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Exclusive: Ruth Porat On Leading Through Crisis And Google’s Latest Moonshot To Rebuild The U.S. Economy—One Small Business At A Time

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Chief Financial Officer of Alphabet and Google Ruth Porat. (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Fortune)

Ruth Porat, the stalwart chief financial officer of Alphabet and Google, is no stranger to a crisis. She began her career at Morgan Stanley in 1987, a mere seven weeks before Black Monday—the largest single-day decline in trading history at the time. “At that moment, I was concerned that maybe my career was over before it even started,” she recalls.

Far from it. Porat is one of the rare corporate executives to have transcended the upper echelons of Wall Street to the highest ranks of Silicon Valley. While the scenery may be different, many of the challenges remain the same: navigating economic downturns, government investigations and regulatory hurdles. Of course, a global pandemic is a new obstacle. “This environment is more challenging than anything I’ve seen because you’re combining a health crisis with an economic crisis,” says Porat in her first-ever interview with Forbes from her home in Palo Alto, California. “The path forward is less certain.” 

But Porat has deftly charted a path through uncertain territory before. During her 28-year tenure at Morgan Stanley, she held roles such as vice chairman of investment banking and global head of financial institutions before ultimately rising to the rank of chief financial officer in January 2010. “I certainly started in banking when it was not easy to be a woman in banking,” she says. “I haven’t thought about those shoulder pads for a long time, the bow ties, the scarves, the scotch, the horrible efforts to fit in.” What kept her there, she says, was the opportunity to “keep learning and growing”—remarkably, in the face of great turmoil. Case in point: being called upon by the U.S. government to help with the bailouts of insurance giant AIG and mortgage-financing agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac during the Great Recession. “Much like the current crisis environment, one of the highlights of my career was advising the U.S. Treasury Department during the 2008 financial crisis,” she says. “I was able to use the skills I developed over a [lifelong] career for something that was so important at that moment in time for the country.” 

Over a decade later, Porat has the same steely resolve when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, which has already taken a tremendous toll on the U.S. economy. Over 100,000 businesses permanently shuttered as of April, according to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. At the same time, 88% of small business owners say they’ve used all of their Paycheck Protection Program loan funding, according to a recent survey of over 1,500 businesses conducted by Goldman Sachs. And without additional government funds, 30% say they’ll exhaust their cash reserves by the end of the year. That’s why Porat is leading Google’s latest efforts to help get America’s ravaged small businesses and economy back on track. This while managing one of the world’s largest corporate balance sheets amid the looming threat of anti-trust lawsuits that may hold the fate of the entire tech industry in the balance. It may just prove to be her greatest challenge yet.

While Google is a corporate behemoth, its roots are in small business. “It’s so clear that small businesses are the lifeblood of the American economy,” says Porat, rattling off the stats: They provide about two thirds of net new jobs, and 67 cents of every dollar spent at a small business stays in the local economy.

At the start of the pandemic, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced an $800 million commitment to aid small businesses and provide overall crisis relief. Of that, a $200 million Grow with Google Small Business fund was launched in March in partnership with the Opportunity Finance Network—a national association of community development financial institutions—with a mission to serve small businesses underserved by mainstream finance and a proven model for moving capital into the hardest to serve communities. The main objective? Supporting the short-term recovery and long-term financing needs of small businesses hardest hit by Covid-19. To be clear, this is not a handout. The majority of funds are earmarked as up to 10-year term loans at no greater than 3% interest. Some $340 million in Google Ads credits were also made available to all small businesses with active accounts over the past year.

“Small businesses are part of our DNA as a company…Over 21 years ago, Google itself was a small business that started in a two-car garage and our first ads customer was a mail-order lobster business in Maine.” 

Ruth Porat, CFO of Alphabet & Google

“Small businesses are part of our DNA as a company,” says Porat, sharing the company’s approach to small business for the first time since the pandemic began. “We often talk internally about the fact that over 21 years ago, Google itself was a small business that started in a two-car garage and our first ads customer was a mail-order lobster business in Maine.” 

In many ways, Porat sees her transition to Silicon Valley as getting back to her roots. She was raised in Palo Alto, California, where her father, a former research fellow at Harvard, moved the family to take  a position at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. After earning her bachelor’s degree in economics and international relations at Stanford in 1979, she went on to get her master’s degree in industrial relations from the London School of Economics and an MBA from Wharton before joining Morgan Stanley. Porat was co-head of technology investment banking during the ‘90s tech boom, working alongside famed internet analyst Mary Meeker, who is godmother to her three children. “Tech was something I had done quite a bit, actually,” says Porat. That’s an understatement: She was the chief architect behind the debt financing that saved Amazon from near collapse during the dot-com crash in 2000 and then worked on Google’s IPO in 2004. “It was great to see the vision, the mission, the drive of Google at such an early stage,” she says. “Given I’ve known Google since inception, and how passionate I was about the company, when the opportunity presented itself, I said yes on the spot.”

While Porat has broken the glass ceiling time and again, Google has struggled with diversity within its own ranks. As racial tensions reached a boiling point this summer, Google announced in June an additional $45 million in loans and $5 million in Google.org grants to assist small businesses, with a focus on Black-owned businesses. The company committed to increase the diversity of its leadership 30% by 2025. “Hopefully this is the moment that changes race relations and really addresses racial inequality. There is no more time—and so we’re taking a hard look at ways we can help address systemic racism against the Black community with a real sense of urgency,” she says.

The company also announced the first round of the Grow with Google Small Business Fund. Five community development financial institutions (CDFIs)  were awarded a total of $15.5 million in loans, and six received $750,000 in grants. Among those awarded were Grameen America, a non-profit founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunnus (and currently run by Andrea Jung, former chairman and CEO of Avon) that provides microloans, training and support to diverse low-income women entrepreneurs and Citizens Potawatomi Community Development Corporation, one of the largest Native-owned CDFIs in the nation. “Systemic inequities, like the racial wealth gap create significant disadvantages for minority communities, which is why we’re so focused on providing Black, Latinx and other underserved communities with more equitable access to capital through our partnership,” says Porat. 

The partnership is also unique in structure compared to relief efforts of other tech firms like Facebook and Amazon. “What makes Google such a strategic first mover and different is their focus on recovery versus just short-term relief,” says Lisa Mensah, president and CEO of OFN. “It is extremely rare for a corporate Treasury to release $170 million and judge on their own that this is the kind of debt they will hold. They didn’t wait for a risk rating from S&P or to have it all guaranteed by the government or another source—Google is a trailblazer.”

For Porat, it was a chance to help reposition businesses that were already at a significant disadvantage prior to the pandemic. “Most small businesses are started with personal assets and loans that are typically guaranteed with one’s network,” says Porat. “But if you start with the types of wealth disparities that we have in society where only 20% of small businesses are minority-owned and only 21% are women-owned, our current situation is an outgrowth of that initial disparity.” 

The small business lending space is a massive market, one with around $800 billion in annual originations and an antiquated process involving tedious paperwork, manual inputs and very little transparency—or software, for that matter. Will Google, a company whose founders famously spoke in 2014 of the need for “revolutionary change,” set its sights on disrupting the small business lending space next? Porat quickly puts that idea to rest. “We’re not a financial institution and we don’t intend to become [one],” she asserts.

“The biggest compliment I can give someone is to say they are a real difference-maker—that’s Ruth.”

Hank Paulson, former U.S. Treasury Secretary & former Goldman Sachs CEO

Throughout her decades-long career, Porat has seen great success bridging divides to find solutions. “The biggest compliment I can give someone is to say they are a real difference maker—that’s Ruth,” says Hank Paulson, former U.S. Treasury Secretary during the financial crisis and a former CEO of Goldman Sachs. In 2013, Porat landed on President Barack Obama’s shortlist for deputy treasury secretary until she withdrew her name, reportedly over concerns of how bankers were being treated by politicians. “She’s a real U.S. patriot with a passion for public service.” 

To be fair, Google’s efforts are not just altruism. They are growth engines for big business—and of course, some good publicity doesn’t hurt. The over 30 million small businesses across the U.S. drive nearly half of all of gross domestic product. Globally, small and medium-sized enterprises represent over 90% of the business population and 55% of gross domestic in developed economies, according to the World Trade Organization. And like many of their industry peers like Facebook, Google relies on small businesses for a sizable portion of their business, although they, along with their competitors, do not disclose the actual amount.

“I look back on some of the toughest times in my career, and I know that I’ve learned from them,” says Porat, a two-time breast cancer survivor.  “That ghastly, terrifying experience was also a gift because that proverbial question became all too real: What happens if you are given no more than five years to live?” she shared in her 2016 Wharton commencement speech. “So I set about figuring it out: What did I want to do with what could be a limited amount of time? And I realized I simply had no regrets. I hadn’t punted on my life—I hadn’t put things on hold. My lesson from that awful experience was that if you want to do something, then do it . . . life doesn’t know it’s supposed to follow a schedule.”

“In the midst of tremendous disruption and market turmoil, Ruth’s judgment and experience are invaluable.”

Stephen Schwarzman, cofounder & CEO of Blackstone

That can-do anything attitude and fortitude may just be a key part of her recipe for not just surviving crises—but emerging stronger as a result of them. “In the midst of tremendous disruption and market turmoil, Ruth’s judgement and experience are invaluable,” says Stephen Schwarzman, cofounder and CEO of Blackstone. “It is rare to find people who have operated at the highest levels on Wall Street and Silicon Valley and that combination is exceptionally powerful.” In June, she joined the board of the $564 billion private-equity powerhouse, whose IPO she also worked on in 2007.

Porat is quick to acknowledge that the tough times she’s endured pale in comparison to much of the pain being felt in the world today. Yet, history has taught her to still believe in the promise of better days ahead. 

 “For those who are looking at this moment and wondering the path forward, I would say that having lived through many turbulent times before, there are recoveries,” she says. “New opportunities arise out of crises.”

by Maneet Ahuja, Forbes Staff

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