After 10 years working in the nonprofit sector devoted to youth development in low-income communities, I decided to pursue my MBA in order to acquire the management skills necessary to lead a financially sustainable organization.
While working with board members and donors — the great majority of whom are private sector professionals — I experienced the mutually beneficial relationship between the private and public sectors. As a result, when I began my MBA at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, I hoped to find a career in the intersection of finance and social impact.
Making the career leap
I started by exploring the new and growing field of impact investing, but eventually realized two things. First, I am most interested in social impact work being done domestically. My previous experience with low-income communities in Greater Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area assured me that there is still a lot of progress to be made here in the U.S., while most impact investing organizations are focused on international development and emerging markets. Second, in terms of job function, I was more interested in doing the work of meeting and advising investors — understanding people's unique needs and finding ways to help them reach their goals — than sourcing and analyzing specific investment opportunities or "deals."
Following the advice of Johnson career advisors and second-year MBA classmates, I explored private wealth management internships. As I spoke with many generous Johnson alumni in the industry, I realized this could be a career that combined elements I most loved from my previous work — building relationships with people in order to deeply understand what matters to them, what their goals are and ways to help them achieve those goals — with the intellectual stimulation of the capital markets and financial skills I was learning at Johnson. My enthusiasm only increased as I dug deeper into the recruiting process, and ultimately secured a position as a summer associate with Goldman Sachs Private Wealth Management.
My mind spun with excitement and pride to have been granted this opportunity. I also felt a healthy dose of disbelief at the jump I was making to serve clients at the opposite end of the wealth spectrum. I worked hard to prepare academically by diving into Johnson's Capital Markets and Asset Management (CMAM) Immersion program and convening study groups to discuss the markets with classmates multiple times per week. This was balanced with my participation in the Environmental Finance and Impact Investing Fellows program through the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise. Still, a broader question remained: Would I truly find ways to bridge the gap between my previous professional experience and this first foray into financial services, not to mention the private sector?
Within the first week of training, I realized that entering private wealth management from a "non-traditional" background had become more the norm than the exception. Beyond traditional finance roles, my fellow interns hailed from prior work in real estate, consulting, government, collegiate athletics, military service and even a couple more from the nonprofit sector. Having this diversity of backgrounds and expertise in the training room helped put whatever concerns I had about being "too different" to rest.
In fact, in the nine weeks that followed, I found several ways to leverage my previous experience in nonprofit management and fundraising to understand key aspects of the unique role of a private wealth advisor:
1. Organizational and business success rests on the strength of your relationships. Strong relationships are based on trust. It took persistence, empathy, courage, resilience and plenty of time for me to earn the trust necessary from adolescents (and their parents) to send them on backcountry wilderness expeditions in the name of leadership development. Likewise, personal finance is often a private and intimate matter that requires wealth advisors to not only be skillful in financial management, but also trustworthy to uphold their fiduciary duty.
2. Advising individuals, families, foundations and more requires a holistic view of their lives and livelihoods. This principle is no less true in the case of advising people on their financial decision-making and long-term planning as it was for advising teens on their future education and career goals. Sound, thoughtful advice comes from gaining a holistic understanding of the reality in which your client or mentee lives now, and what their goals are for the future (in all aspects of their lives).
3. Successfully weathering uncertainty requires staying committed to your mission and taking a long-term view. Although I am new to financial services, my previous work made me very familiar with the concept of risk and reward. Often, teenagers and their loved ones would become wary of taking a positive personal risk (such as going far from home to attend college) for fear of the unknown. In these moments, I helped them get more facts to balance out their fears and perceptions in order to make an informed decision. I also encouraged them to look at the big picture, envisioning the impact of taking this (calculated) risk one, four or 10 years later. Similarly, as Fed announcements caused unexpected tumult in the markets this summer, I witnessed the importance of a private wealth advisor in helping investors "stay the course" — that is, to help their clients take emotions out of the investing process as much as possible, not react to short-term volatility and stay committed to their long-term investing goals.
As I recognized these commonalities, I realized the opportunity of being a "career switcher" — not to become someone else, but to build on and skillfully pivot from my previous professional experiences.
Hurdle photo by ETIENjones via Shutterstock