On Episode 50, find out what to do when you get less than stellar feedback on your performance review!
Have you ever been victim of the “feedback sandwich” at work? You know, where your manager says one nice thing, one bad thing, and then another nice thing? It’s not exactly the highlight of the work week and it takes practice to get good at hearing and actioning upon critical feedback. On today’s episode, meet Lola Sholola – Nigerian immigrant, MBA grad, and Senior Manager II of Strategy & Finance at Walmart.
On this special episode, we hear from Lola Sholola, Senior Manager of Strategy & Finance at Walmart Corp, as she reflects on her first job out of college stumbles.
What you’ll learn from this episode:
I got you! Download our 20-page FREE guide to get career clarity on where you want to go next.
Full Episode Transcript:
Hey, are you thinking about changing careers? Then you need to head over to my website, ecmpodcast.com, and sign up to get your free 20 page guide that I wrote with YOU in mind. I wrote this guide to help you change careers and get really clear on what it is that you want to do next. Career clarity is key to a career transition journey. All right, can’t wait to hear what you think about it. Have a great week.
When Jessica Leon was growing up in rural Idaho, she couldn’t imagine that one day she’d be working in New York City at Goldman Sachs. But fast forward to life post-college, and Jessica was doing just that. Everything seemed to be going great until a 5 billion dollar company-wide “mistake” led to her team becoming disbanded and getting laid off. As painful as this moment was for Jessica, she turned that moment into a catalyst for growth, and came out stronger on the other side. On today’s interview, Jessica talks about getting to MIT Sloan/Harvard Kennedy School and what it takes to break into venture capital – as a first generation, unapologetic BIPOC.
Links Mentioned in the Episode:
Seizing Every Opportunity
Venture Deals – “the Bible” of VC
Arlan Hamilton’s It’s About Damn Time
Breaking Into VC Resource Doc
Jessica Leon: But never give up. You need to be very persistent, ask to meet, be bold and reach out, like I think for like venture capital, you either know how to do diligence and know whether or not an investment is good, but the other part is just networking to either get new deal flow or also to get someone to invest in your fund. So, if you can really prove that you have those skills, you would be great in the venture capital setting.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Welcome to The Early Career Moves podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color, killing it on their career journeys. I am your host Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones and lessons learned.
If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration. You’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Hey, everyone, welcome to episode 26 of season one of The Early Career Moves podcast. I’m so excited to introduce to you Jessica Leon. She’s today’s guest, and she is amazing. She talks about what it’s been like to be first generation Mexican American who was the first in her family to go to college and somehow was able to come across these amazing opportunities that landed her in New York City working at Goldman Sachs, and she talks about what it was like to go through a sudden layoff that had nothing to do with her, but had pretty big implications for her career, how she thought about what she really wanted, and I really think it’s a really great story that she tells about how to be resilient during times of immense challenge, especially when you’re financially responsible for not only yourself but your parents – you support them in some way and suddenly something like a layoff happens and you have to sort of figure out where to go next.
So, she talks about that amazing experience. I say amazing because it really sounded like it was a big catalyst for growth, and then lastly, she’ll talk about what it’s been like to discover venture capital as a career, what it means to work in VC, how she’s been able to break into the industry without having the experience of being an investment banker or a consultant, so she’ll go into depth about this and her interview. Currently, Jessica is an MBA and MPP candidate at MIT Sloan School of Management and also at Harvard Kennedy school at Harvard, so she’s making moves. She’s amazing, she’s such a cool, down to earth Mexicana, loved chatting with her, and I know you’re going to feel the same way too.
Okay, everyone. I’m so excited to have Jessica Leon on today’s episode. Welcome, Jessica.
Jessica: Hi, everyone. Thank you, Priscilla, for having me. I’m really excited to hear about your podcast and also to share my experience.
Priscilla: Of course. So, I would love to get started with just hearing a little bit about your own personal background before we get into your career story just so that we can get a sense of who you are and where you come from.
Jessica: Sure, as you said, my name is Jessica Leon. My parents, they are Mexican and my dad is from Durango and my mom is from Los Mochis, Sinaloa, and they immigrated early on in their lives to the United States, both legally and illegally, and I want to tell the story mostly because I feel that my story is a reflection of theirs and if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today.
So my dad started working in Arizona picking oranges and then was recruited to go to Idaho to go pick rocks from the fields. I, and as well as my siblings, were born and raised in Idaho and we always get questions as to why Idaho, how did you get there? And there’s a reason, is because of that, like my parents worked in the farms and there was a lot of opportunities for them to work there. Growing up, I went to the public high school available there. I didn’t really realize that there were applications and other fancier schools until I moved to New York City later on in my life. Otherwise, I just did as I was told and as the school progressed, I went to a high school in the area, and then from there, I decided that I wanted to. Look into other careers. So, I was actually interested in being a doctor. As a daughter of immigrants, you’re either a doctor or a lawyer. Those are the careers that they know and they they seem to value the most, and with that, I was like, yes, I’m going to go be a doctor. I was taking all of the medical classes, that included even getting my certified nursing assistant certificate to become a CNA and I was also looking, foreshadowing where you go and just look at the people’s jobs and I did that for an orthopedic surgeon and a chiropractor, and I realized that, I mean, I really enjoyed it. I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, so I was ready, but throughout that time, I was also very involved in the Finance Academy, Business Professionals of America, BPA, and DECA. I don’t remember what DECA stands for, but it was a business club in high school. I was very involved in that, but then came around the time that I had to apply for college. I didn’t know where to go and my parents didn’t know where to point me either, just because they knew the language, they didn’t really know how to speak it that well, but they didn’t know what was available for us. There was a community college across the street, so they were always just telling me to go there. My guidance counselor actually told me that I should go do makeup or hair because I did that well, and definitely, I respect those careers, but I felt that I was being stereotyped into fitting that mold because of being Latina in a predominantly White school. After that, I decided to push forward and another teacher said I had free lunch so I can take the ACT for free and ended up taking it and then going off to a Hispanic conference later on that year, where I was later introduced to the University of Idaho, which is about an eight hour drive from my hometown and there, thankfully I got a scholarship called CAMP, which stands for Campus Assistant Migrant Program which allowed me to go to school and also allowed my parents peace of mind for me to be sent there. So, I ended up going to the University of Idaho and again, I was doing pre-med and I decided to do business as well, and during my time there, thankfully secured a couple of internships during my sophomore year, and later on in my junior year, the first internship that I had was actually at the National Nuclear Security Administration in Los Alamos, New Mexico where I was working in occupational medicine, again, because I wanted to be a doctor and also do business. I was looking at the operational efficiencies of the clinic available there, then my junior summer, I applied to this program called Sponsors for Education Opportunity, SEO. Now, I think they rebranded it called Seizing Every Opportunity, but it’s a program that, there’s different phases of it. I did the career one which allows underrepresented minorities to get into careers in finance and I ended up going to Goldman Sachs. I had no idea what Goldman Sachs was, I’ve never been to New York, I had no idea how to even, like, I’ve never been on a plane, so it was very interesting too to go there, and I told my friend, I was like, “Hey, I don’t know where to go, I have nowhere to stay, I don’t trust Craigslist.” That’s the only way, this is before Airbnb, it’s like, I don’t trust Craigslist. I can’t really rent an apartment in New York, and my friend said, “My cousin’s boyfriend’s sister lives there, let me talk to them and see if you can stay there in Queens.” Thankfully, they let me stay there and I ended up going to Queens, and it was a great experience overall being at Goldman. Later on, I did found an apartment closer to my work, but just being at Goldman and being in the city that was massive and just being in the city, coming from rural Idaho, literally, when I say rural Idaho, I mean like cows and farms and all these other things, and then going to the city, I was just amazed of the magnitude and also the people there. I realized that it was so dirty and gross. At first, I was like, where am I? I feel like I’m in a third world country just because it looks so dirty and dinky compared to the United States that I was accustomed to, but then as I mentioned, the people were amazing, the energy was just exhilarating, and I really enjoyed my internship there. I was working mostly in procurement and understanding vendor management and I, thankfully, was able to leverage it to a full-time position.
After that, I went back to Idaho, finished my year and came back, and moved to New York after graduating from the University of Idaho. I was at Goldman Sachs for about two years working in environment and social governance programs. This includes the supplier diversity and also buying renewable energy, but after that, unfortunately, my team was let go because they had to pay, like, a $5 billion fine due to the 2008 financial crisis. That was really hard for me because I was supporting my parents. They didn’t know that I had lost my job and I just felt I failed. It was really hard for me during that time, but I leveraged that as an opportunity to see where I wanted to go next and really make a deliberate choice of what I wanted to do. I think before that, I was just going with the flow as to what am I doing with my life, everything was just set up there, but this time, I had to choose, I had a choice. I now knew what business was. Before that, I didn’t know what business was, and now, after being in New York for two and a half years, I had a better understanding of what my career could take me. Go for it.
Priscilla: Yeah, so that seems like such a huge, almost like a crisis moment, right? Like, two years, it was after two years of working at Goldman Sachs that that happened?
Priscilla: Yeah, and so what did you do in that month when you found out that they were letting your team go, did you reach out to anyone? How did that look like for you?
Jessica: I wish, it was a month where I had time to go. It was just like, I went to work one day and they were like, “Bye,” so I thankfully had a severance package, that’s another thing that I didn’t know about, and I was provided with a couple months of pay in addition to outsourcing services or services to place you at another job, and so I was able to leverage all of those benefits that they provided me, but what did I do the day of, I mean, I was just crying. I didn’t know what to do, I had no idea, but thankfully, I’ve already had a network of people that I could have reached out to, and I knew that I could find the job that I really wanted. I reached out to my friend at UBS and she was amazing. She actually helped me get a job two weeks after losing my job, and I decided to say no because that’s not what I wanted to do. It was a job, but I was looking for a job that I wasn’t going to be happier. At this point, I realized having a great manager and someone that believed in you was really important and having experience bad management, I wanted to make sure that I was placed somewhere where I knew I was going to succeed, and I really looked for that, and I waited until I found it and that was at CitiGroup.
Priscilla: Amazing. I think that takes a lot of bravery to say no to something especially when you’re unemployed and maybe yes, you had that financial security for a little bit, but still, you’re always thinking what if I run out of money or what if it takes a long time? Because job searches can take such a long time, but that’s amazing that you were able to say no. What was the new role at Citi?
Jessica: So, at CitiGroup, when I was looking for my job, I decided that I wanted to do something with impact and that was something that drove me and changing the lives of other people, but I was less interested in the environment. I was most interested in the S of ESG which is around social responsibility, and I went to community development and there, I was working around the community reinvestment act which is a law that was passed in 1977 that forced financial institutions to invest in low and moderate income communities around the United States depending on where they had branches, so this is a law that I feel now should be replicated into other sectors of forcing people to invest in these under invested communities, but I was working across different divisions to do the reporting on how they were doing this, in addition, working with regulators to make sure that the firm was upholding their end of the bargain.
Priscilla: Okay, and so when you were at Citi, what does the career ladder look like? What was the level that you entered at and then what do those promotions look like for those who are wondering?
Jessica: I entered as an Assistant Vice President and that was actually a promotion from my Goldman days and also, like, they paid me more, so that’s another thing I tell people just because you’re at a company doesn’t mean that there is another thing out there. You have to be really brave and don’t pigeonhole yourself to one company without really knowing what’s available out there, so I started as Assistant Vice President. The next step would have been Vice President and then following that is Senior Vice President, and then Director and then Managing Director, etc., so that was a career ladder. During that time, I was there for about three years, it would have been in my promotion year if I would have stayed, but my manager and I had very clear communication in terms of me knowing that I was going to go to business school and him helping me get to business school, and nd I was really happy and blessed for that but I think that having that, I really enjoyed my time there and really think that a place like Citi and all these other organizations, there is that career ladder and there are opportunities to move up within the firm, but I wanted to see what other opportunities were out there. I felt that it was a great job, but I was interested in doing a little bit more.
Priscilla: And so at Citi, did you already know about careers in venture capital or when did that conversation start for you?
Jessica: Yeah, I had no idea what venture capital was at all, and even when I was applying to business school, I was like, I’m going to go be an investment banker. I want to work in private equity. Nowhere in my mind did I understand what venture capital was. I think, and I remember my consultant and my mentor, she would say, “Yes, I think you’re more of a venture capital person,” and I will say, “I don’t know about that,” but mostly, I would say that because I didn’t know what it was, but I think I started getting a little bit more interested in it because my brother unfortunately ended up going to prison and I realized that the prison industry is a $5 billion industry where mostly women of color are the ones that are contributing to funding these companies, and not funding, but like the customers of these companies, and I realized that and then thought about how old the technology was there and how I can improve it, and that was through venture capital and I looked at a couple of companies that were in that space, and then from that, I found Kapor Capital, and I was super excited to hear about Kapor Capital and what they were doing more so than actual, like, what venture capital was, and that really is what sparked my interest. I spoke to a couple of friends that had done the internship and they let me know about what they were doing and what they thought about it, and helped me through the application, and thankfully they accepted me, so I was really excited for it.
Priscilla: Very cool. So, you were there the summer before you started your MBA program, right? So, what kind of projects did you work on as an intern?
Jessica: I think the Kapor Capital internship is very unique. It’s 50-50, so 50% of the time you’re doing venture capital stuff, and then 50% of the time, you’re working with a startup. So, I had the opportunity to work with Aclima who actually just raised a $40 million round, series B around starting to buy a Latina, and they’re working on collecting air quality data all around. I think right now they have mostly California, but they hope to expand it to all around the world. So, that was a great experience, and on the venture capital side, I was working on diligencing, so looking at the different deals that were coming through, looking at pitches and seeing whether or not we would be investing in them in addition to other things within the venture capital realm, like going to events and meeting with founders, etc.
Priscilla: So, you decided that you were interested in VC during that summer internship?
Jessica: Yeah, I think I was able to really see what venture capital was and experience it, and from there, I realized that there are very few people of color in this industry, and I think that’s what really motivated me was knowing that we need more people like us, but there’s not a lot of us that are willing to pursue it because it is a long journey and sometimes, we have other responsibilities that we need to take care of first, but I was very interested in just the mission and how I would be the one choosing which companies get to live or die and investing in the community that I cared about and knowing that I had this unique perspective living in certain communities that I could bring to a deal team.
Priscilla: And so, I know you are now at MIT Sloan, so what has that experience been like for you just developing as a leader and also exploring more in finance and in VC?
Jessica: Yeah, I think that one, getting an MBA is great and I’m really grateful to be at MIT and being in this space where I can seek opportunities and really pursue them, but I think that people, at least people of color, need to realize that sometimes these spaces aren’t for you and you just need to make sure that you make it for you and you need to push forward, like I’m very involved in the diversity, equity and inclusion committees and trying to increase representation of Black and Brown people at MIT Sloan, but there is a lack of diversity in all of the programs and we need to continue to create that path, but sometimes, it just does create some sort of attacks on the students because then, that prevents them from focusing on recruiting on, or not recruiting, but like on other things that they might be interested in, maybe starting a business, etc. Being at MIT, I think that looking back, I think it was a perfect school for me because I ended up also applying to the Harvard Kennedy School which is right across the street and very easy to go to, but I think that I really enjoy the aspect of entrepreneurship and technology, and seeing what everyone is working on is really amazing, and as a future venture capitalist, I think that having that network and leveraging the entrepreneurship in combination with some of the financial skillsets that I gained will help me get into venture capital in the long run. I’ve been involved in Mint which is like a competition put on by Wharton Management Impact Investing and Training but it’s a competition where would you look for a company to invest in or to propose to invest in that is making an impact and you’re trying to get $50,000 of funds to invest in this company that you selected. In addition, I’ve been involved in internships, so I’ve been working with Luna Cap which is another scholarship that I received at MIT, not at MIT itself, but it’s across different schools scholarship, and it’s for Mexicans and for veterans, and it really depends on the funding, but it’s also another amazing network and I have been interning on their venture arm, which is the Luna Cap Ventures, and we’ve been doing more of a debt VC which is a little bit different than equity or what I was doing at Kapor, and then at New Market Venture Partners which is an ad tech and future work fund that I actually did my summer internship with as well but I did a spring, summer and I’m doing a fall into master internship because they’re working on fundraising in addition of just doing diligence on their deal flow, but ultimately, I’ve really enjoyed my time at MIT Sloan. I definitely feel that I’ve made great friends and long time friends that I will keep for my future and wherever I go.
Priscilla: So, one thing I’m really curious from your experiences, the people that you met at these funds who they’re calling the shots, they’re at the highest level, are these people who are all ex-bankers, or what are those career paths or even qualifications that you’ve seen for people that are in this space?
Jessica: Yeah, I think most of the time, it really depends what stage. So, Kapor Capital was more earlier stage. At New Markets and also at the debt fund, it’s more later stage, and debt, the investment is very heavily associated with the balance sheet and the health of the balance sheet of the company, so I think, of course, for the venture debt and for the later stage, I see more bankers and I see people that have been in banking being in that space, but I also see people that haven’t done banking. So, I’ve seen people that have started a company, been entrepreneurs, been working on the operational side of things, and then I also, in the earlier stage side, I do see people that have different experience, whether that be in finance or consulting, and thinking about operational marketing. It really just depends, but it is very heavily banking and consulting, and that’s something that I hope to change and something that we all need to change, and unfortunately, the reason why it’s like that, it’s because in order to be an accredited investor, you need at least $1 million of liquid capital and/or a salary of $250,000 a year and only consulting or bankers would really be able to have that salary. So, that’s something that traditionally, it’s been like that because of those entrance of the industry and because you’re a banker in venture capital, then you’re gonna look for a banker and venture capital, but you honestly don’t need any of that. I think if you were really talking about what you really needed to be in venture capital, is you need a lot of money, and unfortunately, not a lot of people of color have a lot of money and that’s what really draws people to it.
Priscilla: It’s such a good point. Yeah, and so let’s say someone’s listening to this episode and they’re like, “I’m really interested in pursuing venture capital but I don’t know any of this jargon or how this works,” when you were learning about it, was there like a book or like anything that you use to help you ramp up quickly and understand, like, the deal flow and like all those things?
Jessica: Yeah, so I think that definitely, there’s a lot of blogs out there about venture capital. You need to do your research on the funds that you’re interested in, know who the top funds are, who the big players, Venture Deals is a book and is what people call like the Bible of venture capital, and in terms of podcasts, like maybe the 20-minute VC provides interviews with these fund managers in addition with people in this space, but I think talking to people about it, but not just talking to people, but I feel that sometimes, people are saying, “Yeah, I want to do venture capital, can we set up a coffee chat and you set up a coffee chat?” and you don’t realize that these people have a lot of meetings every day, and you should probably do a little bit more research and background on what venture capital is or even send over a company that you think that they might be interested in that allows them to feel like, okay, I will spend 30 minutes with this person because they sent me this deal that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone, and I would say try to get some experience if you can working for free although I hate when people work for free because I feel people should be compensated for their time, but sometimes, you do have to do that in VC, just try to see if you can do a scout or start learning more about being inside the industry, but never give up. You need to be very persistent, ask to meet, be bold and reach out. I think for venture capital, you either know how to do diligence and know whether or not an investment is good, but the other part is just networking to either get new deal flow or also, to get someone to invest in your fund. So, if you can really prove that you have those skills, you would be great in a venture capital setting. But yeah, if you are from an underrepresented group, you should definitely look into your network and see, I know for Latinos, there was like a LatinX VC where on Twitter, on my Facebook, that you can join and they post jobs and articles, and different newsletters on how to get into the space, but I’m also happy to share with you, Priscilla, a link that allows people to see, there’s like a whole one pager on how to get into venture capital and blogs and books and a list of resources that you can leverage.
Priscilla: Very cool. Yeah, I could definitely put that in the show notes, but yeah, Arlan Hamilton, her book is called It’s About Damn Time and it came out in May of this year, yeah, she’s awesome.
Jessica: Yeah, that’s an amazing book, definitely read it when you have time.
Priscilla: Great, so I guess my last question for you, I want to talk a little bit about imposter syndrome. I think a lot of us who were the only ones or were the first in our families to go to these elite schools or enter these elite spaces that like you said were not designed for us, how ow have you grappled with those moments?
Jessica: Yeah, I mean, I think that being laid off, I hated it, but I always go to that moment and realizing that everything will be okay and that now, it will be even better because you have an amazing school behind you that you could leverage for whatever it is, but I think that I’ve become more confident as to who I am and what my background is, and I own it. It’s taken me a while, I don’t really remember what it did take for me to get here, but I realized that if you’re not speaking up, if you’re not the one saying something, nobody is. So, you need to be that person, regardless if it is painful, or if you really have to get out of your own bubble to do that, because otherwise, your community will not be heard.
So, for me, I do it not for me, but for other people and to bring other people together, and I think with that, it’s allowed me to find this confidence within myself to be like, whatever, like, it happened, like I did what I had to do and I am not going to change for anyone regardless of what the thing is, and I think that only comes with age, and there are times where I do make mistakes and maybe I can say things better or being nicer, or whatever that is, but I think at the end of the day, I pride myself on trying to give everyone the true Jessica and provide people with my honest thoughts without having to sugarcoat anything, and sometimes, that’s hard to do because then, you can come off as, like, people say aggressive or maybe not as refined as you would have liked, but I told you what I thought, you asked me for it, so it’s not my fault that maybe you don’t like what you hear, but I think that at the end of the day, I just prefer not to happen to regrets for me not doing anything.
Priscilla: Yeah, so I think what you’re talking about a little bit is being authentic to yourself and being unwilling to blend in or change who you are, or mute parts of yourself just to fit into another culture.
Jessica: Exactly, and I think also, it’s learning about our history and the history that Black and Brown people have faced in the United States and knowing that we have nothing to apologize. All of this has been really brought to us because people think that White people are superior or because we’ve been taught to believe those things through propaganda, through the media, whatever that is, and we’re over here trying to act a certain way for other people. No, why are we doing this? Who told us that we needed to do this? And the reality is that we need to change that.
Priscilla: That is a great place to end, very powerful words. Thank you so much, Jessica, for being here for giving it to us straight. I can’t wait to have people listen to your story and be inspired to break into VC or to go any path other than finance.
Jessica: Yeah, no, I mean, thank you for having me and yeah, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn or however you want, happy to chat with people, and thank you again for the opportunity.
Thanks for tuning into The Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ECMpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community, and if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Have you ever thought that changing jobs “too quickly” or “too often” is seen as a red flag and must be avoided at all costs? Or, have you ever felt like you’re “cheating on” your employer for considering other jobs and interviewing at other companies? Have you ever struggled to negotiate for higher pay? This episode is for you! On today’s episode, you’ll hear from Cecilia Harvey, CEO of Hyve Dynamics, dish out some real-talk when it comes to creating options for yourself in your career!
Links Mentioned in the Episode:
Cecilia Harvey: But that was a lesson for me in that it’s go out there in the market, get that offer, and if you get countered, you make a decision: do I stay or do I go to that? But give yourself that opportunity. Don’t stay stuck waiting for somebody to tell you what you’re worth, not waiting for somebody to tell you what your options are. Go out there and create options for yourself.
Welcome to The Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I am your host Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger, Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Hey everyone. Good morning. Well, it’s good morning for me. It might be any time for you, but yeah, so it’s hard to believe that we’re already in June of 2021. This year has been flying by, but it definitely has also felt like, I don’t know, like a soap opera, telenovela, like, there’s just been so many things going on everyday in the news, and yeah. Anyway, thanks for joining. today, we have Cecilia Harvey on the show. She is a Wellesley College alumna. She went to the same undergrad that I went to and she’s amazing. I have not had anyone on the show that is quite at her level. Typically, my guests are in their late twenties, early thirties. Cecilia has just so many amazing professional and personal experiences to share. Cecilia is the CEO of Hive Dynamics and she has over 20 years of experience in finance and tech. She started her career in Wall Street doing iBanking and worked her way up the banking industry, eventually becoming COO of Citi Group Markets and Securities. She also worked at Morgan Stanley, Barclays, and IBM,a nd she’s also the founder and chair of Tech Women Today, a professional organization focused on connecting and advancing women across various areas of technology. So, this is a Renaissance woman, Cecilia was such a joy to interview. What I loved about her is that even though her resume might sound a little intimidating if you’re in your early twenties or figuring out your career, she was very approachable, she was very down to earth, and she shared some really honest thoughts on compensation, on knowing your worth, on “work-life balance,” on what it’s like to figure out a career that is really aligned with what you want personally for yourself, and she also talked a little bit about job hopping which she did a lot of in her twenties and she said that people would look down on that, but we talk about how job hopping is actually a great tool to quickly increase your income. So, I loved that part of the conversation because I think we’re often shamed into wanting to switch jobs or there’s like this weird loyalty that we have towards a company when really, no one’s going to look after our interests, but ourselves.
So anyway, I don’t want to spill the beans too much, but definitely excited to have Cecilia, and a quick reminder, we’re five episodes out from the end of the first season. We will be ending season one at episode 30, which will air sometime in July, but yeah, thanks for being part of the ride and enjoy the show, bye.
Priscilla: Hi, Cecilia, welcome to the show.
Cecilia: Hi, Priscilla, I’m so excited.
Priscilla: Yeah, I’m so excited to have you here. So, for the audience that doesn’t know this Cecilia and I share our alma maters in common, we both went to Wellesley College. Cecilia is a little bit older than I am, but that’s also why I’m so excited to have her on the show because she is at a much higher level than most of my guests. She’s a CEO and has a lot of work experience, so I’m just really excited to have you, Cecilia, have you reflect on your various roles and experiences from a little bit of a different lens, and so yeah, just really appreciate you being here.
Let’s start off with talking a little bit about your college experience, so let’s rewind to Wellesley College when you were studying there, how did you end up choosing to go the finance route and starting intern in finance?
Cecilia: My first year at Wellesley, I was friends with, well, still my friend to this day, Tanya Ziglar, and so I remember Tanya, she was a senior and I was a first year and she was going on this trip called the Wall Street Trip, and usually, it was only open to seniors who needed a job, and so she said, “Why don’t you just come along?” and I thought, no, like, I’m just a first year, and she goes, “Well, just come on,” and I went on that trip, and we met with three different banks that day. It was JP Morgan, Merrill Lynch, and Goldman Sachs, and we met with all alumni from Wellesley and to be around that I thought, wow, that is, one, these incredible women went to a university, same university I went to, and then two, just the energy and the dynamic nature of the trading floor, I thought, okay, that’s what I want to do and I just spent the next four years doing every single internship I could that was aligned to banking, doing any bit of coursework I could, any sort of research I could to just learn more, and by the time I got to my senior year, I already had a job offer after graduation.
Priscilla: That’s amazing, how one little conversation, one event, one trip led to you being exposed to this industry, this career path, and it changed a lot for you, right?
Cecilia: Definitely, and that’s, I think, the amazing thing, it’s always open yourself up to different opportunities. You never know who you’re gonna meet, the impact that you’re going to make, I remember one of the key things was for me on that trip and that experience was that I met another black female alumna who went to Wellesley and she was pretty much the lead for the Merrill Lynch team, and when you see someone that looks like you and when you see someone that has a similar background and experience as you, that representation means so much, and right then, I knew, okay, this is something that’s possible for me, because I didn’t grow up with an exposure to banking careers and really understanding that can even be a possibility for me. But when you see that, somebody that has that similarity to you, it’s so powerful, and it definitely was for me.
Priscilla: Totally agree. So, let’s talk about those first few years out of college when you were in finance and banking. It’s an industry that’s notorious for just being really tough given that there’s not a lot of women and there’s definitely not a lot of women of color, black women, so how did you handle that part of it, that piece of getting adjusted to that industry and the pace?
Cecilia: Yeah, I think one of the first things was, yeah, the pace, it’s, oh, my goodness, like when you go from university to proper job and the hours, it was like, oh, my goodness, like this is tough, but then, when you get over sort of the physical adjustment, I think, definitely, yeah, the mindset has to be there. I think the first thing that you have to realize is that you are no different from anyone else and getting out of the mindset that you are different from anyone else. Yes., it’s male dominated. Yes, there aren’t many, especially when I first started, many women of color, especially on a trading floor, so the second it gets in your head that you’re different from anyone else, that’s the first step to defeat and you really need to step into your power and really have a firm sense of identity and who you are, because no matter what the situation, whether you’re male, female, whatever, you’re going to be challenged on that every single day in terms of, do you belong here? Do you have what it takes even getting in your own head? So, you really need to be quite firm. And understand who you are as a person and not let anything shake that, so so much of it is just having a strong mindset.
Priscilla: Yeah, and I think that self-talk that we engage in every day is such a big part of that because when you’re doing something new, you’re a beginner and you’re learning, and at some point you’re going to maybe feel behind other people or feel like you’re not enough, but I think the way we speak to ourselves in those moments can make such a big difference. Was that something that you practiced, was like the way that you talked to yourself about what you were doing or did you seek out mentors that also helped you with that?
Cecilia: A key part of it was definitely, and to this day, it’s being very careful with your environment, who you surround yourself with. I think that you need to make sure that you are surrounding yourself with people who want to understand where you want to go and who’ve probably done it themselves and have the experience that they can share with you in terms of how to handle certain situations, I think that’s very important. I think also you need to surround yourself with people that have a realistic view of what it takes to get to where you want to go. I think that I’ve definitely surrounded myself with people who were going to be honest and who were going to check me when it was necessary and say, “No, Cecilia, you need to grow up, this is what you need to do.” You don’t need somebody who is just going to tell you what you want to hear all the time. I think also, it’s important that we protect our environment. Sometimes, people that you used to be around, those relationships don’t serve you any more in terms of, they’re probably not a positive influence. You’re probably going in different directions and you need to make sure that you’re surrounding yourself with people where it’s going to be a positive, supportive environment for you, and then that’s tough sometimes, but it’s something that really needs to be done.
Priscilla: So tell us about how you navigated deciding when to leave a company and when to seek another opportunity. Sometimes, there’s a lot of pressure to “show your loyalty” and stay at a place for a long time, and then I think with younger people these days, you’re seeing less and less of that, and people are being more willing to move around. How did you think through making those early career moves and changing roles or changing companies?
Cecilia: Yeah, no, it’s an excellent question because I remember everybody thought I was crazy when I wanted to leave a role and go somewhere different and people said, “Oh, you don’t want to be accused of being like a puddle jumper and jumping from one thing to another,” and for me, when I got to a point, and actually, it’s great advice I got from my mom, when I saw that I wasn’t going to be compensated in the way that I knew my peers were and what I deserved, where I knew that I wasn’t going to have the sponsorship in an organization in order to get promoted to higher levels, I sought that out at other places and I wasn’t afraid to make that move, and because of that, I think my career definitely took a trajectory where I wasn’t stuck and I kept things moving at a speed where I was comfortable and I knew where I deserve to go, I earned it; there was no imposter syndrome. So, I think that was very important, that I wasn’t afraid to make a move, and if somebody, if another company was going to give me that opportunity, why wouldn’t I take it? What did I have to lose? And I wasn’t going to be held back by somebody else’s judgment of, oh, you know, what if you’re going to be considered a puddle jumper?
Priscilla: I love that because it is so true. I mean, there are studies that are done on people who are willing to change jobs versus people who stay at a company, and the compensation increases are so significant, and it’s unfortunate that it is that way because you would think companies would want to keep their talent and really be more aggressive with the compensation offered and the raises, but it’s just not set up that way, and so I’m sure you probably saw that firsthand, just the raises that you got changing roles as opposed to if you stayed in one place.
Cecilia: Absolutely. I remember I even had a boss. He was one of the best bosses I’ve ever had and I went to him and I said, “You know what, I’ve been here a couple of years. I definitely think that I deserve a promotion and a raise.” I remember, I think I got the promotion by didn’t get the raise, and so he said to me, he goes, “Okay, you want a raise?” He goes, “Go get another job offer and we’ll match you,” and I thought, what? Why would I have to do that? And I took his advice: I went out there, I got another job offer, and I said, when I got this offer, “I don’t want to leave but this is what it is,” and not only did he match me in terms of that offer, he beat that offer, and he said, “You know what? I just want you to make sure that you stay in the company at least for the next couple of years and really do your best,” and I said, “Absolutely,” but that was a lesson for me in that go out there, it’s go out there in the market, get that offer, and if you get countered, you make a decision: do I stay or do I go to that? But give yourself that opportunity. Don’t stay stuck waiting for somebody to tell you what you’re worth. That’s so important, I mean, in terms of recognizing your power and not waiting for somebody to tell you what your options are, go out there and create options for yourself.
Priscilla: I love that, yeah. So, what was the first role for you where you felt like, wow, I have made it, or I have made it to a level where there’s just not a lot of people who look like me with my background, what was that first kind of big promotion for you?
Cecilia: I think it’s almost every role. I think in some ways, I think even from my first job, because I was graduating from Wellesley, starting a role at an investment bank, and this is something where definitely nobody in my family had gone into that career, going into a role in an environment where, yeah, there weren’t many people that looked like me, and I always was so, there’s different ways in which you can receive that, and I think for me, when I walked into a room and if I’m the only woman there, if I’m the only black woman, I embrace it, I love it because I know I deserve to be there, and I think that’s how we should all feel. I know that I worked hard. I know I deserve to be here and because probably before you, there were none, so you need to celebrate that. And it’s given me perspective and I’m so grateful and I feel so blessed and it’s something that I just don’t take for granted.
Priscilla: How have you learned to brand yourself in your roles, different companies? Have you given a lot of thought to self-branding? And I ask that because I do feel like people who get ahead are often people who are very self-aware about what is their brand and how do they talk about their own accomplishments, and a little bit of self-promotion that I think can be seen negatively for women, but it is part of what you have to do to get ahead. How have you thought through that?
Priscilla: When I think of your brand, I think that it’s so important to, especially as you becoming more and more of a leader in organizations, you need to be the type of leader you need to be the type of person that people want to follow, that people have trust in, that people put belief in. I think that’s the most important part to your brand, it’s what people say about you when you’re not in the room. For me, I’ve always wanted people to say, no matter whether they liked me or not, this is somebody who has integrity. This is somebody who we can trust. I think that’s just paramount for me, and this is somebody who, when she says she’s going to do something, she’s going to do it. I think that’s key in terms of you’re putting out the behaviors and the actions that give a sense of you’re somebody of integrity, you’re somebody that we can trust. I think that’s paramount for any type of brand. So, no matter what you’re putting on social media, no matter what you’re trying to portray in terms of lifestyle or who you are or what you do, I think that’s the most important thing and that’s the most foundational thing of any brand integrity. Trustworthiness, transparency.
Priscilla: Yeah, yeah. When you became a COO at Citi, I’m sure that was a huge accomplishment, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced at that level? I think, yeah, when you get, as you move further on in your career, a lot of people will think that certain jobs are the dream job, but I think it’s making sure that it’s aligned to ultimately where you want your life to go. I remember when I got promoted into Citi and of course, it was a great accomplishment in itself, but then also at that time, I really wanted, I took a think about, okay, well, what do I really want to do next within my career? And many times, we get caught up where we’re on this hamster wheel and we can get so caught up in terms of here’s a job title, here’s the salary, here’s the company, but ultimately, making sure that you have that alignment between personally and professionally what you want to do is quite key, not necessarily balanced, but I think definitely alignment in terms of who you are as a person, the job that you’re walking into every day, the environment that you’re walking into every day, is that an environment that you feel is nurturing and ultimately where you want to go within your career? So, for me at that point, it was a turning point in that you definitely reach a certain pinnacle in your career but also, you want to ask yourself, okay, what’s next? Like, where do I go next? And do I have that alignment between not only the career that I want to have but the life that I want to have.
Priscilla: Yeah, and so I think we probably get to a point where you’re like this checks the box in terms of maybe compensation, maybe fulfilling exciting projects, influence, but then, I’m sure that it, what you look for in a job changes over time. So, at what point were you like, okay, I think I’ve gotten what I need to get out of this experience, and decided to leave that role, which I’m sure people would probably stay in that for a while.
Cecilia: Yeah, I think that we all evolve as people in our values, what we want in life, what matters to us, what doesn’t really matter to us, we mature, and for me it wasn’t about corporate title anymore. It wasn’t about the name of the company. It was about, am I happy each day waking up and going into work? Do I feel like I’m learning? Do I feel like I’m in an environment where I enjoy coming into every single day? And I think that also in terms of what I wanted to do, I love technology. I loved the idea of essentially working towards creating a company and a culture within that company, that really was something that I completely believed in, and I knew that I had to eventually get on that track if I was going to start working towards that goal. I knew that I wanted to be somebody who was a leader, not only within a company, but within the broader technology industry. I knew that I wanted to be someone similar to what I had when I was at that first Wellesley on Wall Street event and saw somebody that looked like me, I wanted to be someone that could be a role model of where people can look at and say, “Wow, if she did that, maybe that’s something that’s possible for me,” so I had to be honest with myself about wanting to pursue that dream and start getting on that track and not looking back.
Priscilla: Yeah. So, tell us about Tech Women Today: how did this idea come to be? What is it? Yeah, just tell us about it.
Cecilia: Yeah, Tech Women Today started, I’ve been involved in so many companies and initiatives that focused on diversity inclusion and definitely being in the tech industry, wanting to encourage more women to join the industry because I absolutely loved it, and I thought, wow, this is a great career path for so many women. Of course you see that the numbers aren’t very high when you look at new terms of women in tech. So, I started Tech Women Today because one, I wanted to really broaden the definition of what it meant to be a woman working in technology. You don’t have to have a STEM background; I was a political science major at Wellesley, you don’t have to be a programmer or a hardcore engineer or some developer, you could be a project manager, you could be a business analyst. You don’t have to work at a technology company per se, you could work in fashion and have a tech career. You can work in art and have a digital career, you can work in healthcare, all of these different sectors because tech just penetrates all of these different areas, of course, all these different industries. So, I really wanted to expand the definition of what it means to be somebody in tech and give visibility to what those different career opportunities are, and then also I want it Tech Women Today to be a resource for nontechnical female entrepreneurs and female founders that really need to understand how they needed to use technology in order to grow and scale their businesses and connect them with the various resources that can do that, and recently, one of the things that Tech Women Today has been doing is helping companies with their diversity and inclusion plans and strategies. So, in order to create and cultivate a pipeline of strong, diverse talent that grows within that organization and ultimately prepares people for successful opportunities and leadership within that organization, so that’s so exciting for me because it’s something where one, anybody’s going to agree that diversity in any organization is going to create the best technology, the best services, and ultimately serve clients in the best way, but really, to help organizations strategically create that is so exciting and being able to leverage all the experiences that I’ve had over the years in order to advise on that is an exciting opportunity.
Priscilla: Yeah, that’s really cool and I love that you’re doing this on the side of your full-time job and that you’re able to balance your passions and your impact in different ways. I think sometimes, people think that their full-time job has to check all of the boxes for them when in reality, there’s different ways to find fulfillment in different, it doesn’t just have to be your full-time job.
Cecilia: No, definitely, and when I think of so many impressive women that I look at as role models, when you look at Serena Williams, amazing tennis champion, but there’s so many other things that she does. There’s so many other businesses that she has, but she’s still on top of her game. When you look at a Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, there’s so many other initiatives that she does that focuses on female empowerment and other activities. So, I think it’s so important for me in terms of being a leader and an authentic leader is not only just focusing on my day job in terms of the technical aspects of that, but also being a good leader to my organization within the tech industry and leveraging my skillset and my experience in order to bring broader impact the tech overall.
Priscilla: Yeah, so you bring me now to this next question that I have around “work-life balance.” Do you believe in work-life balance? Yeah, I’m definitely a realist and I don’t believe in balance. I think that you’re not going to have, especially if you have very ambitious goals and you want to do so much, you’re not going to have everything all at once perfectly balanced at the same time or even for a few weeks here and there. I do what I call, I fiercely prioritize, so there might be a situation where I am very full-on with work at Hive and there’s a particular project or a client opportunity where it requires me to have absolute tunnel vision on that and be very focused on that. That’s my duty and that’s my responsibility to my team, is to be at my best for that particular initiative. So, there will be no distractions. I’ll say to friends, “You know what, nope, have time for that dinner. You’re not going to see me for two weeks,” and then I know that once that passes yeah, of course, I’ll make time. Nope, not going to be able to go on holiday for the next couple of months, but I make sure that okay, in a couple of months, once things calm down a bit, absolutely, I’m going to take that two-week holiday. So, I think it’s about fiercely prioritizing and realizing that you know what, no, everything’s not going to get done. No, you can’t multitask all over the place. A lot of times, you do need to have laser focus on things and it just is what it is, and I think that you will have those people in your life that will understand that, you will have that support system that will be able to get you through and encourage you. That’s so important because balance is a myth, in my opinion.
Priscilla: Yeah, totally, agreed, especially as women and especially people who are balancing child-rearing and family obligations, life, like you were saying, we evolve over time and all of those things shift, and it’s not going to be the same every year.
Priscilla: Our priorities shift, right?
Cecilia: It’s true, and I think you need to really prioritize your mental health, you need to really prioritize yourself because you can’t pour from an empty cup and you need to make sure that you’re doing the things necessary so that you are not completely depleted. I think that’s so important to do, to really make sure that you’re focusing on those things where ultimately, you’re not juggling too many things. I think that we need to stop trying to glorify multitasking all over the place, burning ourselves out. To what purpose? It’s not necessary, and I think that’s why I’m really about focusing on those key priorities that you really need to focus on. Other things, okay, it’s going to be pushed to the side for a bit. It doesn’t mean that it’s not as important. It doesn’t mean that you’re never going to get to it, but we’re only human and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Priscilla: Totally. Awesome. So, my last question for you is, what do you think is something you wish you had known about your career years when you first embarked on your first job ?
Cecilia: My goodness. Yeah, if I could go back and do things differently, I guess, I think one thing I would do is have more fun. I think that I was so serious about everything and I was just trying to be so professional, and I think, I wish I would have spent more time hanging out with my coworkers, having fun just in life, hanging out with my friends a bit more because ultimately, we’re not going to get a second chance at this thing called life, and I think I could have really learned a lot from people on just different aspects of just life and living, and also career, so I wish I would have just took more time and just been less serious and just had more fun, and I think people could have also gotten to know the real me a lot sooner also. So, that’s definitely one thing, and I think the other thing is that I learned over time was create options for yourself. Don’t wait for somebody to tell you what your options are. I remember so many situations, and I see it now, even where people are like, “Oh, well, I’ll wait to see what happens at year end,” and then they’re disappointed once year end comes and they have that performance review and they get in that room and they don’t get told what they were expecting to be told and they don’t hear that number that they were expecting to hear, and it doesn’t have to reach that point where you’re just going to explode. Constantly explore your options, interview even when you absolutely love your job, understand what’s out there, keep in contact with at least two executive recruiters that will constantly tell you what the going rates are for people in your industry with your years of experience in terms of salary and compensation. I think that’s so important. You owe it to yourself, and I think sponsorship is so key also. If you don’t have the right sponsorship in your organization, so those people that are going to champion you for promotion in different opportunities for you to really showcase what you can do, then I think it’s one of the things where you need to start exploring your options.
Priscilla: Awesome. Thank you so much, Cecilia, for being with us today, you dropped so many gems and I can’t wait for people to hear your story.
Cecilia: Brilliant. Thank you so much, Priscilla, it’s been great.
Thanks for tuning in to The Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ECMpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community, and if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Have you ever felt frustrated that your career didn’t take a “linear” path? On this episode, Damon Reynolds walks us through his early career years that took him down some winding roads: from leaving college after sophomore year, to joining the Marine Corps for four formative years, to finishing his college degree in 2014, and finally breaking into management consulting at one of the most elite firms in the world, through his MBA. Check out Damon’s story to remind yourself that it’s OK if your journey takes a little bit longer or if your destination is not always clear.
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I had a recruiter tell me one time and I think this is where it clicked for me. She said to me, “When I’m looking for consultants, it’s one thing to be smart. We can find smart people all day, but I need the best communicators. Because you can be as smart as a whip, but if you can’t communicate, no one cares how smart you are.”
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Hey, everyone. Today we’re hearing from Damon Reynolds, who was my MBA classmate, friend, and is a fellow Houstonian. Damon is currently a consultant at BCG, one of the top management consulting firms in the world. But it wasn’t always clear that Damon would one day land there. He went to U of H for two years before deciding he wasn’t quite ready for the college experience and ended up leaving school to join the Marine Corps, which his parents were not too thrilled about. After his military service of four years, Damon finished his degree and went on to explore different career paths before discovering the world of management consulting. His story is a great reminder to never settle for less, to always pursue your dreams even if you get off track or if the journey takes a little bit longer. One thing that has always stood out to me about Damon is how fiercely he believes in himself. And that is something that I wish for all of you.
Priscilla: Hey, Damon, welcome to the show.
Damon: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Priscilla: Awesome. So Damon, why don’t we start by having you share a little bit about where you’re from, you know, a little bit about your background?
Damon: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a male so I identify as he/him/his. I grew up a little outside of Houston into a suburb called Missouri City, Texas. And I went to majority, minority high schools, as well as middle schools, those interactions and those environments definitely influenced who I am today. Initially, I did undergrad at the University of Houston. That’s a good…would say a non-traditional path to complete my bachelor’s degree.
Priscilla: Yeah. So let’s talk about that non-traditional path to get your bachelor’s. What made it non-traditional?
Damon: Yeah. So, I ended up at U of H straight out of high school. I got involved in the social life as we do when we go to a big school, you move out of your parents’ house for the first time. And so I got involved in social life and wasn’t necessarily focused on my studies. I didn’t have a major at the time. I was what you would call a general studies major, which just means you’re taking your general classes, haven’t declared a major yet. So I was just experiencing the college
life and not really focused on the academic part per se. And so when I say non-traditional, I actually decided to leave college about halfway through my sophomore year. I decided to leave and join the military.
Priscilla: Yeah. So what was motivating that decision to leave college for you?
Damon: So my freshman year of college, I realized that I may not be at the level of maturity that I need to be at to do this right now. I think that was a self-realization. It wasn’t like anyone told me or anything like that. It just, you know, sitting around and just maybe I need to do something else for a little while I figure this out and mature a little bit. And so it came up then, and at that point I brought it up to my father. “Hey, I’m thinking about joining the military,” and he quickly
shut it down. And it was like, no go basically. So I came back to school for my sophomore year. And then after my sophomore year or I would say the second semester of my sophomore year was when I made the decision personally for myself. But I think I made the decision based on the fact that I knew the Marine Corps was probably, you know, one of the more difficult services, as it relates to just the level of discipline that you have to have and the expectations that they have for you as a Marine and some of the responsibilities that you’re going to have. You’re almost forced to mature faster than most 18 to 19 year olds when you’re deployed to a country and people’s lives are online. And it was a forcing mechanism for me. I knew that joining the Marine Corps would be a forcing mechanism. It would force me to grow up. It would force me to mature. And that’s ultimately why I made the decision.
Priscilla: That’s really cool that you had that level of self-introspection at that point, where you’re able to reflect and say, “I’m not really ready for this experience yet, and I’m going to do something that’s different even though other people had thoughts and feelings about it.” But, yeah, so tell us about the transition to the military. I’m sure it was shocking, but were you really excited about this next chapter?
Damon: When I joined the Marine Corps, I felt great about the decision. Obviously, it’s a transition, right? You’re transitioning from being a young 18, 19 year old to being a Marine, a United States Marine, and all the expectations that come with that. But I don’t think I could have been more excited about the opportunity to just serve our country, as well as just grow as a person.
I think one of the things that the Marine Corps does a great job of, and it’s by the nature of what they do and who they are, they push you beyond whatever physical, mental, spiritual, emotional limits you think you have. They are going to push you beyond those. It’s just, when you go through bootcamp, when you go through combat training, when you’re deployed overseas for 8, 9, 10 months at a time, and you haven’t seen your family and you haven’t talked to anyone for 2 months, and the only thing is dirt and loud noises in the background, obviously, you are pushed beyond whatever limits you think you had. And I think there’s goodness in that because if you decide to separate from the military, the Marine Corps or whatever service and you decide to come back to civilian life or whatever you decide to pursue in your life, the fact that you went through some of those things, it allows you a level of confidence when you’re faced with some of the hardships and the obstacles that come in normal life. You say to yourself, “Hey, if I figured out a way to get through that, or if I figured out a way to get through this and I came out on the other side and I’m fine,” you’re able to go into whatever life may throw at you with a level of confidence that I think sometimes you just can’t get unless you’ve really been through some things.
Priscilla: Do you think that this experience really helped build your self-confidence?
Damon: Certainly some of that comes from being in the Marine Corps. One of the unique things about the Marine Corps is that you’re going to be asked to lead Marines at a very young age. There are 20-year-olds leading teams of Marines in combat situations. If you think about life outside the military life, outside the Marine Corps, at what organization can you walk into and there’s a 20-year-old that’s leading a team, right? Are you going to walk into Google or Facebook or Microsoft or Deloitte or BCG and see a 20-year-old leading a team of consultants or data scientists or project managers or program managers? Probably not. But in the Marine Corps, they ask you to do those things at a very young age. And so I think you just develop, you’re in front of guys. You’re motivating them, you’re coaching them, you’re mentoring them. And you’re doing that all at the age of 20, 21.
Priscilla: I remember you telling me that when you joined the military, this was the first time that you left the country. So how did being in the military impact your worldview? How did it change?
Damon: It made me feel small because I think we have our problems here and we have the things that we face on a daily basis here. And then when you go, for instance, being in Iraq and we did interact with people native to Iraq, and so it just reinforces how fortunate we are here and it truly makes you — it truly humbles you. And it just makes you feel small when you see some of the things that they’re facing on a daily basis, especially given that was my first time out of the country and in that environment, it just was like, wow. So this is what it’s like in other parts of the world or in some parts of the world, many parts of the world, quite for quite frankly. And so it just was a reminder of how fortunate we are here and to honestly never take that for granted. And I don’t — after experiencing that and traveling after that, just my worldview is that do not discount how fortunate you are and understand that there are people around the world that are facing many more obstacles.
Priscilla: So I know that after four years of being in the military, you decided to go back to school and finish your degree. How did you think through that decision and how did you decide what was next for you?
Damon: Yeah. Initially, I made the decision because I felt like after the four years of active duty service that I did, I felt like I was no longer being challenged. I personally gained everything that I needed from the Marine Corps. I grew as a man, as a person, as a human being. I matured. All the things that I was looking for to gain from my experience in the Marine Corps, I had gained. And so at that point, I just asked myself the question, “Okay. You’ve gotten everything from this.
You’re no longer feeling challenged. What’s next?” And so for me, the next thing was to go back to school, to go back and finish my degree, which was something that I didn’t complete previously. That was important to me, and at that time was the next challenge. “Hey, you didn’t get this right the first time. Let’s go back and do this the right way.” So I went back and I finished in about a year and a half after separating from the Marine Corps. I just put my head down to night classes, summer classes year round, basically, and finished in about a year and a half.
And, you know, I chose Poli Sci, my intention at that point in my life was to go to law school. It was around the time where, you know, Trayvon Martin and that situation happened and the George Zimmerman case. It seemed like on the news every day. And these issues are still, I’m still passionate about these types of things, right? And so I found myself really passionate about social justice and how can I impact people of color. And for me at that point in my life, I thought
getting a degree in political science and going to law school and working within the political arena to create institutions and structures that benefit people of color. I thought that was the way to go. And so I made the decision to study political science with hopes of going to law school at that time.
Priscilla: Yeah. So what made you decide to not go down the law school route?
Damon: I actually took a class in undergrad constitutional law and the professor was an amazing professor, but he made no secret of the fact that he structured the class exactly like law school and constantly reminded us of that. And just let us know, “Hey, I’m going to structure this just like law school. I want you all to get a taste of it. If you all are thinking about doing it, I want you to know what you’re getting yourself into.” And for me, I quite frankly just didn’t enjoy — the content was great. I love constitutional law. Learning about our constitution, I think everyone should do it. And everyone should have some knowledge of what’s in our constitution and what it means. The constant reading, the cases weren’t all that exciting. And so I was just like, “Ah, I’m not sure the law school is what’s going to stimulate me and truly challenging me in the ways that I want to be challenged.” And so at that point, I just made a decision not to pursue law school, but I immediately shifted to this idea of, “Okay, if I’m not going to do law school, how can I still impact the populations that I care about? How can I still work to create a better future for those people?” And so it wasn’t like a gave up on my dream. It was more of I just have to figure out a different way to impact the people that I care about.
Priscilla: Great. And better that you figured that out earlier rather than later. So how did you think through what was next for you after you finally had that bachelor’s degree in hand?
Damon: Yeah, so I actually went into financial services for some time. I spent my first year and a half after undergrad at AIG. I was working in their life and retirement division. So they provide financial services to a host of different organizations, basically 401(k) services to host of different organizations. And so basically I was a financial advisor within their Life and Retirement Division, working with the employees at the organizations that we provide our retirement services. So just giving people retirement advice, helping them save, think through what investments they should be, how their portfolio should be allocated, things like that. And it was really cool work.
I think I initially got into that because I fell in love with the capital markets. I started reading books my last semester of undergrad about the capital markets and just found myself fascinated by capital markets and was like, “How can I teach other people about this?” And I had a friend who was a financial advisor, who actually helped me to get on-boarded with AIG. And so that was really cool. We did that for a year and a half, and then I transitioned to JP Morgan, where
I was working in their private bank with their high net worth clients. At that point, doing similar work, helping them plan for the future, as far as it related to their investments and banking and mortgages, essentially everything, managing their entire relationship with JP Morgan. And so that was fun as well.
So that’s what I did for a while. And I think those were to figure out what’s next year. Still care about helping people of color. That hasn’t changed. It’s still a passion of mine. I’m not necessarily — I don’t feel like I’m doing that right now, but how can I get to that place? So I spent those years trying to figure that out.
Priscilla: Yeah. And that’s actually a really good point that sometimes there are months, periods, times in our life when we’re doing things in our career that don’t necessarily align with what we’ll be doing long-term but that’s okay, right. Because sometimes we’re uncertain about what to do next and we need to regroup and think about what is our next step. So I love that that was a part of your story. How did you find out about consulting?
Damon: Yeah, absolutely. So it was really cool, actually. I had no clue what consulting was when I was working at JP Morgan. I never heard of the industry, had never heard of the function, never heard of the role, quite frankly. And I had a client who at the time was working for McKinsey & Company, thinking he was an associate partner or so at McKinsey & Company. And so he was doing well and he would come in for his appointments and we would talk and I will see — I had access to these people’s entire financial life and so I could see what was going on. And I just thought to myself, “Okay, what is McKinsey?” I see this coming in every couple of weeks and then I see a — what is this? And so I Googled McKinsey & Company. And their website came up and so I did a little research, and then I went even further and started looking at websites like vault.com, which ranks the consulting firms and all these different areas and just really learning what this was.
And I found myself fascinated by it because one thing that has been consistent about me is I do enjoy being challenged. I think I tend to thrive in those types of environments. And so in the research that I was doing, I found that consulting is almost a constant challenge, right? You’re changing projects every three, four, five months. It’s oftentimes going to be new work that you’re doing, whereas you may have done a marketing case for a client, now you’re doing a risk
case for a client where you’re assessing the enterprise risk throughout the organization. And so to me, that was just, “Wow. Wait, you’re telling me I can get something new every three to six months, and it’s going to be a new challenge, and I don’t have to actually switch jobs to do that?” To me, that was really cool. And so that kind of started my pursuit of consulting, but then it turned into this, “Wow, this is an industry that quite frankly has not and I think they will admit it, their diversity numbers are not where they would like them to be. And so I also saw this as an opportunity to say that, “Okay, if I can do this, I can then go back to the communities that I care about and teach them how to do the same.”
Priscilla: Okay. So you identified that management consulting was where you wanted to go next, and this industry or this career can be a little heavily guarded. It’s not very easy to break into unless you know someone or you’re going through a school channel. So, yeah, did you have that feeling like almost like it was a secret career that you hadn’t heard of?
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Damon: Yeah, I felt the same way. It’s almost like a secret society because if you’re not in consulting or you don’t know someone who’s in consulting, you likely don’t know that consulting exists. And so to your point, I felt the same way that if you aren’t in an undergraduate program that they recruit from or you’re not in a graduate level program that they recruit from, the ways to get into this industry are very limited. And we’re doing this to help out younger individuals who are thinking about these things. And that’s something that you need to think about is if this is in fact something that you decide you want to do, just be aware of the difficulty of getting in and understand how you can so that you know what levers you have to pull to make it happen.
Priscilla: Totally. So let’s fast forward to you finally being in business school, getting ready for on-campus recruiting, which is the way that you can get your consulting job that you want. How did you think through telling your story about where you had been, as someone who really hadn’t worked in business and as someone who was a veteran, and just being able to package that into something that BCG would be looking for in a consultant?
Damon: Yeah, I think for me, I tried to lean on — because I came from a non-traditional background, political science degree, I’ve never really worked in business in any capacity. The roles that I had prior to business school were more relationship, sales-based roles. So I certainly wasn’t doing analysis in Excel. I think the only thing I used Excel for at that point was lists. And I knew that I didn’t have these technical skills that they would be looking for or anything like that.
So I relied more so on my personality a little bit, my ability to speak, articulate my thoughts pretty well, the confidence that comes from serving in the Marine Corps, and some of the things that I’ve been through in my life. I really relied on that during recruiting, where I was able to demonstrate that, hey, from a intellectual standpoint — we talk about intellectual horsepower sometimes in recruiting — from an intellectual standpoint, I was able to demonstrate that I can do this job in the case interviews.
But I think prior to that, I truly relied on my personality speaking well, confidence, and those types of things. And then also just talking to as many people as I could and building those relationships. I had a recruiter tell me one time, and I think this is where it clicked for me. And when she said this to me, it resonated and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to run with that.” She said to me, it was actually Opie, she was a recruiter for Accenture and she said to me, “When I’m looking for consultants,” she was like, “it’s one thing to be smart.” She was like, “We can find smart people all day.” She was like, “But I need the best communicators. Because you can be as smart as a whip. But if you can’t communicate, no one cares how smart you are.” And for me, that just really resonated.
Priscilla: That’s such a good point because soft skills really are just so critical in consulting or in any role where you’re on a team or you’re influencing, leading. And so I think that obviously you have those soft skills from your military experience. And a lot of the work that you did in recruiting was being able to convey that you were a leader and you had all of these skills that were very transferable.
So now you’re on the other side, you’re a successful consultant at BCG. You’ve made it. And my last question for you is, what would you tell your summer 2018 version of yourself when you were starting business school, starting to go through this recruiting process? What would you tell your younger self?
Damon: I would say the advice I would give to myself honestly, is don’t be too hard on yourself. We have these ideas of where we want to be in life and what we want to do and what we want to accomplish. And sometimes we hold ourselves to standards that even other people aren’t holding us to. I think sometimes we can be our own worst critic. You may have heard that before. And so for me at that point in time, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself, a lot of unnecessary stress. And if I could go back, I would just say to myself, “Hey, relax. Don’t stress yourself out. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be this perfect person because you feel like you have to be at…this point in your life.”
Priscilla: And that’s a great place to end. Don’t stress yourself out. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t take life too seriously. It’s too short. If we learned anything in 2020 is that life is too short. So thanks, Damon, for being here. I appreciate you.
Damon: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. This was fun.
Thanks for tuning into The Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ecmpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Private Equity is an exclusive, highly competitive and elite space within finance. It’s also very white and very male. Each year, hundreds of elite investment bankers and MBA grads from top schools try to break into PE to make upwards of $500K annually, and that’s without bonuses or carried interest.
Tiffany Luna, a Mexican-American daughter of immigrants who grew up in the South side of Chicago, was an unlikely candidate to break into private equity and become a principal by the age of 30, but that’s exactly what she did – in a very nontraditional way. On this episode, Tiffany doesn’t hold back on what it took to break into – and succeed in this space.
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Tiffany: I feel like the expectation is you have to come twice as prepared. You have to be maybe even three times as prepared and you have to be twice as vocal as everyone else and a little bit more aggressive and also more kind and also more everything, which is really hard to balance and learn and adapt to.
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone. Today’s episode is pure fuego. You don’t want to miss Tiffany Ramirez Luna. She is my college acquaintance from Wellesley and broke into private equity in a very non-traditional way. She didn’t do it going through the investment banking route that most people do. She actually did it on her own. Pre having an MBA and now she has an MBA from Northwestern Kellogg. This episode is a little longer than my normal ones, but it’s because as I was editing, I just could not get myself to cut out some of this juiciness. We talk about imposter syndrome, working in a male-dominated environment, the hidden rules of working in elite spaces, and how she’s dealt with some major BS to get to where she is today as a private equity principal in Chicago.
Priscilla: Hey, Tiffany, welcome to the show.
Tiffany: Thank you so much Pricilla, I really appreciate you having me here today.
Priscilla: Of course. So Tiffany, we’re here to talk about your really exciting career path in private equity. You and I crossed paths at Wellesley College many years ago, and it’s been so cool to see your success in the private equity finance world. You got your MBA at Northwestern and you’ve just been killing it, so really excited to dive in. Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about how you grew up in Chicago?
Tiffany: Yeah, of course. So I am a first-generation Mexican-American. I was born and raised in the South side of Chicago. And as you mentioned, I went to school at Wellesley with you and then came back to Chicago right after, pretty shortly after starting my career up in private equity. And I got there through a really unique path that I actually want to talk about it. It started in high school. So I went to high school in South side of Chicago at a school called Cristo Rey. And I don’t know if you’ve heard of it before, but pretty Cristo Rey has a program where students can work, not can, they all work actually at a corporate position one day out of the week and use that to pay for their tuition. And so when I was in high school, I worked in private equity. I worked at a private equity firm here in Chicago and that’s how I got my start. Now, back when I was doing that, I was obviously 15, 16, 17. I was there for four years. I was really young, not doing any type of private equity type work at all, but it really was my first exposure to it and I’d say how I got started down the private equity path.
Priscilla: Yeah, like it planted a little seed for you.
Tiffany: It did. And what’s interesting, it did it in two ways. First when I was there, I had a really rough time because the environment was so different from everything that I had experienced growing up. I’d say that growing up, I was relatively sheltered in terms of my exposure to different types of people. I lived in a Mexican neighborhood. I went to a Mexican school. All the students were Mexican or like 99% of them were Mexican. My grammar school, my high school was the same way. So I didn’t have as much exposure to different types of people and different ideas until I started working. And when I started working, it was a culture shock, I’d say, because I, all of a sudden, got access to all these different types of people that had all these different types of backgrounds and this field, private equity, that is almost exclusive in a way, but it was a good way to start getting an idea of how things worked, and that’s where it started.
Priscilla: Yeah, I can totally imagine how intimidating it would be to be a teenage Mexican-American girl from Chicago at a private equity firm. It just sounds like a totally different world. But yeah, so you went to Wellesley. I know you were an international relations history major, and obviously you did not pursue anything in that world. So how did you end up landing in private equity after college?
Tiffany: Yeah. So right after graduation, it was so tough. I remember applying to so many different places and not getting jobs. And my loans were looming and I thought I have to find something. And I want to be picky but I don’t want to be too picky because I want to be able to pay this stuff back at the same time and not be in debt. So right out of school, what I did is I did a couple different positions, one was more hedge fund oriented and it was temporary. And I knew it was temporary leading to a potential of the long-term full-time position but I didn’t like it. And so I thought, “Okay, this is the first one. I won’t get sad if I go onto something else.” So then I moved on to a more of a consulting role, which I did not like very much for myself. The pace was a little bit off for me. So I kept trying to look for PE positions and I couldn’t find anything just because most PE firms, when they’re hiring for their junior base, for their analysts or their associates, they’re looking for people that have investment banking experience. That’s just the way it is. It’s a very traditional route that most people take to get into PE. So I wasn’t having any luck, but I had all these great connections that kept hooking me up to different people and different networks. And so I thought, “Okay, there has to be something here for me.” And so through some of that networking, someone mentioned to me about a position at the firm where I’m at currently. And the interesting thing is when I applied to that job, the person who is now my boss said, “I would love to have you and I would love to hire you as a junior person. But because we’re not a dedicated PE firm, we’re like a smaller group within this asset manager is we grow as our allocations grow. So we can’t hire you right now but I want to keep you on board.” So I was like, “Okay, well, how are we going to make that happen?” And here’s the interesting thing. So he offered me a position as their admin. And I was like, “No, I did not go to Wellesley, I did not go through all this stuff to be an admin.”
Priscilla: Yeah. I feel like that would be super triggering and messed up if I was interviewing somewhere after college with a college degree and they were like, “You can be my admin,” right?
Tiffany: I agree, Priscilla, it totally is. I was like, “Are you serious? Is this what we’re going to do?” I kept applying to different places and I kept talking to people that were mentoring me and I feel like something interesting happened. So one, I felt like I started getting a little bit more desperate because it was, again, the loans and all my bills and everything was coming up and I thought, “I have to pay for this stuff.” And the other thing that happened is I had another conversation in a follow-up with my current boss and he said, “What would you like to do? What can we do to bring you on board?” And I said, “Look, I’m going to go get my MBA. I am going to be successful in finance. This is my plan.” I was like, “I have a plan.” I was like, “I can’t come in and not know that I don’t have a potential position.” And so we made an agreement. He said, “If you work for me as our admin for two years, I will let you work for us like you’re our analyst. You will do everything. You will sit on every meeting. You will talk to the attorneys, to management teams. You will have access to everything that everyone on a deal team does. You can run an entire deal with the deal team, but I need you to answer phones and book flights too.” And I took it and I was like, it killed me, Priscilla, it really killed me. At first I was ashamed that I did it and I was like, “But they’re offering me this option.” And I thought, “And if it doesn’t happen, I’ll leave.” I kept saying, “If it doesn’t happen, I’ll leave,” and it happened. The way my boss, to his credit, exactly how he promised, I did two years and then we brought in someone else and they put me through business school. And now, I mean, I’m a principal now. I’ve worked on deals since day one. I looked, I learned everything from them. I learned how to do the modeling, everything I would have done in banking I did with them, but as an admin. And I got other roles, like I got promoted to analyst before becoming a principal. But it was the toughest thing to do because I had to eat my own ego, swallow it. But at the same time, I don’t know that I would have been able to get in if I hadn’t done it because I didn’t do investment banking.
Priscilla: Because that is the traditional role, right? Like, you have to do your two years and then they start recruiting you from either PE or hedge funds, right?
Priscilla: Yeah. It’s amazing that you were able to do that.
Tiffany: Yeah, that is exactly the traditional route to do. And even then, it’s very difficult because here in Chicago, and this is like many other cities too, there’s only a select number of PE firms. There’s a lot more in New York. There’s a lot more in the coasts but here in Chicago, there’s only a certain number. So there’s a lot of students who are coming out and even out of business schools with some type of experience, and they’re all competing for these same roles, and it’s just, it’s extremely competitive, extremely competitive. So what you end up doing is you end up getting a huge base of people that are applying to these jobs, and then it just comes down to the small details. Everyone starts being top of their class, full-rounded people, everyone’s excellent at everything. And so it’s okay, who knows someone that knows someone? And a lot of times that’s how people end up getting hired, because everyone is so excellent at what they do. Do you know what I mean? So it it’s just extremely difficult. And that’s how you ended up getting a lot of the same type of people working in PE, because people look for people that look like them. And so that’s my background. That’s how I got in.
And when I went to business school, I mentioned at the beginning of business school, people would ask, people who were interested in getting in private equity, and they were very bothered by it. They were very bothered that I slipped through the cracks or I got in through the back door. And I’d say that in the beginning, I felt really bad about myself thinking, “Hey, this is not the right way to do it like I did.” I got this imposter syndrome feeling, where I didn’t earn this, I didn’t do it the way I should have. But honestly, by the time business school was over, oh, that was gone. I ended up realizing that there were people that I had worked with at school who had gone the investment banking route and didn’t have the experience or the knowledge of certain things that I’d already been exposed to, that I was already doing even though I had been an admin. So I credit that to my department, to my company, and to my coworkers who honestly said, “We’re going to do this, we’re going to bring you in,” and did it for me the entire time. And they continued to do that for me.
Priscilla: Well, that’s good on them, but definitely I’m sure that was scary and risky for you to trust them and hope that it would work out, right? And now you’ve been there for nearly nine years. Is that right?
Tiffany: Yeah, it’ll be 10 years in May, so I’ve been there for a while. And I thought about it a lot early on, where I thought maybe it’s not true, maybe they’re not going to help me get through or it’s false promises and it’s not something. But I didn’t want to risk it and I thought, “You know what, I’m going to work my ass off.” And I worked my ass off really hard to get where I am, and I learned everything I could, and I try to absorb all the information that they were throwing at me. And I’m glad I did, I’m glad I did. I’m glad that I had that time. Now I feel in a great position, every time we get anyone who’s coming in new, who doesn’t understand, who needs guidance, I like to be the first one to step out and help them just because I understand what it is to be in a position of not knowing what’s ahead in PE.
Priscilla: Kind of like you mentioned earlier, PE is a very elite industry. It’s an elite space. A lot of people don’t know what it is. So how do you explain to their family members what private equity work entails?
Tiffany: I explain it to my family and my extended family as house flipping. That’s the easiest way to explain it because I was like, “Look guys, we buy companies with pools of money that people,” I was like, “If you guys give me a bunch of money and I buy a house and then I flip it, and I give you proceeds.” I was like, “That’s what we’re doing. It’s a large pool of money from people coming in. We’re buying a company that we think has good potential or is in distress position and we could turn around or different scenarios, we try to clean them up, fix them up and sell them. And the idea is that when we sell them, they’re better companies than they were when we purchased them.” So on a large scale, that’s how I explained it to my family as house flipping, and it seems to be a good explanation for them. So it’s an easy way for them to understand, I think.
Priscilla: When you started in this world, it’s not like you had a BBA, right, like a bachelors in business. You had to probably fill in a lot of learning gaps for yourself. So how did you end up ramping up and learning what you needed to do to do the work?
Tiffany: When I first started, like you mentioned, my background was in international relations. I’ve taken some econ courses or required courses but no finance courses. So what I did was while I was working full-time, I took nighttime courses in accounting, in finance, in modeling. So I was supplementing what I was learning in real-time with some of those courses in some of the local schools here in Chicago. I did classes at Northwestern. They were continuing studies program for students that already have gotten their bachelors, who want to take college level or higher, depending on which courses you were taking courses in. And that’s how I did accounting and finance.
Priscilla: Got it. And so did they help you pay for that or were you just, “I’m just going to pay for this”?
Tiffany: Nope, they helped me pay for it. I told them, I was like, “Guys,” I was like, “if I’m going to do this, I need to understand what it is that we’re doing.” And they work a hundred percent for it. I think that’s rare. I don’t think that there’s a lot of companies nowadays that do stuff like that, but they were able to help me through whatever courses I needed and I would just pitch it. I would say, “Hey, there’s this class. I think it’s really good. I think it would benefit me.” I’d write up the value that I thought it would bring. And then if they thought that it was something that I could benefit from, they’d approve it. And ultimately that’s how I was able to get through some of those courses early on, which I think actually helped me. So by the time I was applying to business school for the MBA, it was really beneficial and really good to reinforce even to the business school, “Hey, this is something I’m really dedicated to. I’ve been dedicated to this for a couple of years. I took these courses, some at your business school.” So it was also helpful there in that aspect, but that’s one way that I started learning more of the technical side.
I think the other side is really just talking to people and finding mentors internally, who have experience in PE, who’ve done it for a couple of years. And one of my colleagues, who really is a mentor and has been a mentor for a couple of years for me, I’d say he’s the one that really took me in early on when I had so many questions about a lot more detailed things that we were doing on a day-to-day basis with deals. So that would be my recommendation is maybe look for ways to add to your education where you’re missing gaps and also find people who can give you the reality of it, right? Because in the classroom, you tend to learn the academic way to do things but it’s not always the way that things work in reality. I’ve taken classes even at the business school level that this is the way things should do and we should calculate valuations or do this XYZ method, and in real life, that’s not how it’s done. And it may or may not be the correct way but it’s not done the way they do it in business school. So getting someone who can walk you through the reality of it too is very helpful.
Priscilla: And why do you think that PE firms do only recruit from ibankers? Is there a real reason for that? Or do you think it’s just like an antiquated system and pipeline?
Tiffany: I have a theory for that. I think it’s two main reasons. One, I think they don’t have the time to train people. They don’t want to have to sit there and wait for people to have everything explained to them, to get these rotation programs or anything going on. Some do but it’s very rare. It’s easier for larger PE firms to just have people filtered in and taught through investment banking. The other reason I think is because it actually helps filter people. I think it filters people because investment banking is a grind. It’s a lot of work and you work long hours and that’s an expectation for when you get to private equity. And so if you can’t handle it, when you’re doing it through investment banking, it almost weeds people out. And I think it helps get a better pool of candidates that are used to the workload to get rid of the people who just don’t have what it takes to get that kind of work schedule and work-life balance working for them.
Priscilla: So I think people know that there’s a lot of money that can be made in private equity and that’s what makes it such a highly coveted and very elite space to get into. Has that been your experience? Would you agree with that?
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Tiffany: Yeah, I mean, I don’t disagree. PE definitely does offer a lot of people in terms of salary. There’s three different types of ways to incentivize like an employee, there’s that base salary, then there’s also the bonus pools. So your bonus pool would be a certain percentage of your salary, anywhere between 20%, 50% up to 50% or more. So you can have that on top of it based on performance. And then there’s that third aspect, which I think is actually probably one of the biggest factors that get people interested is carry, and carry offers people who are getting into private equity, maybe not the analysts and associates, usually it’s more senior people. It gives them the ability to invest certain percentage of their own money and that percentage is allocated to them from the top. So the bosses, whoever’s in charge, they’ll get a certain percentage that they are to invest alongside the investor base. So you’re investing your own money in these deals and it’s supposed to incentivize you, because you have skin in the game. So depending on how well that company does, once you exit the transaction, I mean, the return on the deal is the return you’re getting on your invested portion. So you’re locking up money for a while, depending on how long you hold a company for. But in the long run, it gives you a great opportunity if you have deals that generate pretty big multiples at exit. So people love it but at the same time, I’m going to tell you, people work hard for it. It’s hard hours. You’re working all the time. You have so much invested that you really can’t afford for it to fail.
Priscilla: Yeah. And what has it been like being a Latina in private equity when there’s so few of you, if any, right? What is that like, how do you deal with the imposter syndrome that has maybe come up for you?
Tiffany: Yeah. I have had some very interesting experiences. It’s been really hard, to be honest. I feel like my team and my group has been really kind and really helpful to the extent that they can in guiding me and helping me to meet new people. And the different people that I meet, whether they be management teams, CEOs, CFOs, or maybe either lawyers, attorneys that we work with or whatever, consultants, whoever it is that we’re meeting, different people tend to react very differently to me. When I go to a board meeting or I walk into a boardroom where I’ve never met the people before, I tend to get stares. I think most people think, “Oh, she must be confused, she must not know where she is,” because they seem very confused by me being there.
I’ve had some really nasty experiences that have left me bad taste in my mouth. I’ll give you an example. It was the first time we’re meeting a management team for a company that we were looking to potentially acquire. We flew over to New York. I went with two other colleagues and we’re all in suits. It’s a suit meeting and we’re walking into the conference room. It’s supposed to be about 20 people or so in the conference room. And I’ve one colleague in front of me, one colleague behind me, and the management team is lined up shaking everyone’s hand as we walk in. And so as I’m walking in and I started shaking everyone’s hand saying hello, introducing myself, and we’re all walking in the line. And one of the people from the C-suite shakes my colleague’s hand in front of me, and then goes over my head and then shakes my colleague’s hand behind me, and completely skips me, just literally what right over my head and did not even shake my hand. And I get stuff like that more often than you would believe. I get people who come to meetings and, I don’t know, don’t realize that I’m part of the group. I really don’t know what excuses they can come up with. But stuff like that happens so much more than you would believe it to happen. And it’s really sad and it’s been really hard to deal with because it’s hard enough with that imposter syndrome to make yourself believe that you belong there. And then when you have other people doing stuff like that, it really adds to it.
But over the years, I’d say my skin has gotten so much thicker and I’ve become a lot more in-your-face when people do stuff like that to me. And so like in that example, I stayed right in front of them. The person who didn’t shake my hand, the line stopped moving because I stopped moving and everyone kept — and he looks at me and I stuck my hand right under his nose and then he goes, “Oh, hi,” and introduces himself. But it takes stuff like that to get them to realize, “Hey, I’m in the room. I’m also part of this team. I’m not here to clean the table or do stuff like this.” I think it’s been interesting to see how some people react so well to me, other people don’t, it’s just a mixed bag. It’s not always the people you would expect but I guess, one, getting a thick skin has helped me and honestly, two, sometimes getting the support of colleagues when they notice it. Cause we’ve had a conversations now internally with our group after some of the experiences that I’ve had, where they’re now being a lot more aware as to what’s happening when people interact with me versus how they interact with them.
Priscilla: That is so challenging. That feels, I mean, not only is your job so demanding physically, intellectually, your time, but to have that on top of everything, to feel invisible in the room, it’s just such a terrible feeling.
Tiffany: Yeah. And one of the reasons that I really wanted to get my MBA is to say, “I want to continue to level out the playing field.” I don’t want anyone to have an excuse to say she did not come prepared. She is not as prepared as some of our own or doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I feel like the expectation is you have to come twice as prepared. You have to be maybe even three times as prepared and you have to be twice as vocal as everyone else and a little bit more aggressive and also more kind and also more everything, which is really hard to balance and learn and adapt to, but it is, that’s just the reality of it. It’s the only way that I can manage to sometimes get a word in or get someone to give me attention. Now, the interesting thing is I’ve had friends that I’ve made in the same industry who are Latinos, who are men and they don’t have as much of a tough time. Now, I don’t know if that’s everyone, but the few friends that I have who are Latinos in PE who are men don’t seem to have the same experience. And it’s so frustrating to me.
Priscilla: Yeah. So it’s funny you say that because I was literally just thinking that. I was thinking, “I bet it’s so hard as women of color to compartmentalize those identities because we’re just all of that all of the time,” right? But I think in finance, like we talked about a little earlier, it is so male-dominated and it’s shocking to have a woman principal period in the room who knows what she’s talking about, who could command the room. And so they’re able to look past, and I say look past intentionally, like your race, if you’re a man.
Tiffany: Yeah. And I’ve had to do other things to adapt. I had to golf when I was at Wellesley. And I took it for fun but then when I started working where I’m at now, I thought, “Oh, this is going to come in handy.” And a lot of my colleagues make and develop relationships through golf. And so I thought, “No, hell no, I’m not saying behind. I need to keep up. I’m not going to have the excuse that I didn’t make contacts or connection because I don’t golf.” So I took up golf lessons and I bought golf clubs and I took lessons. And now if the invitation goes out, I have a conversation again with my colleagues telling them, “Hey, it’s unfair. I’m not developing relationships because you guys are golfing and I’m not getting an invite.” And so they make sure to speak up for me now if anyone invites them and say, “Hey, Tiffany golfs too. She should come.” But the things we have to go through just to get in there and be part of the same conversations, it’s annoying and it’s very difficult.”
Priscilla: Yeah. Playing golf to fit in and not miss out on any critical conversations that can advance your career. It’s crazy that as women, we have to be thinking about those things, especially if we’re working in male-dominated spaces. So what were other things that maybe you have done or situations that you’ve been in, where you’ve had to really think about what are the hidden rules of this elite space?
Tiffany: In the beginning, I remember we’d go to annual meetings and we’d be sitting at dinner and they always seat you with a variety of people so you don’t just sit with your colleagues, et cetera. And I remember hearing conversations between the people at the table, “We’re going skiing to over here. Oh, my children play lacrosse and this and that.” And here, I kept thinking like, “Here I am, this tiny little Latina from the South side of Chicago.” I’m like, “I played basketball. That’s the only thing I could talk to you about.” But being able to have those conversations about topics that you know nothing about, it’s tricky. And I think that learning how to maybe guide the conversation towards other areas where you can participate, that’s what becomes a little bit more helpful. And it’s what I’ve been trying to do over the last few years, where once people start talking about things that I have no experience and I have nothing to be able to relay, I try to get that conversation somewhere else and ask different questions that lead people towards things that I do know something about or that I do have experienced, just so that they won’t exclude me from that conversation.
Priscilla: Yup. And have you had to mute different parts of yourself or code switch at work in order to really be successful?
Tiffany: Yes, yes, every time. I think it tends to be a very conservative space and a very traditional space. And PE has this thing where cultural fit is big. And if there’s something about you that doesn’t fit, then that’s a point against you. That’s a reason not to hire you. That’s a reason not to get you because you’re not a cultural fit. So what you end up doing is you end up hiding a lot about your life or about where you’re from or what you believe in if you are different because you don’t want to risk being flagged as the person that’s a bad cultural fit. And PE, there’s no fear of letting people go who are not cultural fits, that’s common. And if you’re a junior person and I feel like you start exposing yourself, then you’ll be cut out. And it stinks because why would you want everyone to be exactly the same? The companies we buy sell products to people that are so different. You want variety, and they want variety at some level, some opinion of it, but if you’re cutting it out from the bottom when you’re getting analysts and associates come in, I just don’t know how that’s going to change. But yeah, I’d say it’s something that I’ve curved a lot in the beginning. I think now that I’m moving up, I’m trying to curve it a lot less and be a lot more vocal just because I feel more secure in my position, and I feel like I can say things without the fear of all they’ll realize that no, I’m problematic or they don’t want me here and will just say, “Sorry, you’re not a good fit.”
Priscilla: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of D&I work that has to be done in finance, for sure. So my next and last question for you, what is your recommendation for people who want to get into private equity? Maybe it’s through the more traditional iBanking MBA path, but what’s your general advice about breaking into this industry?
Tiffany: Yeah. I’d say it’s a couple things. One, prepare yourself as much as you can. Try to get to business school, try to get through places that have — if you’re doing the investment banking route, try to go through the big names, that’ll make it easier to get into. And then the other thing I’d say is if you’re choosing to go in through a non-traditional route, it is possible, definitely is possible. I got there and not just myself. I didn’t mention this earlier but every one of my colleagues, none of us went through investment banking. There’s 10 of us and all of us came from non-traditional routes. Some did consulting, some were auditors. Others, for example, a close colleague of mine, he came in as a lawyer for PE and he was hired from the lawyer from our legal side, sent to business school, and then continued working for us. So he went in through the legal aspect of it. And then another person came in through operations. So he actually worked at a company, worked in the operations team, learned about the companies from the inside and then joined PE. And that was super beneficial and I think it’s something that maybe coming a little bit more common now, just because a lot of PE firms want to be able to hire people who actually have experienced working a company. You can manage a company a lot better if you’ve worked in one, if you’ve known how it functions. So I think that’s also — you can make really strong point and be able to get into PE through that method especially, for example, if you have experienced in, let’s say, healthcare, strong experience in healthcare and you’re looking at a PE firm who’s focused in healthcare, then you’re a strong asset for them. So, looking at different ways, that’s helpful. And then the only other route that I would suggest too, just to wrap this up is, you don’t always have to end up at the big PE firms. There are asset managers, there are family offices, there are endowments, pension funds. There’s so many different types of firms that you can go to that have a PE wing to them. And you can start there and then work your way up and transfer over to the large PE firm, if ultimately that’s where you want to end up.
Priscilla: Amazing advice. Thank you, Tiffany, for being with us today and letting us hear your story and allowing yourself to be so vulnerable, opening up about the hardships involved. So thank you.
Tiffany: Yeah, no, of course it’s tough but it’s really rewarding. And if people can get a little bit more exposure to it and really understand it, then I think it’s something that more people would be willing to try. But thank you so much for having me.
Thanks for tuning into The Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ecmpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
After graduating from Morehouse College in 2014, Nate Jones only spent a couple of years working in the financial services industry before deciding to merge his passion for improving the socioeconomic status quo for low-income neighborhoods with his financial and analytical skillset. Nate went on to co-found the Village Microfund, a social impact fund empowering entrepreneurs in Metro Atlanta by providing access to capital, business education, and a “Village” of support. In 2020, Nate was named one of HBCUVC’s “31 under 31” emerging leaders in venture capital. On this episode, he talks candidly about his early career experiences and decisions, while inspiring us all to stay motivated and make the world a better place.
Check out the Highlights:
1:44- How Nate decided to pursue investment banking and finance
3:51- Nate talks about struggling in his first job out of college in Atlanta, but how it strengthened him in the end
5:38- Nate joins Center for Civic Innovation in Atlanta, and begins to flex his entrepreneurial muscles
8:41- Starting Village Microfund, and what that was like
10:16- Nate talks about his “why” and what drove him to start this fund
14:22 – Why Nate decided to go get his MBA
16:07- Nate reflects on what it’s like to be recognized for his work in venture capital
18:28 – Navigating the venture capital space while Black, and what that means to Nate
Links Mentioned In Episode:
Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
Nate: I actually ended up sneaking into the Goldman Sachs dinner that was on Spelman’s campus that was adjacent to Morehouse’s campus and ended up hitting it off really well with one of the partners, and, I ended up getting two interviews, and, the first one I completely bombed because I didn’t even know what investment banking was…(laughs).
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killin it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: On this episode, you get to hear from Nate Jones, who graduated from Morehouse College in 2014 and is co-founder of the Village Microfund out of Atlanta. In 2020, Nate was named one of HBCUVC’s 31 under 31 future leaders in venture capital. He talks about his first job challenges, what drove him to co-found the Village Microfund, and what it’s like to navigate the venture capital space as a Black man.
Priscilla: Well, hey Nate! Welcome to the show! I’m so excited to have you on today.
Nate: Yeah. Thanks for asking me on.
Priscilla: Of course. So let’s start with your Morehouse chapter. I know you were an econ sociology double major. Around that time, what were you thinking about in terms of career interests and then what did you end up doing after graduation?
Nate: I had a, I guess a mentor kind of family friend of sorts that used to be an investment banker, back in his day. And, I got a chance to spend two weeks with him or something. And, he had a really nice house and a really nice car. And I was like, I was like, yo, I was like, what do you do? And he was like, yeah, no, I used to be an investment banker. And I was like, all right, that’s what I want to do. Yeah, to be honest with you, I just, that’s the only thing I was shooting at when I was in, in undergrad. When I was, I dunno, freshman, sophomore year, I had decent grades, but not, 3.7+ by any means. And, didn’t really understand that, you needed to be like, top of the class and all the professors have to love you, and the career services office, like needs to vouch for you. When the banks came to campus, I didn’t really get the initial nod, one, because I was an econ and those things went to the finance majors, but, two, I just wasn’t super aware of what was happening, nor did I really understand much about finance at the time. I just knew they made a lot of money. But, so I actually ended up sneaking into the Goldman Sachs dinner that was on Spelman’s campus that was adjacent to Morehouse’s campus and ended up hitting it off really well with one of the partners, who actually got his PhD in educational economics. So the stuff that I was beginning to explore was stuff that he was really excited to talk about. And, I ended up getting two interviews, super days and like interview requests and, the first one I completely bombed because I didn’t even know what investment banking was…(laughs). And then I was super nervous and then the second one, I had a, a free trial if you will. And I did well on that one. And, so I ended up doing my two summers in undergrad at Goldman and, joined for a small bit after I graduated and then, ended up leaving and moving back to Atlanta to work on some entrepreneurial projects.
Priscilla: Very cool, which we’ll get to in a second, but tell us a little bit about that job that you had once you moved to Atlanta. I remember you told me it was a little challenging, what was challenging about it and what did you get out of it?
Nate: It was a cool role. I was on an investment team at a private credit fund in Atlanta. And, I was an analyst under an associate senior associate type of guy. And, really all we did all day was try to buy portfolios of debt. And, I was in Excel all day and trying to brush up on my analytical skills and understand what an analytical skill was. And, the experience was good because I learned how to illustrate a problem in Excel mathematically, but that was a really rough ride to get there. I didn’t know how to communicate with my boss. Didn’t really know how to communicate my work style. Like I didn’t know how to set boundaries, I just thought, if I work hard and do my thing, everything will work out. I stayed there for maybe, I don’t know, maybe 11 to 12 months at most. And, eventually left and joined a spot called Center for Civic Innovation, which was social entrepreneurship plus policy. And that was stuff that I was far more into. Those skills I learned there, it’s probably one of the most important and impactful experiences that I’ve, really ever had because it was just hardcore math, excel analytics. And, that was a skill set that, the folks that, that I was beginning to work with, didn’t really have. And, it was a blessing in disguise.
Priscilla: Definitely, yeah, I would say that there’s a season for everything. Even the work that can be really challenging can end up serving us so well in the future and it sounds like the quantitative skill set that you built really helped you in your next chapter at CCI in something that was a lot more exciting for you. So tell us about CCI. What did you do there?
Nate: Yeah, so CCI, stands for Center for Civic Innovation, is an organization that kind of spun out of the city of Atlanta. The city of Atlanta used to have an innovation office. And, my boss at the time, a guy named Rohit, he’s from Atlanta and convinced the city to let him take over this innovation office. And basically what he was trying to prove was that charity work should be viewed as economic development work, not as philanthropy. And, so we were looking to find, train and invest in entrepreneurs that were solving social problems in their neighborhoods. There was a barber, a guy named Latif, and he was doing kind of mental health training at his barbershop while he was cutting hair. And, In a perfect world, we should be able to tie some of those social improvements to things that mean dollars and cents. So I guess a quick tangent: there’s a thing called a social impact bond. And basically it’s like nonprofits and foundations that are investing in nonprofits, instead of giving them a grant, they might give them a loan or structural way that they can get their money back. And, the nonprofit will do work to cause some type of cost savings for a city. For example, if the police department spends $20 million in overtime fees to police officers to transport homeless folks to a facility or to a home, you should probably just invest in a nonprofit that does homeless work. And that could cause you know, this $20 million expense to maybe be $10 million in one year and then $5 million in the next year. There’s some value that can be created from typically what we consider charity work. So you know, the job was really to try to find those types of entrepreneurs and help them build better businesses.
Priscilla: Yeah, that sounds super exciting. What kind of boxes did that job check for you in terms of career fulfillment at the time?
Nate: Yeah, at first I wanted to get out of a computer all day…(laughs). So that was cool. I think I’m a pretty social person and I think I do my best work when I’m in community and able to talk to folks and try to solve problems and that role was really cool. It was a super cool office space, smart people that I was around. And, I was really into, trying to, understand more about, selfishly even my own interests. I had always been interested in things like finance and culture and Sociology stuff. And, this role was able to connect the dots on those two things. So it was a really fun experience there.
Priscilla: Yeah! And this whole time you started working on those entrepreneurial projects that you mentioned, namely Village Microfund. So tell us a little bit about what Village Microfund is because it’s still in existence, and what did that look like for you while you were working full-time?
Nate: Village is an impact fund that tries to train and invest in entrepreneurs in low-income neighborhoods. And, the way that we do that is through debt and equity based crowdfunding. So the first business that we invested in was a pizza shop. They had an oven that wasn’t putting out pizzas very fast. And they weren’t able to go to Bank of America or Chase to go get a small business loan. One because the loan size was very small, and two, because Chase and Bank of America just aren’t in low-income neighborhoods because it doesn’t make sense for their business model. You end up with this issue where you have entrepreneurs, customers, and citizens in neighborhoods that are engineered out of the capital market. So they’re not able to raise money to get their business going or anything like that. That was Village and, in those early days, it was crazy. I left New York to start that and it was just a lot of me putting 11 to 12:30 lunch meetings on my calendar and flying all across the city and trying to take meetings and trying to get back to work super quickly. And, that definitely got me in trouble a few times…(laughs). But, that’s kinda what it was. It was nights, weekends and crazy lunch meetings and breakfast meetings and stuff. So yeah. Labor of love.
Priscilla: What was really driving you when you were working on this, when you were running around town and trying to take these meetings and balancing your full-time job? I’m sure you had a strong “why”, so what was that “why” for you?
Nate: Yeah. I think the big driving factor was my experiences in DeSoto and Dallas. My folks live on the South side of Dallas in DeSoto, which is like a South suburb, maybe 10, 15 minutes south of the city. And my mom worked on the north side of the city and I would drive with her sometimes from the south side to the north side and, just see, like why is there a Chipotle on the north side? And we don’t have any restaurants on the south side? Like, why are the homes on the south side boarded up and the ones on the north side look super duper nice, or, I remember I was driving through this super nice neighborhood with my mom once. And, there were toys, in the middle of, the lawn, the front lawn. And I was like, okay, did they not think those are going to get stolen? Like, why are these out here like this? (laughs) And, very early experiences to understand that problems around economic development aren’t just, there’s no silver bullet for it. Public health issues impact health which impact your ability to get jobs and, funding for education and housing taxes and infrastructure and transportation to be able to get to your job. All of those issues are interconnected and, really, I started village with the thought to do something to try to solve that. Even at the very beginning, it was just like a passion project where we were just thinking through stuff, the ultimate goal is to try to create some type of infrastructure that can help neighborhoods across the country. So that’s kinda, what was the driving force behind it.
Priscilla: And now, a quick message from our sponsor.
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Priscilla: Yeah. So you ended up deciding to go to business school to get your MBA. Tell me why you decided to get your MBA, like, what happened? Why didn’t you keep going with the Village Microfund?
Nate: Yeah. Two big things. One, this pizza shop that we’d invested in, and another restaurant, this lady named Miss D, she had a cafe that was next to the Westview Pizza Cafe. And, the neighborhood that we were working in, which was called Westview, which is West Atlanta. Basically, an investor came in and bought the building where those two entrepreneurs worked and eventually kicked both of them out. And, while we had trained a bunch of entrepreneurs, it was far more difficult then to try to raise capital to invest in them. And those two businesses were our shiny projects that we were able to fundraise around and get people excited around. And, over the course of a month or two, they just weren’t there anymore. And a few things we were starting to think about is like, how can we do bigger projects? How can we buy real estate? How can we really give people catalytic money instead of $15, $20,000 financing, like how can we do a hundred, 200, 300, a million dollars, and try to really make a real difference for them. And, I was like, okay, I probably need to go to school and get some other experiences to understand how to do this. So that was one and two, to be honest with you, I was just burnt out. Like I had, at that point, four or five years of running ragged and just being dirt broke and I was just like, I wanted to see some other cities outside of Atlanta and live in some new places and it ended up being a good break to go to school and get some other experiences and stuff.
Priscilla: And do you think that the MBA was worth it for you, especially thinking about all the success that you were having that summer before you went to business school? I know that you raised a tremendous amount of money. So, how do you now think about whether or not that MBA was worth it?
Nate: That was really a catalytic summer. That summer before we went to business school because we ended up raising like $400,000 and we’ve now gone to raise three or four times that, as the organization has gone forward. And, I don’t know. I think that experience in business school, like I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I learned so much and met so many people and really feel like…I feel like I have a power suit on now. Everything just makes more sense now. On the other side of that, I’ll always think about what would have happened if I would have stayed on as the executive director at Village and taken that capital and used it under my, my own leadership, my own discretion. And, my co-founder did a spectacular job and he’s a killer for real. You always think about the “what if’s” of the world. So I don’t know. I think all things happen for a reason and, that’s kinda where I stand on it, but, I dunno in the middle there on that question.
Priscilla: Yeah. So Nate, you’ve been really involved in the venture capital space during graduate school. And recently you were on HBCUVC’s, “31 under 31” list, which is a huge accomplishment. Congrats. What is it like to take a step back and see the success in this recognition happen for you?
Nate: I don’t know, it’s, I’m happy. Like I’m overjoyed that things worked out this way and it certainly hasn’t been very linear and, I took on a ton of risk to…I don’t know…get to where I am now. I have to give so much thanks to my folks for sending me like $200, $300 every now and then, and one of the entrepreneurs that we invested in had a second home that a relative of theirs gave to them in Atlanta and she let us stay there for almost a year rent free. And, it was basically just “continue doing your work.” And, if those two things wouldn’t have happened, like this just wouldn’t have happened, there was just no way that would’ve been possible. And, I don’t know, it’s definitely a strange place to navigate. Building an organization, building whatever, entrepreneur, like having ownership of a project and then being recognized for it, definitely gives you, or I guess like seeing the thing do well when you’re not there anymore, it’s definitely exciting. It’s fun. I don’t know, at least recently I’ve been thinking through, “how do you move forward?” It’s a strange experience, having a feeling and starting a business off of an idea that you had from, just being super excited and interested in something to go into a space where you’re not an entrepreneur anymore, I think I used to make all of my feelings from off of instinct and off of, how fast my heart would beat when someone would tell me about a problem that they were facing. And, I would just will my way to a solution and just be working through the night and trying to read things and just figure stuff out and, transitioning from that type of thinking to something that’s far more like process driven like venture capital and, in many instances, I feel like I’m relearning or, learning how that stuff works, every day.
Priscilla: Sure. And we know that there’s so little representation of black, Latinx, people of color investors working in the venture capital space. And you get to be one of those pioneering leaders. What is it like to navigate this space as a Black man in 2020? What are things that you have to keep in mind?
Nate: Navigating that, as a Black man, it’s strange, it’s hard to tell how you should move and how much do you know what you want to say? And what to post and what to be interested in? It certainly always feels there are eyes on you watching your movements and, in a lot of instances, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is that, all of this stuff, wouldn’t be possible, If I were my dad’s age, for example, right? Like there’s an entire, multiple generations, but, with respect to the question, this previous generation of people that you know, were born in like the late fifties and sixties that, really bore the brunt of, systemic racism…is still a thing and will for the foreseeable future be a thing. We’re in a place now where an organization like HBCUVC can exist and have programming and have a list of 30 Black people that are in venture capital and create pathways for young folks that are coming out of college to get introduced to venture capital and entrepreneurship. And those things just would have been completely not in the picture, even 10 years ago. It’s a strange place, but I’m taking it day by day and I think we’ve all had an understanding recently that the world changes every day and it’s the world changing in front of our eyes. I’m optimistic about where we’re going, but, you’ve just gotta be hypersensitive to how you move when you’re in the space and you’re Black, or you’re just a person of color, just any person except for, a white man, really. You just gotta be more sensitive to how you move. Yeah.
Priscilla: And that is on 100, I one hundred percent agree with that. So my last question for you is what would you tell younger Nate, maybe back when you were starting out your first job, like, what is a piece of advice that you would give your younger self, before going on this journey, or maybe just to someone who’s trying to make it in finance, VC, or investing?
Nate: Yup. Stay motivated, things aren’t always linear, stay really inquisitive and follow up with folks and show them that you’re passionate or, you’ve got energy around, what you want to get accomplished. And don’t feel like you have to check all the boxes before you feel qualified to submit an application or having to have a conversation with folks. I think one of the things that really helped me out super early, was probably sending emails to folks that I probably shouldn’t have been sending emails to. And then following up and saying, “Hey, just want to follow up on this, following up on this, following up on this.” And eventually they’re going to be like, damn, I wish this person would stop emailing me….(laughs) And, you might get a call or, or, be able to do a lunch or breakfast that really changes your viewpoint on stuff. And I know that was certainly the case for me, so yeah. Stay energetic, stay inquisitive, stay motivated. Life is not easy and a lot of stuff gets thrown at you and you just gotta take it on the chin, figure out a way to stay mentally healthy and motivated and don’t give up.
Priscilla: Yes, and that last part on keeping mentally healthy is so key so thanks for bringing that up and thank you so much for being with us today, Nate, it has been such a joy to be able to chat with you.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves podcast! Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community! And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Have a great week!