Phenomenal Women of AltoPartners – Judith von Seldeneck
Kicking off our series showcasing AltoPartners’ women in leadership series, we are proud to feature one of the grande dames of executive search, Judith M. von Seldeneck, founder and chairperson of the Diversified Search Group, one of the top 10 American executive search firms according to an annual Forbes Magazine survey. Headquartered in Philadelphia, Judee is a pioneer in the search industry with a special interest in placing qualified women and diversity candidates in leadership roles. She talks to us about why she does what she does and what inspires her to keep doing it.
Why executive search?
I never planned to have a career in executive search. After spending almost ten years working for then U.S. Senator Walter Mondale (later Vice President Walter Mondale) during the Civil Rights era, I left Washington D.C. and moved to Philadelphia to get married. I had no clue what I would do next. Back in the early 70s, women’s career choices were limited to three roles: teacher, nurse, or secretary. As personal secretary to a United States Senator, believe it or not, you had a lot of power. So, I knew I was never going to get a better secretarial job. But in the end, it was a tremendous gift as I was able to observe first-hand how some of the greatest political leaders of our time made decisions, managed their time, and developed the key relationships needed to realize their goals and objectives.
What happened next?
In Philadelphia, I stumbled upon an opportunity to join three other women who had come up with the idea of starting a business to help mothers to continue working by sharing a job and splitting the time, so one worked in the morning and the other in the afternoon. At the time, it was a totally out of the box concept, but I figured, what the heck, why not give it a try. I soon learned that I wanted to do something more substantive to help women enter the workforce. So I bought out each of the other women for $1,000 each and changed the focus to finding full-time jobs for women. I guess I had entrepreneurial genes that I never knew I had because it really got me fired up and excited, and 47 years later, I still get the same kick out of it!
Did you have a mentor?
There was no such thing as mentors for women back in my day. Maybe men had them, or big companies offered them, but I didn’t have that opportunity, and besides, there weren’t many other women executives with whom to share experiences. In hindsight, Vice President Mondale was the person I learned the most from in my entire career. I watched up close and upfront how he led his life, not just professionally but personally with a family he adored and, most importantly, a moral code of ethics and character that were a part of who he was and reflected in everything he did.
What advice would you have for your younger self?
I would have done a better job of educating myself about finances. I actually flunked math twice in college. It was not my natural strength, so I had to pick it up and learn along the way. Understanding finances is at the foundation of everything you do in business and is key to success.
Your main inspiration to date?
Former Vice President Walter Mondale. He remained true to himself - always. He did what he said he would do and is recognized and revered as one of the best Vice Presidents in U.S. history. He blazed new trails and changed the role of V.P. to be more impactful and influential by taking on hard legislative issues, resulting in laws that improved the lives of children and those who were disadvantaged. He loved life, loved people and always wanted to learn. Despite his enormous success, he had humble roots. He never forgot where he came from and was grateful for the life he lived. That is surely something we would all wish for ourselves.