second or third jobs to support their families.” Starting out with five employees, Iloani figured she’d need $2.5 million initially. Aetna, her former employer, invested that amount in Smith Whiley. “They believed in my vision,” she says. Two years later she bought Aetna out. While the amount she paid is confidential, she assures, “Aetna was pleased with their investment.” Last year, Smith Whiley & Co. closed the books with $213 million under management, a success that guarantees steady paychecks not just for Iloani but for her 14 employees as well.
Iloani believes her business survived the early days of soliciting clients because she had a good business strategy, attractive profit potential, and had raised enough money to carry her through any lean times. “Most companies fail because they have no capital and no plan,” she says. “[It takes time to] flush out the inconsistencies, to make sure you have the proper procedures in place.”
Being a woman in the male-dominated investment industry is a mixed bag. “We deal with institutional clients and portfolio clients,” Iloani says. “The portfolio clients generally aren’t taken aback [by my being female] because they want money. But as we attempt to secure new investing clients, the marketing cycle is long — particularly in this economic climate — and it continues to be an old boys network.”
But Iloani learned early that the best way to ease clients’ minds was to establish credibility by subtly mentioning her past achievements. In a casual conversation “I might say I was the first black female hired on the investment side of Aetna, mention my investment track record, or that Aetna invested $2.5 million in my company. That’s like, ‘Wow. ‘ People respect money. They have to admire that I didn’t start out with nothing,” she says.
Smith Whiley specializes in making private equity investments in small and medium-sized
companies in five industry sectors. The company also invests in companies that haven’t had much access to growth capital, including domestic emerging companies in urban areas and inner cities. In 1999, when Smith Whiley launched a fund that would raise money from the private sector to invest in companies in urban markets, then President Bill Clinton publicly lauded the company’s success with finding investment opportunities in new markets.
In the midst of her business success, Iloani gained custody of her three nephews after her sister died of leukemia. “I was a workaholic before. Now I’m cured,” she laughs. “I used to work from 7:00 a.m. to midnight. Now I work until around eight or nine at night. It’s hard to work when the kids want quality time. I spend my weekends with the kids. I purposely do not have a cell phone so that I can take the time to have fun with them.” She adds that going from being responsible for no children to being responsible for three made her a more effective CEO, “Now I don’t sweat the small stuff.” Iloani’s expanded family fulfilled her life but she admits that the sudden addition of three children wasn’t