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Mountain-climbing financial adviser counts on valleys

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When telling the Grace Vandecruze-Heyliger story, the words "prestigious" and "humble" often come to mind.

Born in Guyana, South America, she was 14 when her family immigrated to Brooklyn, where both parents worked as nurses. She's the second of seven children, and her parents were married 49 years until her father's death two years ago.

Vandecruze-Heyliger attended Samuel J. Tilden High School, where Al Sharpton and Larry King were educated. Her guidance counselor, after seeing her proficiency test scores, suggested she go to college to study Spanish and accounting.

"I understood the idea of studying Spanish, but accounting? I didn't really even know what that entailed," she said.

Tragedy soon hit.

"I was attending Pace University, across from City Hall in New York. I was between my third and fourth year, in the summer, and a fire destroyed our apartment. We moved into a homeless shelter because we didn't have anywhere to go where all nine of us could stay together. We stayed there for eight months," Vandecruze-Heyliger said.

She recalled walking home to the shelter one night after a late class, and spotting a gang coming toward her. She said she truly believed her life might end right then because there was nowhere to hide or to run.

"But, all at once, they crossed the street and left me alone." She said she felt the hand of God protecting her, but she also knew she must find a safe solution. "I knew right then that I needed to find another place to live while I was in school."

Finding safety

Vandecruze-Heyliger went to the administrators at Pace, and they arranged for a dormitory room for the young student.

"I increased my course load to 18 credits. I wanted to finish on time and start working," she said.

An opportunity arose when she and several other students were invited to visit Ernst & Whinney, a big-eight accounting firm.

"All of my worldly possessions fit in a garbage bag. I didn't have anything to wear to visit an office. I went to a discount store on Nassau Street and bought a navy blue suit for $15.

"It was the right color," she said, laughing. "But I worried so much about my suit that I didn't hear a thing they said on the tour. I went back to the dormitory and cried."

It was a young woman who lived down the hall from Vandecruze-Heyliger whom she will never forget.

"Her name was Tracy, and her mother worked for Ernst & Whinney. She called her mother and asked her if she noticed my suit.

"Her mother said, 'Tell that girl to hold her head up high,'" Vandecruze-Heyliger recalls. Tracy's mother would become an ally for the young woman when, after college, she landed a job at the prestigious firm. She passed the rigorous New York Accounting Regents exam with a perfect score.

Vandecruze-Heyliger spent four years at Ernst, and then went to Washington, D.C., where she worked for the Grant Thornton auditing firm for seven years. It was off to the prestigious Wharton School of Business in 1992, where she worked two jobs while completing her degree. An internship at Merrill Lynch followed in 1994, working in capital raisings, mergers and acquisitions.

"My work has been very intense," she said.

Midnight oil and beyond

The young businesswoman purchased an apartment on Riverside Drive on New York's Upper West Side, but she didn't see much of the place.

"I would come home from work at 3 a.m., and ask the cab driver to wait outside while I took a shower. I worked at least three all-nighters per seven days of work. I was traveling to Latin America, Asia, Russia. I spent 3 1/2 years with Merrill and then went to a private equity firm with a partner who left Merrill Lynch."

There, she worked primarily with the insurance industry. Her boss, whom she called a "tiger of Wall Street," nurtured her talents for three years. "He liked having someone working with him who was out of the norm," referring to her own race and gender. She worked as his vice president for three years, and then she got what she thought was a crank phone call.

It was a boutique investment and financial firm that was later acquired by the prestigious Swiss Reinsurance Co. Ltd., generally known as Swiss Re. With company headquarters in Zurich, Swiss Re operates in more than 25 countries and is the world's second-largest reinsurer. Vandecruze-Heyliger worked there for seven years, and in 2005 became the first black woman to be a managing director.

Then came 9/11. Sitting in her 40th-floor Swiss Re office, she saw a plane fly down Park Avenue. She was in a meeting.

"When the alarms went off, I said to my clients, 'Please ignore the alarms, they go off all the time.' Unbeknownst to me, our building, like many others, was believed to be under a bomb threat. It was 9/11.

"I did a lot of soul-searching. Our firm brought in grief counselors," she said. The tight-knit financial community was shaken, and she was not excluded from the pain.

But she realized she had to face her fears head-on, so she offered to travel for work when many others were afraid to do so.

"I asked myself, 'Is there more to life? Did I choose the right career?' I saw a horse-drawn carriage carrying the coffin of a firefighter in my neighborhood, and I just sat on the curb after the procession passed, in my business suit. It was so hard."

Two things came out of the incident.

"I got to know my neighbors. I'm still the treasurer of my building's owners association. And I decided to invest in my vacations -- to make them enriching, challenging, to add a different dimension to my life."

Vandecruze-Heyliger joined other Wharton alums on a trip to the Himalayas in 2005, and later reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was that trip that led to a chance meeting with her future husband, the Rev. Emanuel Heyliger, of Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church, in Dunbar. He was a guest preacher at a church she visited in Queens, and at a dinner following the service, they both realized they had recently visited Tanzania -- he on a mission trip, and she climbing Kilimanjaro.

In June 2006, she visited West Virginia.

"I was in a prop plane, and I saw all of these mountains. Before the plane landed, I loved West Virginia."

Moving mountains

Upon moving to the Mountain State, Vandecruze-Heyliger opened her own investment firm, Grace Global Capitol LLC (www.graceglobalcapital.com), which provides financial advisory, restructuring, valuation and capital-raising services to corporations and financial regulators around the world.

She's on the board of directors of the Clay Center and Thomas Memorial Hospital, the board of trustees of the University of Charleston, as well as being a representative of the Worth New York clothing line.

Forbes magazine writer Joanne Gordon wrote a book, "Be Happy At Work: 100 Women Who Love their Jobs and Why." She included Vandecruze-Heyliger in the 2005 book in a chapter titled "She shall rise up." She said the title comes from one of her favorite poems by Maya Angelou, "Still I Rise," that she had memorized while living in the homeless shelter.

Vandecruze-Heyliger has had several shining moments in her business career. One came during a bankruptcy trial for Conseco Insurance Co. She was an expert witness, and was grilled by corporate attorneys for days.

From Gordon's book:

"What's important is to make sure my answers have an intellectual honesty to them. I have to stand by whatever I advise. Just last week I was in court testifying about the value I gave one of the largest insurance companies in the world, Conseco, which is going through a bankruptcy. Conseco disagreed with my valuation and I was on the witness stand for two days straight defending it. All day, Conseco's lawyer hammered me with questions. It felt like they were targeting me personally and trying to discredit my methods. There I was, just sitting on the stand, and the lawyer just kept pointing at me with an open, red pen in his hand: 'Now, Ms. Vandecruze, why did you do this ... why did you do that ...' He carried on and on with aggressive antics and it built to a crescendo! I refused to break. I remember thinking, 'Does he really think I'm made out of feathers and I will just cave? I refuse! The mere fact I'm even testifying about a company valued at about $5 billion is such an accomplishment after all I've been through in my life!'"

Most recently, she was the financial adviser to the Delaware attorney general in the merger of Highmark and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Delaware, and to Allianz Eurasia on an expansion of medical facilities in Russia.

She climbed to the base camp of Mount Everest this past April, and she would love to climb to the summit.

"I want to do it to advocate for a cause, for women's issues," she said.

Helping others

Vandecruze-Heyliger leads a special club she's started at Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church. There she serves as president of the Beyond Billions Investment Club.

"I asked one grandmother if she bought Nike shoes for her grandson. I told her she could buy stock in the company for him and he would own the company, not just the shoes."

She recommends www.oneshare.com for purchasing shares of stock as gifts to children. She invites the entire community to join the club, where they talk about the election cycle, the stock market and the global economy.

In today's electronically connected world, Vandecruze-Heyliger believes there is a lot of information available, yet there is a lack of insights. She recommends recession-resistant stocks such as Apple, PetSmart and Priceline.

"Mountain climbing is like life -- it's the most dangerous at the top. More people die coming down the mountain. Everest taught me the power of the valleys. That's where you regain your energy," she said.

Vandecruze-Heyliger has established a family foundation, funded by her years of success in the financial world.

"I have more cousins than I can count, and they all have children," she explained. She will use her good fortune to provide education scholarships for her young cousins.

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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