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How Joan Payden became one of America’s richest self-made women

Joan Payden is one of the richest women in the United States. At 92 years old, she is also one of the oldest.

Payden is the CEO of Payden & Rygel, a Los Angeles-based money management company she founded in 1983 after quitting her job and emptying her 401(k), according to Forbes. The company currently manages more than $161 billion in assets and nearly 240 employees across multiple offices, according to its website.

Payden’s assets have grown with the company: As majority owner, she has an estimated net worth of approximately $700 million and is a “newcomer” on Forbes’ recently released 2024 list of America’s richest women.

Payden’s path to success spanned several decades. After majoring in mathematics and physics at Trinity College in Washington, D.C., Payden became one of the few female engineers at a New Jersey-based company that built oil refineries in the 1950s, only to fall victim to a mass dismissal after three years. according to Forbes.

Disappointed, she regrouped: She looked into the financial sector to leverage her math background and landed a junior associate position at Merrill Lynch. “They hired me at a 25% discount because I didn’t know the difference between a bond and a stock,” Payden told the Los Angeles Times in 1999.

Within a couple of years, he moved to Los Angeles to join Scudder, Stevens & Clark, a prestigious money management firm. After multiple promotion attempts, she became the company’s first partner. She failed at least one of those attempts because she “didn’t play golf” at an annual meet at a men’s-only course, Payden told Notre Dame students in 2011.

“They held their annual meetings at a very large, prestigious golf course and, of course, they didn’t let women in,” Payden said. “So, I sat on the porch.”

Perhaps because of experiences like that, Payden said she never wanted her gender to define her career: “I’m either a good financial advisor or I’m not. I’m not ‘a good financial advisor,'” she told Trinity’s Alumni magazine in 2013.

In 1983, she feared she would be stuck “in the same place” for another decade and decided to strike out on her own, she told Notre Dame students. She recruited her colleague Sandra Rygel to join her, cashed out her 401(k) for an undisclosed amount of seed money, and formed Payden & Rygel.

At the time, Payden wasn’t entirely convinced the move would pay off. “There are always concerns. When I started the company, I was worried about not getting clients,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “But that was no problem.”

Since then, he has grown his company into one of the largest private money management firms in the U.S. His former employer, Scudder, Stevens & Clark, was acquired by Swiss insurer Zurich Insurance Group for nearly $1.7 billion in 1997.

Payden’s advice for would-be entrepreneurs who are unsure about taking a big leap: “When you jump into the lake, you can’t think about drowning,” he told Trinity’s Alumni magazine, adding that he has no regrets. “At the time, and certainly now it is clear, the risk of ‘not doing’ outweighed the risk of ‘doing.'”

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