The maths loving Sale girl and daughter of holocaust survivor who is now Google’s most powerful woman
Manchester was the place that Ruth Porat discovered her love of maths and where her mother Frieda sat her down and told her she must have a career.
Now the chief finance officer for Alphabet and Google, it’s easy to trace the origins of her success back to her original home town.
But this city cannot take complete credit.
While Porat’s tenacity and toughness are typical Northern traits, she most certainly inherited those from her father Dan, a holocaust survivor who taught himself physics while fighting for the British Army in the Second World War.
His reward for helping defeat the Nazis at great personal cost was being offered a place at the University of Manchester to study physics.
It was here that he got his PhD before moving the family to America to forge his career in nuclear physics.
A special homecoming
Porat said her ‘homecoming’ to Manchester was ‘very special’.
“Manchester is a really emotional place for my family,” she said.
“The university invited dad here after the war. He was stateless, he had no high school or university degree. He was a holocaust survivor who fled Vienna to Palestine.
“As soon as he could he enlisted in the British Army and was a very proud member of the Royal Engineers who fought in the battles of El Alamein. While he was fighting he taught himself physics.
“One thing I remember he told me while I was growing up was that he did that because he felt that education was a passport for life.
“Manchester was an incredible gift of life for my family. Dad is now a very happy 95-year-old nuclear physicist living in San Francisco.”
Maths class lit a fire
Porat can trace her talent with numbers back to Brooklands Primary School, in Sale, where she loved ‘the rigour of maths drills’.
The move to America wasn’t easy. Her Mancunian accent made her something of an outcast in the neighbourhood and she had a learn to adapt to thrive.
With encouragement from her parents she developed that maths talent, a journey which took her to Stanford University to study economics and international relations.
In her early 20s, Porat returned to the UK to do a masters degree in industrial relations at the London School of Economics (LSE) where she “fell in love with business design and strategy”.
After returning to America to get her MBA, she launched her career in 1987 at financial giant Morgan Stanley.
Surviving Wall Street
Within that male-dominated, cut-throat, Wall Street world, Porat quickly learnt the value of having a sponsor, someone to protect and encourage her.
“There have definitely been challenges along the way,” she explains diplomatically. “At one of my first assignments at Morgan Stanley, I realised someone was taking credit for all my work, so I realised I had to navigate my own career. You really can’t be a passive rider in this journey.
“The most important advice I could give anyone is that there are lot of really great people out there and it’s imperative to find a sponsor, someone who will take a risk on you and give you a break.
“I worked mainly for men because there were so few women when I was getting started in banking.
“At one point when I was in technology capital markets on the trading floor, which was a very male part of the business, one of the directors called me to his office and said: ‘I will be your senior air cover, I think you will soar, but if you have a problem I will be there to back stop you’.
“I’ve used that line throughout my career. It’s important to have someone who will be there for you. Working very hard for a person who is not going to give you a break is a dead end, so you need to find the right boss.
“I was lucky, but throughout my career I looked for people who would give me those opportunities.”
Porat’s stock rose
Despite those challenges, Porat became a mergers and acquisitions whiz before taking a gamble to leave Morgan Stanley for Smith Barney in 1993.
It was a move she regretted immediately and she worked hard to find her way back to Morgan Stanley three years later, eventually working her way up to vice chairman of investment banking and co-head of technology investment banking before becoming chief financial officer in 2010.
Among her most notable achievements, Porat is credited with creating the European debt financing that saved Amazon from collapse during the dotcom meltdown in 2000.
During the financial crisis of 2008, Porat led the Morgan Stanley team advising the United States Department of the Treasury on the government takeover of state-sponsored mortgage enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. She later led the way with post-crisis reform and financial legislation.
Amid all this ambition and hard work, Porat raised a family – three sons – and overcame breast cancer twice.
Google came calling
Then, in 2015, Google came knocking and she made the move from east coast to west, from the heart of the finance sector to the epicentre of tech.
While Porat credits her success in becoming arguably the most powerful woman on Wall Street and now Silicon Valley on a dose of good luck and trusted mentors, she also believes it was also her passion for learning that drove her forward.
“There was a host of terrific men in my career, because there were so few women, some of the legends on Wall Street: Eddie Gilbert, John Mack, Joe Perella, these were all people in banking circles in the States who were the best at what they did. They gave me breaks.
“I try to do the same. It’s really important that we all do it. But I am also I’m a big believer in life-long learning and continuous learning.
“People ask how and why I did what I did. I just kept finding new things to do that were exciting. If people have a passion for learning, it will open doors in their career and I never expected to be where I am, but when opportunities were presented I took the risk and pursued them and was open to different pathways.”
Google Digital Garage
Education is the core of the reason for Porat’s flying visit back to her home town. Last week, Google launched its Digital Garage project which aims to give free help to anyone who wants find a job or start a business.
Its new centre on King Street builds on the garage’s first tenure at Manchester Central Library two years ago.
Porat said: “Google spent six months at the library and we are thrilled to be back, expanding on those efforts with something bigger and better.
“This will be the first time Google has established a Garage for a full 12 months. What a place for it, the world’s first modern computer was invented here in 1948. It is home to the UK School of Computer Science, and home to many of the fastest tech companies in the north.
“It’s recognised as one of the top places in the region to start a business and thanks to the forward-thinking leadership here is committed to improving digital skills to create conditions for growth, and we hope Google can help accelerate that.”
Porat said Google wants to be part of a ‘holistic approach’ to plug ‘the digital skills gap’.
She said: “The British Chamber of Commerce found that three-quarters of business reports a shortage of digital skills. A third of people found it difficult to find training to plug this shortage.
“We know young people feel this as well, the nature of work is changing and that is shifting the link between education, training and opportunity.
“An economic survey that we commissioned fond less than half of young people aged 18-25 think their education gives them the skills needed to enter the workforce. That is a significant gap and only becoming more urgent.
“This gap in opportunity means it is more important than ever to equip people with the skills needed to respond to the changing nature of world and to whatever the future may hold.
“We’ve always believed the internet is a powerful equaliser, capable of propelling new ideas and moving people forward. That is what the Garage is here to do, to help business of all sizes harness the power of the internet to grow their skills and their business.”
Porat was joined at the launch event by Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who has previously set out his ambitions to make Manchester the UK’s top digital city.
“Andy’s vision for Manchester is really impressive,” said Porat. “Manchester is one of the five digital clusters in the UK. It’s extraordinary vibrant, a magnet for talent and entrepreneurs, so you have all the making of this really exciting edgy vision that Andy is articulating.
“The way he has articulated the partnerships with businesses, the level of investment, is critical to delivering on the future.”
At the launch, Burnham said the Google Digital garage ‘couldn’t have come to at a better time’.
“As Mayor, working with the digital sector and the universities, businesses big and small, we declared our ambition to be the UK’s leading digital city and in the top five in Europe,” he said.
“We want to be a smart in every sense of that phrase. Not just make the traffic lights run better or the trams run on time, it means connecting people to technology and then to opportunities, using digital to deal with our homelessness and rough sleeping problems, or tackling loneliness and isolation among older people, but crucially giving young people that ability to get on in life.
“So often when we talk about digital it is about the technology itself not about the people who might benefit.
“I think you will see no shortage of people coming through those doors to take advantage of the opportunity.
“This initiative couldn’t play more into that vision we have about digital helping people to help themselves and giving them that chance to navigate the fast changing world.
“This facility is a wonderful expression of everything we are trying to achieve in Greater Manchester.
“This is an incredible gift Google is giving us. Manchester is the original digital city of the world, because of the computer. Ruth is proof that our digital exports are changing the world.”
What is the Digital Garage?
The Google Digital Garage provides free digital skills training and personal mentoring sessions to anyone who wants it.
After initially launching in Leeds two years ago, the Digital Garage has already provided digital training to 200,000 people in more than 100 UK towns and cities, from Torquay to
Stornoway, and currently has long-term high street garages open in Sheffield, Birmingham and the newest opening in Manchester.
The King Street centre offers free face-to-face coaching seven days-aweek.
The courses on offer range from ‘How to build your CV and personal brand online’ to ‘An introduction to coding’, and ‘How to Create a Social Media strategy’ to ‘Staying safe online’.
For those who can’t make it into the city centre, Google has also transformed a traditional doubledecker bus into a mobile training hub, which will tour the Greater Manchester from January.
With 90 per cent of new UK jobs requiring digital literacy the Digital Garage’s plan is to help address the digital skills gap in the UK and provide people with the skills they need to succeed in a digital-first world.
Google has recently announced a new goal to help 100,000 people in the UK find a job or grow in their career, through free digital skills training over the next three years.
Google helped us grow our businesses
Dawn Barber, from Macclesfield-based UKTights.com, learnt essential digital skills through the online portal and helped grow her small business into the world’s largest stockists of tights, with a £2m turnover.
She said: “All my team used Garage since its inception, such as the social media tools, marketing courses, and I will be looking at the business plan tutorial.
“It’s fantastic that they’ve set up here in Manchester. Not only are they providing online tools, which is completely free, but the bricks and mortar where you can come and sit down and talk about it.
“It’s a great investment by Google to set up here and enable people to get the best advice and keep up with digital.
“Everyone now has a digital presence. If you’re not into digital and online marketing with your company these days, then you reallyare dead in the water.”
Angela Burdett visited the first Manchester Digital Garage two years ago to learn how to use online advertising and social media effectively to grow her Manchester-based courier business, Speedy Couriers, into a national operation.
Burnett said: “I attended the Digital Garage when it was first here two years ago and I attribute most of the success of my company to it.
“I also completed all the free online courses and have since reaped the benefits – taking my business from a small start-up in my parents’ bedroom to a successful company with 2,000 drivers. I’d encourage everyone to visit and try it out.”