Caryn Seidman Becker wants to change the way you fly.
As chair and CEO of CLEAR, the Michigan alumna oversees a company that uses biometric data, such as fingerprint and iris images, to speed travelers through airport security. This is her most recent career path, having traveled from finance to flight safety—with a few bumps in between—since graduating from U-M in 1994.
When she was just 29, Seidman Becker started her own hedge fund. That’s impressive by today’s standards, given that less than 10 percent of fund managers are women. But in 2002, it was almost unheard of. Nevertheless, there she was, whipping Wall Street for $50 million to found Ariance Capital at an age when most people are checking their credit report for the first time.
“I was highly atypical,” Seidman Becker, ’94, recalls, adding that she was pregnant while trying to open Ariance. “It was the first time that someone brought to my attention that I was different.”
Today, she is one of the most widely known women on Wall Street, dubbed “The Fixer” in Entrepreneur magazine’s article “The 7 Most Powerful Women to Watch in 2014.” A financial pro who started out at the bottom, Seidman Becker described her early years as a race to prove herself. “I wanted to go to New York and work on Wall Street. That was sort of my working girl dream.”
And one that came true. She started her career at the New York investment bank of Arnhold and S. Bleichroeder. “The folks at Arnhold made a job for a junior analyst who said that she’d be the first in and the last out,” Seidman Becker remembers with a laugh. “I was really lucky, and I was really cheap, especially on an hourly basis. I worked nearly 24 hours because I was making almost no money. And if you got there early and stayed late, they paid for breakfast and dinner.”
She attributes one entry-level skill to her time at The Michigan Daily, where she worked as a sports journalist. While on campus, she dove into personal stories and teased out the drama behind lesser-noticed teams like varsity tennis. But after spending a summer working the sports beat, she decided her heart just wasn’t in it.
What she did enjoy was working for her uncle’s investment firm. “I’m dating myself, but at the time it looked like it was the bottled water industry that was going to be really big. I loved doing the research on the numbers and the data and the psychology of the people behind it.”
Journalism and research felt like a natural progression and her talent for tracking statistics and getting an inside story was apparent at Arnhold and S. Bleichroeder.
Use CLEAR when you “See the World With Blue” and our Alumni Travel Program. Learn about all of the great trips we offer, and stay tuned for our 2018 travel collection launch on April 1.
Within seven years of graduating from U-M, Seidman Becker was a managing director at Iridian Asset Management. Ariance came next. But by the end of 2008—at that time, the worst year for hedge funds in two decades—she made the decision to close Ariance, despite managing more than $1 billion in investments.
Since then, Seidman Becker has worked with a wide variety of industries, from a Central European media company to Mount Sinai Hospital—and now air travel.
In April 2010, Seidman Becker rescued from bankruptcy CLEAR, a security firm that allows fliers to substitute conventional ID for biometrics like a fingerprint or iris scan. The user’s identity is confirmed against a passport or driver’s license, authenticated at enrollment. It’s a system that Seidman Becker believes will make air travel more convenient and far safer.
“Because it went bankrupt, most people thought it had no capabilities, no function,” she said. “(But) my view was that this was a secure platform.” Today, it is a company of several hundred employees with locations in 16 airports.
CLEAR travelers have their own airport lane with a kiosk that authenticates their biometrics. A CLEAR representative then escorts them to the actual security screening, bypassing travelers in the regular line.
CLEAR recently expanded into Detroit Metropolitan Airport. That’s good news for Seidman Becker, who looks forward to a chance to revisit Ann Arbor.
“I think (U-M) has such a special place in our country, if not our world,” she said. “There are classes and professors there that profoundly changed my life: Ralph Williams’ class, the history of Primo Levi. I still have those books in my home from Ulrich’s.”
“I’m all about measuring outcomes. Look at the impact that University of Michigan graduates have had on the world, and it’s pretty amazing.”
Eric Reed, ’04, JD’08, is a freelance journalist. He specializes in global affairs and economic policy.