Heidi Miller (PhD 1979, History) retired from JP Morgan in February, very much at the top of her game. For the previous year and a half, she presided over JP Morgan International, the division that sets strategy for the bank's worldwide operations. Before that, she was CEO of JP Morgan Chase's Treasury and Security Services, with 35,000 people in 50 countries working under her. At one point, Fortune described her as the second most powerful businesswoman in America, and in 2008, Crain's list of the “50 Most Powerful Women in New York” gave her the top slot.
A career in international banking is not the most obvious choice for a scholar of Latin American labor history, but sometimes one lucky break leads to another. As an undergraduate at Princeton, Miller had studied in Latin America, and at Yale she decided to write her dissertation on how the labor movement in early 20th century Argentina evolved from a anarchist, revolution-oriented philosophy to a more pragmatic union movement.
“I came to Yale with a passion to study history. I didn't wonder where it would lead, and it wasn't important to me whether I stayed in academics or not,” she says. “It was a phenomenal experience to be able to think long and deeply about something, and I'm a better communicator because of it. I'm a big believer in PhDs, and especially in the humanities. Learning to use your brain is a good thing. It teaches you to sit in silence with yourself. It was a tremendous experience to have to think clearly, to be able to pose questions to yourself, to sit for long hours in the library.”
When Miller finished her doctorate, there were not many teaching positions in history. She taught as an adjunct at the University of Rhode Island while finishing her degree, but the only two available tenure-track positions in her field in 1979 were not attractive to her. She decided to take her chances outside the academy.
“I started talking to as many people as I could, knocking on doors, writing letters. At that point, it was unheard of to go beyond academia. Yale has gotten much better recently, but back then there was no support for non-academic careers.”
Miller had lived in Argentina and Brazil and wanted to return to Latin America. She recalls, "I thought there must be businesses interested in my background. In those years, many banks were expanding into Latin America, and that, combined with the fact that the US government wanted vendors to hire more women,” made her what she calls “a lucky recipient of affirmative action.” The year she applied for a job in banking “was the first year women were accepted into the professional training program.”
She received several offers and chose Chemical Bank because they promised to send her to Latin America.
“I had no idea what a big commercial bank did. I liked the people, and they liked me. The big commercial banks were looking for people who had studied humanities. There were fewer people coming out of MBA programs then. The idea was that you could teach people how to do corporate finance, but you couldn't teach cultural sensitivity, facility with languages, willingness to travel.”
The training period lasted two full years, spent in classes and rotations among the different desks within the bank. Today, Miller explains, that kind of training is “outsourced to MBA programs. At this point, financial services are going through a very big change. You need to get an advanced degree in business or corporate finance as a way into banking.”
Miller found that banking and finance were a good fit for someone who thinks of her career as an ever-evolving adventure. At one point, Miller was chief credit officer and risk officer at Salomon Smith Barney. At another point, she served as CFO at Travelers Group and later at Citigroup, and for a while was CFO for Priceline.com. She joined Bank One in Chicago as CFO, and when it merged with JPMorgan (which had already merged with Chemical) in 2004, she took over the Treasury and Securities Services unit.
In 2010, she became head of JP Morgan International. After solving some key problems for that division, she says, “I looked around, and I loved the people I worked with, but at some point, you pass it on to somebody else. Here's where having gone to graduate school helped me – some people can't even imagine” themselves apart from their work identity. She walked away from her desk and went to Florida for a month, where she “read a stack of books that had been piling up” and “wasn't bored for a minute.”
All through her high-powered career, Miller has balanced family and work. She and her husband, retired banker Brian Miller, have two sons: Jonathan, currently studying for his PhD at Yale in chemistry; and Matthew, a senior at Princeton majoring in East Asian Studies. How did she manage both?
“I got lucky in terms of the people I met. I've been able to manage raising a family and working. It's not easy, but it's doable. I've found it's been rewarding to struggle through doing both.”
What's next for Miller? She serves on several public boards (General Mills, Conservation International and Princeton University, among others) and is interested in helping small private companies grow. She is not certain what the next stage of her life will bring, but feels all the more prepared to adapt to those circumstances through her training as a humanist.