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She Does It All With Technology: "blindness Isn't An Obstacle"

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from USA TODAY, March 19, 2001.

NEW YORK -- Laura Sloate still remembers the sting of rejection, the mean-spirited words, the blatant discrimination.

While interviewing for her first job as a securities analyst in the late '60s -- armed only with youthful enthusiasm and a master's degree in history -- a research chief at a brokerage firm basically told her to forget about a career on Wall Street. "He said, "You have three things against you: You're a woman; you can't see; and you're inexperienced,"" Sloate recalls.

She proved him wrong. Today, she manages a $405 million stock portfolio even though she can't read a stock chart, scan a spreadsheet or view a hot new product. Sloate, 55, has been blind since detached retinas robbed her of her sight at age 6.

The handicap hasn't stopped the determined Sloate from succeeding in the sighted world. She heads Sloate Weisman Murray & Co., an investment firm she co-founded in 1974. She also manages the Strong Value fund, which gained 13% last year despite the stock market's worst performance in a decade.

Most blind people only dream of Sloate's success. Of the estimated 1.3 million Americans 22 to 50 who are legally blind, about half are unemployed, says the American Foundation for the Blind. And one in three blind people 18 to 64 who do work earn less than $20,000 a year.

Still, the fiercely competitive Sloate says sight isn't an issue. "Blindness isn't an obstacle," says Sloate, who has worked on Wall Street since 1968. "It just forces you to do things differently."

Like most on Wall Street, information is Sloate's lifeblood. "I'm an information junkie," she says. "If I went cold turkey, I'd be in worse shape than a three-pack-a-day smoker without a cigarette."

The trick -- and the key to success -- is getting data into her head.

She spends her entire day doing just that. "My full knowledge input is through my ears," she says. Ultimate in multi-tasking It is 10 a.m. and the trading day is in full swing. While her guide dog, an 8-year-old German shepherd named Quartz, naps at her feet, Sloate is doing what seems like 10 things at once:

  • Listening to breaking business news that spills out of her PC's speakers at 320 words per minute.

  • Checking stock quotes. She hits the F3 key on her PC and punches in the symbol C. A robotic voice responds with a quote for Citigroup, her top holding: "C . . . Bid . . . 50 . . . Point . . . 5265 . . . End .

. . Ask . . . 50 . . . Point . . . 750 . . . End." Head trader Michael Adamson serves as a human stock ticker, updating Sloate via speakerphone.

  • Reading e-mail. She double clicks on a message from a Wall Street analyst dissecting Citigroup's earnings report released before the bell. The computer reads the e-mail's content to her.

"Laura gets through inhuman amounts of information," says Chip Rewey, senior portfolio manager at Sloate's firm. Rewey sits directly across from his boss during the trading day, feeding her relevant tidbits from brokerage reports and trade magazines.

Sloate retains everything. "She has the equivalent of a photographic memory," says Neil Weisman, who co-founded the firm with Sloate and left in 1986 to start his own hedge fund.

Not being able to see forces her to rely heavily on technology -- and other people -- to get things done. Friends and colleagues often serve as her eyes. "Maybe I can't tell whether the Gap's fashions are great, but I know enough people who do," Sloate says. If she needs to analyze a chart or spreadsheet, she'll ask a trusted business associate for help.

Sloate doesn't feel sorry for herself or make excuses, but she says being blind often frustrates her. "Sometimes it's wanting to do something that I can't do alone, like riding a bike."

There are professional obstacles, too. The stigma associated with being blind tends to close doors. If she were shopping for a new job, she suspects prospective employers would be reluctant despite her track record.

Prospecting for new investors is also tougher. Sloate says many just aren't comfortable handing their money to a blind person. So she doesn't go out of her way to tell people on the phone about her disability. "When I show up with a dog they are at best skeptical," she says. "But that wears off when they engage me in conversation and figure out I'm not a total idiot."

In fact, Dick Strong, founder of Strong Funds, admits that he talked to Sloate for 2 years on the phone and "didn't know she was blind." Co-workers and former colleagues describe her as fair, yet tough. "Some people like criticism to be delivered with a bouquet of flowers; you will not get that from Laura," says Donna Leone, the firm's chief operating officer who was hired 20 years ago as Sloate's personal assistant. Weisman, her former partner, says Sloate holds herself to the same high standards. "She's very tough on herself; she's her own worst critic."

Always prepared

Sloate is described as loyal, caring and generous. Co-workers say she's a wonderful teacher, inviting members of her firm to dinner where she'll tell them what they're doing well and, of course, how they need to improve.

She dotes over her dog, Quartz, like a loving parent. One evening long after the market closed, she plopped Quartz's tin dog dish on her desk and prepared dinner: low-fat cottage cheese mixed with dry dog food. Sloate says when Quartz underwent back surgery recently, she was "traumatized."

Sloate likes being prepared. When a potential client leaves a phone message, for instance, she'll quickly research who they are, where they work, and if they're on any corporate boards. When going somewhere for the first time, she checks which side of the street the building is on and where the entrances are. "She likes to be in control," Weisman says.

When it comes to investing, Sloate looks for quality companies selling at cheap prices. But she won't buy a stock just because it's cheap: A catalyst, such as rebounding earnings, new management or a restructuring, must be in place. Toys R Us is a perfect example. Sloate recently started buying the stock on the belief that business would improve in the wake of the death or near demise of dot-com retailers, such as eToys.

3:45 a.m. wake-up call

Keeping up with Wall Street's best isn't easy. Sloate is a workhorse who sleeps less than four hours a night.

Her day starts at 3:45 a.m. The minute she gets up she "flips on" the paper. Picking up the phone, she dials a number and keys in a six-digit access code. When the call connects, she gets a line-by-line account of stories published by top national newspapers. She feeds and grooms Quartz while "reading." It's common for Sloate to leave employees voice mail at 4 a.m.

Working out comes next. "It's the way I get my stress relief," she says. By 5:30 a.m. she's climbing up and down 75 flights of stairs in her Manhattan apartment building. A personal trainer arrives at 6 a.m. to spot her during her workout with weights. The fit 5-foot-6, 110-pound Sloate bench-presses 60 pounds 60 times -- in three consecutive supersets. She arrives at her Park Avenue office by 8:30 a.m.

Her day extends well beyond trading hours, too. It's 6:45 on a Thursday night in early January and Sloate is still hard at work. As usual, she's doing two things at once. "I get bored fast," she says. It's not unusual for her to have two people reading newspaper and magazine articles to her simultaneously. This night, Tracey Paleo, an actress, is reading Sloate stories from The Financial Times. At the same time, Rewey is reading her breaking news from the Internet.

Sloate "reads" in several ways. On weekends, she scans some 300 pages of magazine articles and other print materials into her PC, which converts it into voice. Software also lets her read Internet articles. Then, of course, there are the real-life readers like Paleo. The pay for the aspiring actresses and university students Sloate hires to read: $8.50 to $10 an hour. Hidden away in a corner office that doubles as a makeshift library, the readers can be spotted reading books and articles out loud into tape recorders.

Managing money and analyzing stocks is the best job in the world, says Sloate, who also finds time to teach a securities analysis course at Columbia University. But her true passion is opera. She has attended about 1,000 performances, mostly at New York's Metropolitan Opera, where she's a board member.

"The opera is very civilized," she says. And rock or rap? "It's just noise. My ears are very sensitive."

A night at the opera

One night last month, a trip to a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata at the Met illustrated Sloate's organizational skills. Because of long work hours, Sloate typically doesn't arrive at the opera house until the start of the second act. Prior to the season, she requests a timetable from the Met that lists when all the acts begin and end.

"The joke at the opera is I'm an expert on the second and third acts," she quips.

On this night, Sloate leaves her Park Avenue office at 8:15 p.m. sharp. Her driver, Michael Piniero, zooms uptown in a van. Dinner is served in the back seat. Sloate dines on popcorn and coffee. Arriving at the Met around 8:40 p.m., a few minutes too early, Piniero waits patiently on a nearby street. At 8:45 p.m., Sloate gives the word, and Piniero drives into the parking garage for the drop-off.

Once inside, Sloate, with Quartz at her side, takes charge. "Go up the stairs. Walk to the left of the bar. The doors to the orchestra are straight ahead. We're in Row D." The lights dim just after Sloate sits down. The curtain rises and the crowd applauds before a note is sung. Sloate says the audience must like the scenery. "New Yorkers are very vocal about what they like and don't like. I've heard them boo the scenery," she says.

Sloate, who has never married, has two brothers and grew up in Brooklyn. She spent much of her childhood at home, where her mom, Elsie, now 94, would read to her. Her eye troubles kept her out of school until 14, her freshman year in high school. "I had a difficult time," Sloate says of her socialization problems at school.

Her interest in stocks began when she was 10. Her dad, Kelly, who was an investor, would call her in on New Year's Eve to calculate the value of his portfolio. She says she'd do the calculations in her head faster than he could with a pad and pencil.

She's still good with numbers, Rewey says. When Sloate gets the bill at a restaurant -- and she eats out every night -- Rewey says he'll read her the price of every item, and she is able to calculate the total, including tax and tip, to the penny in her head.

She landed her first job in 1968 with a tiny mutual fund that went out of business 4 months later. She then landed a job as an analyst at a small firm where she earned $200 a week, $140 of which she paid to a secretary she hired to read for her. In 1972, she landed a job as an analyst at Burnham & Co.

"Laura is in love with the business and committed to it, sadly, without a hell of a lot of other distractions," says author Peter Tanous, who wrote a chapter about Sloate in his book, Investment Gurus.

Sloate herself admits that she's so devoted to and energized by her job that retirement is out of the question. "I don't enjoy being away from the business," she says. "I could have retired a long time ago."