance?

Friedman: Yeah, yeah, I think so. My brother and I are both in finance, and part of it was because he would bring us to the office, and we did get to hang out there and get to see what people did, and he made the work environment seem fun. Actually, we had a ton of fun. And then people were really, really nice about giving me things to do and making me feel useful, and so I got to see what it was like to be part of that environment. And they would teach us about investments; we would talk about investments at home and just try to understand what it all meant. And so—

Feloni: So you'd be a kid talking about finance stuff?

Friedman: Well, I was very curious about what he did, and so understanding how he looked at fundamentals, how he would make investment decisions, what was important to him, why was he going to China in the '80s — he traveled all over the world — so what was he learning? What was he trying to understand? He would read every paper, so what was he trying to get out of the papers? Those are the kinds of questions that I would ask as I got older and had a better understanding of what he did.

And I think that having that and understanding it, at least at a surface level, made it so it wasn't this big mystery. It was something I could understand. And even though when I was growing up I wanted to be an astronaut and I wanted to go into international relations and other things, by the time I had matured into saying, "Well, what is it that I really find interesting?" finance really was at the top of my list.

Feloni: So you were considering going to DC, right?

Friedman: Yeah. So I had grown up in Baltimore, and DC was always the big city down the street and always to me was the center of power, and you could feel it. You'd go there, and you'd just feel these in the history of the country. You'd feel the power structure that was there. And so I kind of really thought that was where I wanted to go.

So I went onto the Hill, and I had a great experience working for a congressman and then a senator, and it was great. But at the end of the day I realized that I wanted to be in a place where I could have more immediate impact, and so business was ultimately the perfect choice.

Making her voice heard

Feloni: At the commencement speech that you gave last year at your alma mater, Vanderbilt's business school, you told the story about how when you were 28 you took on a project that basically changed how you started your career. Could you explain what that was?

Friedman: When I was 28, I became in charge of a product called the Mutual Fund Quotation Service. And it was a really small, like, little mini-business within Nasdaq. It was a small product that hadn't really been revamped for a long time. Since it was kind of a pretty standard service, it really hadn't been touched for probably 10 years or more by the time I took it, and I had written a business plan about it a couple of years earlier, saying, "Well these are the things we could do to maximize the opportunity in the business." And they said, "OK, well, here you go."

‍Friedman at age 22, around the time she was at Vanderbilt's business school.

Feloni: Was this a project that was, like, more senior leaders wouldn't want to touch it? They're like, oh, just give it to you because you were younger?

Friedman: Yeah. I mean, it was very much kind of an ancillary product. It wasn't central to trading. And they kind of said, "Well, she's a young person — let's try to see what she can do with it," essentially. And they did give me complete autonomy to do with it what I could.

The most important thing was to find a technology team. And there was a gentleman in the technology organization who I really came to respect and admire, and he said, "If you give me enough time and money, I can do anything for you." And then once I kind of proved myself that I wasn't just this 28-year-old person who didn't know what she was doing, that I was actually someone who could really help him get the resources he needed, we actually formed a great partnership.

Feloni: What did you want the universal takeaway to be from this story when you told it?

Friedman: Well, the first thing is: take those opportunities when they're given to you. Right? I was offered this opportunity, and then—

Feloni: Even if it looks bad in the first place?

Friedman: Right. I mean, even though it's, like, this product that no one really thought much about, it was an opportunity for me to have a lot more autonomy by taking something that people didn't care as much about it. It actually makes it so you can have a lot more impact on it and you can have a lot more autonomy.

The second thing is: find those people who are going to help you. Don't assume you're going to do it yourself. You have to have those people, those experts around you who are better at their jobs than you are, to help you find success.