Photographs by ChiChi Ubiña
LOOK enjoyed our photo shoot and interview with powerhouse executive recruiter, Eleni Henkel, founder of Henkel Search Partners. Chic, driven and most of all – kind is how many describe her. She is family and friends’ oriented and loads of fun!
Tell us about yourself. Where you grew up, your education, your background.
I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia as the youngest of four children in a first-generation Greek American family. My parents came separately to the United States from Greece after WWII, leaving their families behind in search of a better life. Having a steadfast belief that education was the key to achieving the American dream, my parents’ mission was to ensure that my siblings and I had the opportunity to go to the best schools in the country. Despite their humble beginnings and lack of formal higher education, they succeeded in building a wonderful life and creating opportunities for their children. Most importantly, they instilled in us their strong values of hard work and dedication. They set high standards of achievement for us and — through their sacrifice — put us on paths to success. They gave us the tools we needed to lead fulfilling and rewarding lives, and we always felt a strong responsibility to not let them down given all they had sacrificed! They were so proud of our accomplishments and loved to brag about us to their friends. They never imagined that their children would be graduates of Yale University, Yale School of Medicine, Dartmouth College, Harvard Business School, Rhode Island School of Design, and Arcadia College, and have successful careers as a cardiothoracic surgeon at Yale New Haven, a tenured professor of architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, a top-ranked math teacher in Massachusetts, and an investment banker turned business Founder & CEO.
How did you get into recruiting? What was your path to where you are now in the business world? Tell about starting HSP.
Prior to transitioning to the executive search business, I was a Managing Director in the Investment Banking Division of Morgan Stanley and was responsible for the firm’s global Analyst and Associate programs. During my almost 25 years at the firm, I held several positions across investment banking, sales and trading and global capital markets. As it turned out, my experience in client management and transaction execution roles combined with years of involvement in identifying, assessing and mentoring bankers prepared me well for a career in executive search. In early 2008, I decided it was time to try something new. A few weeks before the global financial crisis hit, I took the plunge and made the transition to recruiting. Needless to say, this was not the best timing, but I was undeterred! I knew almost immediately that recruiting was a perfect fit for me. After spending a few years at another boutique search firm, I started Henkel Search Partners in 2011. Going out on my own was an intimidating experience which certainly took me outside of my comfort zone. I never could — or would have — succeeded without the encouragement and support of family and friends. Whenever I had doubts about moving forward, my husband Peter pushed me to keep going, and when I was worried about signing a commercial lease, he offered to let me camp out in his office in midtown. Little did he know that ten years later we would still be sharing office space! The kids were also so supportive and excited for their mom to give an entrepreneurial venture a try. I remember spending hours at the kitchen table with my three kids brainstorming company names, logos, and branding colors.
My vision was to build a boutique search firm with a strong, experienced team and business practices and services typically found in larger, more institutional platforms. I sought out to build thorough, systematic, and highly professional processes, as opposed to the scrappy approach I had observed in the boutique search space. At HSP, we partner with the world’s leading buyside and financial services firms to develop and execute comprehensive recruiting strategies. We identify, evaluate, and place candidates at all levels across a broad range of geographies, sectors, strategies, and functions. Our success is in part attributable to the excellence, collaboration, integrity, and grit of our team. We are true partners and serve as brand ambassadors for our clients, working seamlessly across every step of the recruiting process to ensure the best client and candidate experiences and outcomes.
Tell about how you’ve grown HSP.
I am so proud of what we have accomplished since HSP’s founding in 2011. During our first ten years, HSP has achieved 50x organic growth, from 5 clients at inception to over 250 now; 87% of the founding team is still with HSP; we have maintained a 95% client retention rate since inception; and 80% of clients have engaged HSP on multiple searches. Our growth has been fueled through word-of-mouth and referrals from clients and candidates. We don’t advertise and we don’t engage in much outward-bound business development. Instead, we focus on doing A+ work while maintaining the highest standards of excellence and integrity. So far, it’s proven to be a winning formula!
You have reached the pinnacle of recruiting with an all-woman team. Is that what your goals were? How do you find working with all women? You are an amazing role model, Eleni!
HSP is female-founded, female-led, and has an all-female team of 25 professionals. Our culture is supportive, inclusive, collaborative, and caring. We genuinely enjoy working together and spending time together outside of the office. We have met each other’s families and have celebrated together personal milestones like engagements, weddings and the arrival of babies. We probably know a little too much about each other’s lives — but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Working with an all-women team is not only fun, but also incredibly empowering! Mentoring is a key value and focus area at HSP. We are deeply committed to developing the skills and careers of the women on our team through informal, real-time feedback as well as formal reviews and development sessions. We work extremely hard, but we also take time to celebrate our successes. A team favorite is our annual holiday season “thank you” shopping event. Each year, I partner with a female-founded and run business to create a fun and celebratory evening for our team. This year we hosted a virtual shopping event with Ashley McCormick and her team at ASHA (a fine fashion jewelry collection inspired by world travels, art & architecture). Each HSP team member received a gift card to use during our special shopping soiree—a team that shops together, stays together!
Tell us about the competition in your business. Do you ever think about the competition? Or do you find you have carved an important niche in your business?
We can never take our eye off the ball—search is a fiercely competitive business, and other recruiters are constantly looking for ways to expand their market share. It is imperative that we consistently deliver at the highest level for clients and candidates to maintain our leadership position in the space. It is also important to innovate and anticipate challenges that may be coming our way. Fortunately, our niche in the market has not yet been disrupted by technology. Relationships and strong execution continue to drive decisions in our space, and HSP’s ultra-high-touch approach and white glove service differentiates us from our competitors. Nonetheless, we are constantly looking for ways to innovate and evolve our operating model to enhance the methods and tools we use to deliver our services to clients.
What did your parents do? How do you feel they influence you?
My parents grew up in Greece, my mom in Athens and my dad in Crete. My mom graduated from high school at the top of her class, and, despite not having the chance to attend university, she dearly valued her education and was fluent in Greek, French and English. After WWII, she came to the United States with the hopes of starting a family and providing a better life for her children. She tirelessly dedicated her life to my siblings’ and my future. The example she set for us of hard work, dedication and sacrifice undoubtedly impacted our work ethic and drive. It is a testament to my mom that her four children have not only achieved significant accomplishments across varied professional pursuits (from medicine to teaching to architecture and business), but also live by the Greek values of “philotimo,” a uniquely Greek concept which encompass the concepts of pride in self, pride in family, pride in community and doing the right thing, all of which she embodied. She cherished her role as full-time mom of four children and executed it with love and warmth, but she also regretted not continuing her education and not working outside the home. She hoped that her daughters would have the educational and professional opportunities she had missed out on. She believed with every fiber of her being that we could “have it all” —family and career! She was known for the magic she created in the kitchen (unfortunately I did not inherit her culinary gene), and family members and guests were routinely treated to feasts that she would prepare from recipes and traditions that she brought with her from Greece.
My dad is the second oldest of six siblings and grew up in the village of Rethimno in Crete. During WWII, German soldiers occupied my grandparents’ house for a few months and my dad, and his family lived together in one room. My dad was the oldest son in the family and felt a responsibility to step-up as soon as the war was over. Instead of completing high school, he enrolled in a program that prepared engineers for careers working on naval and commercial ships. This was not the life he wanted so he took it upon himself to learn engineering skills by reading textbooks. When he moved to the United States, it was an uphill battle to find an engineering job given his lack of formal education and training. He was relentless about running down every lead and eventually he was hired by a local engineering firm in Philadelphia. When we were young, he often moonlighted to make extra money when finances were tight. There is nothing he wouldn’t do for his family. He is a natural problem-solver and innately curious. He is the king of DIY projects and knows how to install, repair and maintain just about everything. He is truly remarkable—at almost 90 years old he still rides a stationary bike and walks on a treadmill every day. I think he may outlive all of us!
Tell us about your family
Peter and I met in NYC after college while we were both investment banking analysts at Morgan Stanley. Peter spotted me during a tour of the office building and later invited me on a lunch date. We went to a restaurant in midtown where we proceeded to tell the waitress that we were engaged. The rest is history! We were married at the Greek Cathedral in center city Philadelphia. Peter’s friends teased him relentlessly about wearing crowns as part of our traditional Greek Orthodox ceremony. Whenever we have a disagreement, Peter reminds me that we are not actually married since we never said “I do” —it is not part of the Greek Orthodox service. We lived on the Upper West Side and commuted to work in midtown together every day. Matty’s arrival during a massive snowstorm in February of 1993 changed our lives forever in the best possible way. We were among the first of our friend group to have a baby, and we had a constant stream of visitors at our apartment stopping by after work to spend time with Matty. When he was about a year old, we went on a family trip to Florida during which we discovered that he absolutely hated the feel of the prickly grass on his bare feet. Peter had been lobbying for a move out of the city, and his son’s fear of grass was the straw that broke the camel’s back. So that was the end of our NYC life. We bought a house in Greenwich and moved in at the end of 1994, just before Lexi was born. Nicky came along a few years later and made our family complete!
What are your children doing now?
Thank goodness our children Matty, Lexi and Nicky are thriving and enjoying life. Matty, Brunswick ‘11 and Dartmouth ’15, moved to NYC after college to work as an analyst at Morgan Stanley. His next move was to San Francisco where he worked in growth equity at TPG. For the past two years, he has been in a business development role with Brex, a fin-tech start-up. He lives with a college buddy in an awesome apartment in the West Village. Lexi, Greenwich Academy ‘13 and Yale ’17, followed in her brother’s footsteps to Morgan Stanley after graduation. For the past two years, she has been the Senior Director of Finance & Strategy at TMRW, a women’s healthcare biotech start-up. She lives in the West Village with three of her best buddies from GCDS. She is finally venturing out of the northeast bubble at the end of the summer when she heads to the west coast to attend the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Nicky, an ’18 Brunswick grad and current junior at Yale, plans to pursue a career in music!
Do your children ask you and Peter for advice about business and jobs?
Absolutely! Peter and I have each had many marathon conversations with the children on a variety of topics relating to educational, career and athletic decisions. We have always enjoyed being part of the back and forth as they chart their own paths forward. Having an open dialogue with them is so important to us. From major career decisions (such as Lexi and Matty diverting paths from finance to the startup world) to resume and LinkedIn profile editing, we are so glad that they value our advice and guidance. They also are really lucky to be able to bounce things off each other.
Tell us about your involvement with our community
Greenwich has been a wonderful community for our family, and we’ve loved getting involved with, and providing support to, our children’s schools and organizations/causes that matter to us. We contribute to a broad range of non-profits every year (including Boys and Girls Club, Greenwich Human Services, Melanoma Research Foundation, Audubon Connecticut, Swim Across America, and local youth sports) but there are a few that have special meaning to us—The Alzheimer’s Association and The Live Like Blaine Foundation.
The Alzheimer’s Association leads the way to end Alzheimer’s and all other dementia—by accelerating global research, driving risk reduction and early detection, and maximizing quality care and support. My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in her late 70s and lost her battle in 2016 after 10-years of steady decline. It was truly heartbreaking to watch as Alzheimer’s robbed her of her ability to recognize the people she loved and left her unable to perform even the simplest tasks. In 2019, my dear friend Mary Jo Riddle and I co-chaired the Celebrating Hope Benefit in honor of our wonderful moms who were both victims of this devastating disease.
Another cause about which we care deeply is the Live Like Blaine Foundation which inspires and empowers young women to become leaders through athletics, diversity and inclusion. Named for Blaine Steinberg—a wonderful young woman whom we had known since she was born and whose parents are among our closest friends. Blaine passed away suddenly in 2014 while a junior at Dartmouth College (where she and Matty were classmates having been friends since they were babies). Blaine brought a rare combination of joy, determination and grace to every aspect of her life. Blaine and I shared a love of Dartmouth and she had a big impact on campus during her years there. I have served for more than a decade on the Executive Committee of the Dartmouth Club of Fairfield County and also conduct alumni interviews in Greenwich.
I also enjoy helping local high school and college students prepare for a job search or strategize about the best way to pursue various career paths. Sometimes they need help polishing their resume or tips on how to prepare for interviews. I will always make time for young people who ask for my guidance.
Through HSP, I work closely with and support the efforts of SEO—Seizing Every Opportunity, an organization I’ve been involved with since my early days at Morgan Stanley. SEO Alternative Investments has the mission to promote diversity in the alternatives sector by providing education, access, and career development opportunities to both young and experienced professionals who are traditionally underrepresented in the alternatives investment sector. I am a frequent participant at SEO events including panel discussions, conferences, and prep sessions. We also support Bottomless Closet whose mission is to inspire and guide disadvantaged New York City women to enter the workforce and achieve success.
What are your hobbies?
I love to be active—I am a regular at Tod’s Point where I often can be found running or walking/talking with friends. It’s a great way to get fresh air, exercise, and catch up with my favorite peeps. When the weather is bad or I don’t have time for an outdoor walk, I have a desk with a treadmill under it which helps me make my 20,000 steps per day goal. I started taking barre classes a few years ago to help with persistent tightness and pain in my back. Barre has helped by forcing me to stretch, strengthen my core, and build bone density. Golf is at the top of my list of things to focus on now that the kids are launched. I love to be outside; I love to walk and I love to be social; golf incorporates all three. The problem is that I never learned to play growing up, I have zero natural ability and golf is such a tough game. I have been taking lessons but it’s time to step it up and commit to getting out there to play a few holes on a more consistent basis.
Belonging to two book clubs (I love to read), a bridge group and an all-women’s investment club has helped me to stay connected with other women in the community while also exercising my brain. In the spring/summer, I really enjoy the outdoors, especially the garden. I have a huge collection of planters which I fill every season with my favorite varieties including lantana trees, mandevilla, hydrangea standards and a variety of palm trees. Last spring, we built a vegetable garden, ostensibly for my dad (who lives with us), but secretly I enjoyed it even more than he did. I’ve learned about organic vegetable gardening and just completed the planting design for the upcoming season. I can’t wait for our weekly harvests! I also love to entertain, design beautiful tablescapes, plan parties and create fun gifts for my guests. I go heavy on setting and ambiance because cooking is not my forte! Thank goodness Peter is a master griller and loves to be the chef whenever we entertain. I also happen to be the family photographer. I am a bit neurotic about documenting absolutely everything! Friends and family count on me to be their source of photos. Believe me, I can deliver. I currently have 144,773 photos and 3,062 videos on my phone!
Travel? What is your favorite place to travel?
I love to travel and have missed it during the pandemic. Any country in Europe always sounds good to me, but my personal favorites are Greece, France and Italy. Taking our family to Greece holds special meaning for me given my Greek roots. It is remarkable how connected to the country our children feel. Even though they don’t speak the language and did not grow up there, they feel like they belong. I guess it’s in their DNA! We also love our annual family trips to Nantucket and Florida which have taken place every year since the children were born. We’ve created so many memories including kids’ first swims and playing golf with their great grandfather in Florida and awesome beach barbecues in Nantucket with multiple families lined up in their SUV’s on the beach at Great Point. Mother/daughter trips are another personal favorite of mine. Lexi and I had a unique opportunity to travel to Paris for Fashion Week in late February/early March of 2020, right before the world shut down. It was a special experience and one which we will never forget. Family trips are very special, but so are trips with friends. In 2019, a group of women organized an art trip to Paris (with the fabulous and brilliant Page Knox as our guide). We saw art in Paris through Page’s eyes and had a blast while doing it. We enjoyed wonderful lunches and dinners together and we definitely drank too much wine! We had plans for Part II of traveling with Page—-an art trip to Russia– but had to postpone due to COVID. I think it’s time to start planning our next girls’ getaway.
Tell us about your work/life balance and how you managed when your kids were younger.
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is certainly not easy, but I have learned a few strategies along the way that have helped me. First of all, I think it is critically important to acknowledge the fact that “doing it all” is impossible. There are only 24 hours in a day, and we all have to make difficult decisions around how to allocate the precious time that we have. The focus for me always was on quality of time spent with my children, not quantity. I always tried my best to be present in the moment, to listen– really listen–to their stories from the day and not to be distracted by work and the to-do list that was constantly scrolling through my mind. It took a while for me to learn that it’s totally fine to ask for help. Raising kids takes a village—and ours included amazing nannies, our families and a deep bench of friends who were ready to swoop in whenever we needed them. Matty, Lexi and Nicky had multiple “moms” on their speed-dials ready to do the emergency pick-up when they were stranded at the bus stop or to have them over for dinner when we were both getting home from the city later than expected. On 9/11, Peter and I were both in NYC and nobody could reach us for several hours. Our friends showed up at school, ready to take our kids home with them. We were also fortunate that my parents lived close by and happily stepped in on multiple occasions when we needed their help.
Being organized is an absolute must! As soon as the schedule of events was published at the start of the school year, I entered key dates into my calendar to be sure the time was blocked. Despite my best efforts, sometimes work conflicts were totally unavoidable and caused me to miss school events and games. I felt terribly when this happened but in hindsight, I realize it was mostly me being hard on myself more so than the kids being disappointed that I wasn’t there. I can’t say I miss the days of staying up late every night after getting the kids to bed to finish projects at home, respond to work emails, and get things organized for the next day. And there were times when I felt disconnected and out of the loop on a personal level. I wasn’t seeing my friends in the pick-up line at school or at Starbucks after drop-off, so I wasn’t always in the flow of information. I suffered from intense FOMO (I still do!), so I made it a priority to stay more connected, and my closest friends were always there to pull me back into the mix. I like to say that the only person who suffered as a result of me working is me—I’ve got plenty of gray hair and wrinkles to prove it!
I have so much respect for single parents who carry the full burden of raising children on their own. Thank goodness Peter and I worked well together to balance the demands of work and parenting. We did our best (sometimes we failed) to coordinate our schedules such that at least one of us was always home to take the kids to school in the morning and at least one of us was there at the end of the day. Our kids started doing travel sports at a very young age and continued playing into their college years, so we did a lot of dividing and conquering. We logged a lot of hours traveling to, and attending, hockey, baseball, lacrosse and football games/practices/tournaments. Lacing skates at the Greenwich Skating Club at 6:30 am on a cold winter morning, dressed for a day of work in the city, was not my favorite activity — but I still remember those days so fondly (especially grabbing one of Mickey’s BEC sandwiches on my way out).
I always worried that my relationship with my children might suffer because I worked full-time or that they might somehow be disadvantaged by having a working mom. Well, I was wrong on both counts! Our children developed a strong sense of independence and empowerment because they often had to figure things out on their own. I was always there to step in when they really needed my help, but over time they realized they could almost always work things out on their own. I made sure there was a ton of structure and organization in their lives (and in mine too), but I avoided micromanaging them– and I think they are much better for it.
We have always been super close and typically talk/text each other multiple times per day. We have a lot of fun together, but we are also there to support each other when times are tough. My relationship with each is unique and special. Matty is my personal advisor and confidant. He gives the best big picture advice and has an uncanny ability to see the forest through the trees. He always finds a way to pull me out of the weeds. Lexi is my go-to soulmate and ride-or-die bestie. We love to plan exciting adventures together but we’re also just as happy to hang out for days on end (as we did during COVID) —we love the same foods; we like to do the same things and our brains are wired the same way. We are a mother/daughter match made in heaven. Nicky and I share our status as the babies of our families and we both love to listen to loud music while we drive. He was home alone with us for 5 years after Matty and Lexi went to college, so he got an awful lot of one-on-one time with us (not sure that was a good thing for him, but we loved it!). Nicky has a ton of empathy and an unusual ability to connect with people. Whenever I am stressed out or overwhelmed, he knows just what to say to make me feel better.
Do you love being an empty nester?
Peter and I were just getting into the groove of being empty nesters when COVID happened. I must say, we loved having all the kids at home for six months. It was definitely an adjustment for all of us to be living and working from home, but boy did we make the best of it. One of the upsides of an empty nest is the freedom to travel so we are looking forward to doing more of that once the world opens up.
What do you love about having your own business?
The better question would be—what don’t I love about running my own business? It is a very short list! After spending 25 years in an institutional setting, going out on my own has been a total breath of fresh air. Building a successful business has also been an enormous source of pride. While the experience has certainly had its challenges, I’ve loved every (almost) minute of it. It has been deeply rewarding to watch my vision become a reality over the past ten years. I enjoy the accountability and control that come with owning my business—the buck stops with me and I have responsibility not only for the wins, but also the losses. I find it so fulfilling to work through tough situations (there are plenty of those) — finding solutions that work gives me a sense of accomplishment and achievement. Assembling a first-class team by creating a positive and supportive culture has been one of my favorite parts about building HSP. Mentoring members of the team and empowering others to do the same is another highlight.
Are there any negatives?
As I said, it’s a short list! The burden of feeling responsible for a team of 25 can be daunting at times, especially during the COVID crisis. While the knowledge that my colleagues and clients are counting on me and trusting me with their needs is intimidating for sure, I mostly find it invigorating and humbling.
Do you have any mentors women/men?
I am so grateful for the mentorship I’ve enjoyed throughout my career. Although almost all of my mentors have been men, I have certainly crossed paths with many talented and successful women who also have had an impact on my life.
What/who are your biggest influences?
My family is at the top of the list! Especially my mom is my ultimate role model. Strong, brilliant, confident, tireless, honest, hard-working, warm and loving. My siblings too—as the youngest of four I always had them to look up to and to count on, and they never let me down. My friends are also an important source of inspiration. I have friends who have dealt with immeasurable loss and handled it with grace and dignity and others who battle life threatening illnesses and persevere even through the darkest and scariest of times. They have each taught me valuable lessons about how important it is to be resilient, patient and grateful.
What are your plans for the future?
To keep working and enjoying life! I count my blessings every day that I am healthy, that I have a devoted husband, three wonderful children who are thriving, an extended family I treasure and countless friends who are always there for me. I don’t plan on retiring anytime soon—-I love what I do and the toughest years of balancing family and work are already behind me. I look forward to the next chapter which hopefully will include lots of travel, weddings and becoming grandparents (not any time soon!).