For Ethel Davis, there’s power in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Paired with an apple, it was the go-to lunch for American Century Investments Inc. founder and then-CEO James Stowers. He remained humble despite his wealth, and he didn’t shy from sitting next to employees and telephoning shareholders.
“Even though he built this empire, he was alongside us,” said Davis, who now owns Leawood-based VZD Capital Management LLC, a registered investment adviser firm.
But most important, he believed in Davis: “He really set the stage for me.”
When she joined American Century, she had only an associate degree in journalism, but she brought grit and a willingness to learn. She started in customer service, and Stowers requested that HR increase her salary because he said they started her too low. She later earned a bachelor’s in business with an emphasis in finance and advanced to an investment consultant role.
What stood out about Stowers, she said, is he didn’t feel the need to flaunt his wealth. Instead, he instilled his wisdom and work ethic in employees.
“He was pouring into others,” she said. “He was giving them a chance to find their voice, to find their career path.”
When Davis told Stowers she wanted to learn more about portfolio management, he arranged for her to shadow portfolio managers in the company.
“That’s when I decided that’s what I want to do,” she said.
Leaving her mark
At 19, Davis learned she was adopted, and it changed her view on life.
“I had to play it back in my head — somebody came and picked me out from all these other children,” she said.
It made her think about how between her birth and her death, she wants to leave her mark every day.
“I get up and say, ‘OK, what’s my mark today?’” she said. “I want it to be that No. 1, I believed in people, no matter what.”
That mindset translates to her role as a wealth manager at VZD. She tells clients that she believes in them and that they can reach their goals. Other firms may measure success by revenue, but she gauges it by a different standard: Whose life did she change? Who saw their dreams come true? Who is able to retire at the standard of living they envisioned?
“The greatest reward I ever receive is when someone hits that goal, or when I mentor someone and they tell me, ‘Thank you for believing in me,’” she said.
A sabbatical and a new direction
Davis faced a first in 2012 — getting fired from an investment firm.
“It took me to a really dark place,” she said. “I questioned everything in my life.”
But her faith in God helped her push forward, and the setback became her setup, she said. Not knowing where to head next, she took a sabbatical.
A friend and fellow Women Who Mean Business honoree, however, nudged Davis out of her drift and into a different direction during a phone conversation.
Marquita Miller, Class of 2014, asked Davis: “What’s the name of your company?”
Davis said she never mentioned starting one.
“Ethel, you were a journalist right? Answer the question,” Miller said.
Davis said if she started one, it would be VZD Capital Management.
Miller congratulated Davis on the new business and informed her that she’d already set up a tax ID.
“Now you have your company. Go get it,” Miller said.
That same year, Davis launched VZD.
Becoming a WWMB
Davis cried when she learned she had made it into the WWMB program in 2011, just a year before starting VZD. She had witnessed the program’s start in 2000 when she sat beside mentor and parent figure Cleo Brager during the awards ceremony.
“I thought: ‘Lord, I hope that I can do something worthwhile that I would get this award. I hope that you would find something for me to do that I’m passionate about, that I can go the extra yard.’”
For Davis, the award is akin to a Grammy and the “pinnacle of my career.”
She described WWMB as a tribe that brings balance, resources and encouragement. They celebrate one another, she said.
“I love these women,” Davis said. “They get knocked down, and they get back up, and they run harder. … It’s a community that I carry with me into my business and everywhere I go. … It’s a family.”
CLASS OF 2011
Title: CEO, VZD Capital Management LLC
Education: Associate degree, journalism, University of Kansas; bachelor’s, business, American University
Hobbies: Hanging out with friends and family, traveling, spa time and reading a good book in a serene place