Balancing risk and reward is what Suzanne Shank does in her business all the time.

So when the financial crisis heightened both sides of that equation considerably, Shank didn't flinch.

"Out of every crisis can come opportunity. We really took advantage of that and grew the firm, hiring talented bankers. Taking that risk at a very crazy time in our business really paid off for us," Shank says.

This year Siebert Brandford Shank & Co. in New York managed to break into the top 10 of municipal bond underwriters, handling $4 billion worth of deals in the first half. Its average deal size was second only to Goldman Sachs.

Working on the financing for public projects-like a $930 million deal to expand the Los Angeles airport-feels fitting to Shank.

After studying civil engineering because the major was "practical," Shank went to business school, thinking she would like to manage an engineering firm. But she fell in love with the world of finance.

"You can get gratification within a few years of signing the bonds when you see new highways, convention centers, courthouse buildings, schools," she says. "Everything we do as public citizens is affected by these infrastructure projects."

Shank worked at several firms before starting her own with a few partners in 1996. She admits she was nervous taking on such responsibility at the time, particularly as a mother of a toddler with plans for a second child.

But like so many others since, the risk paid off. Shank attributes the success to a lot of hard work.

"When you're a leader, you have to know that you're going to work harder than everybody else," she says. "You also have to be up for the challenges of dealing with the ups and downs that everyone within the organization experiences, because you're the one they come to for guidance."

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