Media personality Carol Roth talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about how she became sought-after for her opinions, why she thinks America is due for a change of attitude and her Twitter “feud” that went viral.
When Carol Roth talks, people listen. “I always joke about how people come up to me at random—at the post office, the supermarket, even in the ladies’ room—and ask for my advice,” she says. “On a recent trip to the grocery store a woman standing beside me in produce handed me packaged lettuce and asked ‘does this feel right?’ [Laughs] I must give off this energy that says ‘come talk to me and I will tell you the truth’ because I seriously cannot go out in public without somebody asking my opinion.”
As an on-air contributor at CNBC, Roth is paid to voice her opinions on a variety of topics—and she doesn’t shy away from controversy. “I am literally a pundit, not a journalist or a news reader,” she says. “My function is to give opinions on everything from business, the markets, the economy and politics to current events and pop culture. I’m a team player among a group of commentators that pop up across the network on the Kudlow Report, the Closing Bell and also with the NBC Universal family. I also do op-ed pieces with a political or economic perspective on issues and legislation that will have an effect on the free market.”
Before joining CNBC, Roth hosted “The Noon Show,” a current events talk show on WGN Radio and appeared weekly on a variety of national TV networks including CNN, Fox Business, Fox News, and MSNBC.
Opportunist: How did you become a media commentator, Carol?
Carol Roth: At the urging of friends who thought I was well suited for the media and should provide advice in a broader forum. I had no idea how to go about it, so I built a website and started answering people’s questions through video Q&As. When it started taking off, I hired a PR firm and went on the radio and began making connections that generated a substantial following very quickly. That led to other opportunities from writing my New York Times best seller to speaking engagements, to eventually becoming a fixture on news channels, culminating in my becoming a CNBC contributor this past year.
Opportunist: You have said that you’re a ‘recovering’ investment banker. What do you mean by that?
Carol Roth: People who like to deep-dive into something become consultants and those who have ADD typically become investment bankers. [Laughs] I am sort of the queen of focused ADD, meaning I can focus on one thing at a time really well but also need 12 things going on.
I would say that I’m a collector of experiences. When I graduated from the Wharton School, I had $40,000 in college debt. My father was a union electrician who couldn’t afford to pay for my education, so I had to figure out a way to pay it down as quickly and ethically as possible—and get some great experience in the meantime. So I went to work for investment banking firm Montgomery Securities in San Francisco.
Opportunist: Please tell us about your early career.
Carol Roth: San Francisco in the mid-1990s was a fantastic time for the market and the firm. The business was growing like crazy and it was truly a meritocracy, which is the kind of environment I thrive in. I got promoted multiple times and was named vice president and became an officer of the firm by the time I was 25. Within the Wall Street realm that is generally unheard of because a lot of young associates end up back in business school. I thoroughly enjoyed working across all different kinds of products and services from IPOs to private placements and mergers and acquisitions. Things were going great and I was able to really ‘kill it,’ for lack of a better phrase. Then Glass-Steagall was repealed. The larger investment firms bought up all the boutique companies and we were purchased by NationsBank. After a merger with BankAmerica, we became Banc of America Securities and that had a very different culture attached to it. Basically everybody who had worked there walked out the door.
Opportunist: What did you do?
Carol Roth: That was the catalyst that made me contemplate my life. My college boyfriend was killed in a car accident right before I joined Montgomery, and then my mother passed away from leukemia. So by the time Montgomery ended I was weighing my personal and professional endeavors. I had met my husband in the gym—when you’re working all the time you never have an opportunity to meet anyone other than in the company gym [Laughs]—and we decided to move back to my hometown of Chicago and start our own broker dealer firm. We did a broad range of work and started doing capital raising and advisory entrepreneurial work before the dot com bubble. We enjoyed the middle markets and more established companies and focused on that for a while and then it became clear that my ADD had reared its head. With my Wharton background I could do a mean spreadsheet, but my clients were frequently asking me to help in more of a consulting role and I realized I wanted to use my softer skills like client management, marketing and positioning. My husband liked investment banking and I was liking other things, so we sent him to work for another investment bank and I kept the consulting business and went into an advisory capacity.
Opportunist: Have you ever encountered the proverbial glass ceiling?
Carol Roth: That was never an issue for me early on. I don’t know if it’s just my awareness and sensitivity, but as time goes by it is becoming more of an issue. How many times have we heard someone say, ‘She must have gotten that job because she was somebody’s girlfriend?’ I have never slept with a man who was more powerful than me at the time, so that’s not the case here. [Laughs] I did a recent op-ed piece for CNBC about going out to dinner with a business colleague of mine who is the founder of a billion-dollar retail chain and how other of my clients questioned it and said: ‘Oh, you’re going to dinner with him all alone?’ or ‘That seems kind of odd … is his wife coming with?’
Carol Roth: If somebody with my accomplishments is scrutinized like that, what shot is a young woman starting out going to have? Most decision makers are men and if women cannot network or have business relationships with those men without being judged, no way can they reach those heights. The overall portrayal and sexualization of women in media and society in general reinforces that glass ceiling in a way that is devastating to women in their careers. It’s unfortunate that it’s the prevailing attitude. Men don’t realize they’re influencing misogyny because it’s so commonplace. I had an extreme naiveté years ago when I received an award for best legs at the office. It didn’t really occur to me or factor in that much because I was promoted very quickly and given a lot of responsibility, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve acquired an awareness. The media is heightened to it now too—especially with the floodgates open to people taking offense to what people are saying.
Another angle that I, as a former director of a public company, find interesting is that there is so much talk about the lack of women at the upper level of corporate leadership and how they cannot find any women with the right experience. I, for one, am sitting here with that experience … so perhaps these companies aren’t looking hard enough. I’m not talking about diversity for the sake of diversity—it always seems to be addressed from some sort of quota standpoint, which is sexualization—but diversity as an effective tool in helping companies reach their goals. Not having that perspective represented at the board level is a competitive mistake.
Opportunist: As a strong, opinionated female do you ever encounter any ‘haters?’
Carol Roth: The interesting thing about being a public figure in the media and being on TV and on Twitter and various other media outlets is that people think they can attack me at will. I am called filthy names and I get hate mail and nasty tweets because people don’t like my opinion. It’s never ‘I disagree with your position,’ it’s ‘you’re ugly’ or ‘I hate your nose.’
Opportunist: How do you deal with that?
Carol Roth: Instead of escalating the situation I just stop and ask them what happened in their life that was so awful that they think it’s OK to email somebody they don’t know with hate and vitriol and personal attacks. I tell them that I can tell from their writing that they’re better than that.
Opportunist: Do they ever answer back?
Carol Roth: I consistently get apologies. People tell me ‘I am just so frustrated.’ They feel the game is rigged and they don’t have a voice, so they start taking it out on anyone and everyone. There is an epic level of frustration in this country. Look at the crazy amounts of violence happening. There is an underlying pressure-cooker and it’s peppered throughout the Internet with anonymous trolls venting their frustration. I tell people they are better than that and encourage them to make a difference or find a solution.
Opportunist: A recent AP-GfK poll revealed that Americans don’t trust each other anymore. Why do you think that is?
Carol Roth: We have a character crisis in the United States and I think it starts with our leadership. Thankfully, neither Anthony Weiner nor Eliot Spitzer got the vote in New York this time around. Former South Carolina Gov. [current U.S. Rep.] Mark Sanford abdicated his position to ‘hike’ with his mistress and was basically forgiven. Nobody was talking about Miley Cyrus until she started doing all these crazy things. It reinforces the rewarding of bad behavior. When we continue to reward bad behavior it is going to permeate our culture. If you’re doing something noble or interesting nobody cares about you. Reprehensible whatnot really does drive awareness and that drives sales. I believe everybody has a responsibility to rethink that. We have gotten away from a society where there is common courtesy and care for the person next to you. Everyone wants to blame everyone else. This is a scenario where people can stand up and make a difference—one person at a time—in the way we treat our people.
Opportunist: There is still a lot of frustration about unemployment and the minimum wage issue. Is raising the minimum wage a good idea or do you believe it would hurt the demand for skilled labor?
Carol Roth: A federally mandated minimum wage increase will make it much more difficult for a small business to hire its first employee, much fewer subsequent employees. Trying to punish a few big businesses at the expense of millions of small business owners is unethical. This kind of legislation is really critical not only to the success of small business, but also to the growth of the economy.
One of the biggest issues we are facing as we head into 2014 is the fact that we don’t have enough people working or in the right kinds of jobs. Throughout the last five years people have been going back to work but in part-time or lower-wage jobs. Getting people retrained and getting the Fed out of the way has to be a priority. If people aren’t working the economy won’t grow.
Opportunist: Do you believe America’s manufacturing base will continue to fade?
Carol Roth: I always find that point so fascinating. Everyone contends that we’ve lost all these jobs overseas, but the majority of manufacturing jobs lost have been lost to robots. The truth is, manufacturing has become much more sophisticated and there simply aren’t as many people needed to work an assembly line. Robots take that functionality away. There will, however, always be certain industries where we have a very large skills gap. The basic architecture of the economy is changing, so we need to train people better instead of focusing on band-aid fixes.
Opportunist: As someone who has been named a Top 100 Small Business Influencer for several years running, do you have faith in the JOBS Act?
Carol Roth: It’s interesting that we are so focused on more new businesses when we already have 28 million small businesses and six million of those have employees. I believe it’s best to foster success for those we already have and get those with employers to hire one or two more and those who don’t have employees to hire one. Legislation never really fosters that type of environment and in many cases penalizes small business. Recent surveys say they are spending 40 percent of their time doing administrative work that doesn’t directly produce revenue. We want them focused on growing business, not pushing papers.
Carol Roth: It’s an anti-motivational motivational book about entrepreneurship.
I’m a big advocate for entrepreneurs, but I’m also an advocate for having the right people start the right business at the right time. Too many people go after the American Dream of starting a business without having any clue how difficult it is. They don’t lay the groundwork to assess the challenges and evaluate the risks and rewards. I talk about how important it is to make sure you’re making a tradeoff that makes sense because far too many people will leave a job behind to start a business only to find they’re working more hours for less pay and extra stress. It’s really an assessment tool and also for people looking to retool—to make sure they’ve done everything possible to stack the odds in their favor.
Opportunist: How long did it take you to write it?
Carol Roth: I wrote it very quickly but it took a couple of years to get it to market because I am a stickler about doing things big and doing them right. I spent a year and a half creating a marketing plan for the book because I wanted it to be widely read and widely used.
Opportunist: You get to work with so many accomplished people. Who is the most impressive person you have met?
Carol Roth: I don’t really think in those terms. I never see the whole; I always see the parts. There are many people who do amazing things that make me think wow, I really like how they do that and try to learn from their example. There isn’t any one person I would pull out, but Stuart Varney is one of my favorite people in the world. He’s very engaging and has a great way of interacting with the audience. Maria Bartiromo is really inspiring in terms of the way that she was such a pioneer and supporter of women. And Megyn Kelly is incredibly well prepared. I like that aspect of being prepared before you go on camera.
Opportunist: Do you have a best or worst TV experience?
Carol Roth: TV pieces aren’t ever inherently bad or good. Usually what happens afterwards is the funny part for me. During the government shutdown when we were worried about defaulting on debt I had this very interesting week where I was loaned out by CNBC to CNN. I got a one-time pass to go to Piers Morgan’s show. He had a live studio audience and I was on remote in Chicago. When I started talking about the political theater and the fact that I felt the politicians weren’t focused on average Americans I got two rounds of applause. Piers said it was the first time in the history of his show that someone got two rounds of applause from the studio. Then I was on Bill Maher’s show about the same thing, but because I was painted in a different light—Piers being supportive and Bill not—I got the exact opposite reaction from the audience and a lot of interesting mail. That showed me how not only the host but the way it’s set up and how you are portrayed has such an influence on the way people perceive what you’re saying. I was wearing the bad person hat so that was their perception. It really goes back to challenging people to look past the headlines and take a second to listen to somebody whether they’re on your team or not because I think we can all learn more. We are all coming from the same place, quite frankly, where we all want this to be the greatest America it can be.
I had a big fight with Piers Morgan on Twitter about the Second Amendment that went viral. It was just a four-line exchange about gun rights but it got mentioned everywhere. I received 7,000 emails and people were putting me up as this hero but I was just having fun banter back and forth. I wasn’t intending to stand up and make a point and, of course, Piers brought me back on the show with two people to sit on his side and me all alone on my side. [Laughs]
Opportunist: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Carol Roth: Normally, I’m somebody who has a very specific plan for one year, five years, or even 10 years ahead. But this year I had a string of personal tragedies—my father unexpectedly passed away—and I believe the lesson I need to learn is that I cannot control things. The first phase of my career was driven by money and trying to pay down college debt. The latest phase involves intentionally trying to do what I love and what I feel can add value. I have been very fortunate to be able to do that. So, for the first time in my professional life I am going to just let it ride … at least in the short term.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in Florida. Follow her on Twitter at @les7989.
Follow Carol Roth on Twitter at @CarolJSRoth
Carol Roth’s Website – http://www.carolroth.com
Media Reel – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EdwsteSk-U
Piers Morgan – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoIVf-AC5XU
Piers Morgan Twitter Exchange – https://twitter.com/sambain/status/275830725033484288/photo/1/large