Have you ever wondered how you could merge different passions, or “take-and-leave” different aspects from different careers to build one that works for you? Well, that’s exactly what Frankie Arvelo did during his early career years. A child of immigrants from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, Frankie defied society’s expectations by attending a top 10 law school and working at Goldman Sachs by his early 20’s. When his first career stop didn’t quite cut it for him, Frankie decided he needed something more: an MBA. The MBA journey exposed him to a new career vision that could blend the law with the exciting startup ecosystem and allow him to call the shots in his own career.
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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, today, you get to hear from Frankie Arvelo. Frankie is a startup counsel based out of Austin, Texas. He is a child of immigrants from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. He has his JD from UPenn, his MBA from UT Austin. He currently specializes with working with early stage startup founders and helps them with issues like seed fund raising and investor management. His story was really inspiring to me because he’s someone who’s really intentionally crafted his career to make it into something that really works for him and is in alignment with his own passions and values. He loves working with underrepresented founders and he is also a big DEI champion. So, if you’re someone who’s really interested in the intersection of business, tech, law, this is the episode for you.
Priscilla: Hey, Frankie, welcome to the show.
Frankie: Thank you, nice being here.
Priscilla: Yeah, I’m really excited to dive into your early career story and hear about how you eventually became a startup counsel, but first, tell us a little bit about yourself, how you grew up, where you’re from, and also talk to us about going to Penn Law. I know that you went to Penn Law right after undergrad and graduated during the great recession. So, talk to us about how you got there and how you thought through financing that chapter of your life.
Frankie: Absolutely. So, right now, I’m based in Austin, Texas. I have two toddlers and a wife that I love dearly. But let’s go way back. Originally, I was born to immigrant parents. My father’s Dominican, my mother’s Ecuadorian. They split up on when I was a child in New York City, so that’s why I always think as this whole, I live in Hell’s Kitchen on the West side and it was, this was eighties, early nineties, it was rough back then. It’s gentrified a lot now. It’s changed so much the last time I visited, but back then, there’s a lot of drugs, prostitution, people out of work, it was hard getting through it, but as I tell people now that it was an important part of my journey because getting through that really helps you understand that nothing I face now is that hard, right? And nothing can be that bad. So, we moved to Boston when I was in middle school, I have a little bit of an Northeastern accent and that’s where my family is now. I went to a testing school out there, but even then, we lived in section eight housing. We lived in neighborhoods that weren’t super nice but were okay. So, I went to UMass Amherst, I studied Sports Management, and I knew I was getting a law degree, went directly to Penn out in Philadelphia. During law school, actually, was looking for alternative careers outside of law. I decided to join Goldman in New York as a compliance officer, so I worked in the commodity trading floor and it was a great experience, a lot of brilliant people, didn’t want to do that the rest of my life, so I decided to get my MBA. Fast forward a little bit, decided to get back into law, I professionalized my practice and worked with startups. So, I’ve been on my own as a solo attorney for about little over a year now. I was the first person in my family to go to grad school, the second to go to college. My brother beat me cause he’s six years older, but yeah, so we really, I didn’t have much guidance. I had some guidance at UMass, but at a big school like that, it’s hard to find the right people. I had people telling me to go to schools that weren’t really that good and I think that they made assumptions about me because of the way I spoke, and I can dive into it a little bit more, cause I did grow up in the hood. Anyway, so I decided to be really focused. I think I bought some books that are like Ivy League admissions, how to get in, and I couldn’t find people that are alums or anything like that, but I just did as much research as I could about the school.
So, the second piece is paying for it. So, I graduated in, what was it, it’s technically December of 2007 or something, yeah, 2006, I’m getting my years confused. I’m getting older. December 2006, so I had a, basically, half a year or nine months or eight months or something like that before school started at Penn, and I made it my job to look for scholarships. There are so many scholarships that go unused because people don’t, not enough people apply to them. I applied to things like the MCCA scholarship, that’s the Minority Corporate Counsel Association scholarship, I got something called the Edward scholarship in Boston. So, I was able to cobble together in addition to some of the money that Penn got me, an additional $30,000, $35,000 just from applying, even though it was $1,000 a year, $500 there, just, I made it a job just to apply. I was like, hey, I need, cause again, I grew up poor. It’s not like I had a ton of money sitting around, right? I had some need-based grants, but still loans are loans, you got to pay them back.
Priscilla: Yeah, and especially when you’re first gen, you have to think through how you’re going to pay that off and how long it’s going to take because you’re the only one responsible for making that happen. So, I’m curious, what was the biggest pain point for you when you did transition to law school at Penn? What was it like being in that super elite space?
Frankie: It was culture shock, if you will. I, again, I grew up in inner cities with a lot of Black and Brown folks, even at UMass, I would say, I was mostly around Black and Brown people, and then at Penn, the classroom changed in terms of racial diversity and also in terms of, just as important to me, economic diversity, there were people with a lot more money than people I met at UMass, right? They’re daughters of, like, senators and governors and people who would go on to become congressmen and whatnot. So, that was a big shock, I did not expect that. I mean, I was always different in a room, but I was really different in the room. Even the Black and Brown folks were different than me. They were rich. So, there’s something called the Socratic Method, right? Which basically means that the professor calls on the student, cold call, and then they’ll ask them a ton of questions, and the student has to be, like, on the spot, they have to oftentimes stand up in front of a class of 80 people where everyone’s, like, trying to judge who’s the smartest, who’s the alpha, who doesn’t know what they’re talking about? So, just that intense pressure you feel from being cold called. So, I remember I was cold called once. I think it was a civil procedure class and I made some comment, whatever, I don’t even remember what it was and I sat down. After the class, one of my colleagues said, “You made a really good point, but you sound a little urban saying it.”
Frankie: I was like, “What does that mean?” He said, “It sounded a little different,” and I remember I took that back, I was like, he’s calling me ghetto, oh, okay, oh, wow, and then I found myself actively changing the way I spoke after that, and it’s still to this day, I still do it to the point where when I go back, even now, the people I grew up with who maybe not necessarily, didn’t go to college or have any fancy degrees, they tell me I speak white, right? Let’s just use it and say what it is, like, “Oh, you speak White now,” and then I can’t speak the way I used to because I’m just, now, this is the way I speak, right? But then, you get into the whole entire complex of, like, what is my real identity? And then, I tried to let it go and say, I can’t, I have too much to do, but it’s something that I think all of us need to keep in mind, right? But that was a shock, how people were so different and feeling like I needed to change how I spoke so I could seem “smart.”
Priscilla: Yeah, it’s such a shame that that happened to you, but sadly, it’s not an uncommon experience and many of us have to negotiate that identity and how we present ourselves in BIPOC spaces and how we present ourselves in mostly White spaces, so yeah, I know that you graduated around the great recession. How did you think through your career options? What did you end up doing after law school?
Frankie: So, part of it was just the force of what was going on in the market, so I would say summer of 2009 is when I would’ve gotten my two L internship, right? There were very few good ones. I would say firms weren’t hiring as well. I was a middling student, I’ll be honest, right? I was, like, the B+ student, if you will. So, there were fewer spots at great firms, I knew I wanted to public insurance because frankly, I was tired of being poor. Yeah, tired, right? I can’t do it, and I want to provide for my family eventually, my mom and whatnot, her retirement plan is her kids, right? So, I have to help out there, and I understood that back then. So, I knew that I wanted to do that, I knew…public insurance, there weren’t any great firms, so I started looking outside of law and I was like, what do I want to do? And I remember back then, I enjoyed my business classes better. So, I was like, I think I might want to get into business, and then I saw the Goldman opportunity as a way back in to the business because when I talked to a recruiter back then they said that people make transitions from compliance to business side. So, maybe sales or some other role, non-operational role, so I thought that could be an angle for me to make that move and also want to live in New York again. I just, all my friends were moving there, I love the energy of the city, I wanted it to be there, right? So, that’s why I was looking at going that way, but I was pretty sure I wanted to work in business, sure I want to work in New York. Goldman is a great firm although everyone hated it back then, and still hate it now. So, yeah, I just said that that was the path I want to go down.
Priscilla: Yeah, obviously, Goldman Sachs is an amazing company to have as a first job after law school, but what was that first real career job experience like for you? What were some of the challenges that you faced and what did you end up doing after?
Frankie: I know I need seasoning back then. It was a culture shock in terms of the level of professionalism that is expected and demanded of you. I had a manager who was, she was in the Israeli defense force, so don’t mess with her, and she was the first person to teach me this, right? She was the first person that said, “If you come to me for a problem, you better have a solution in mind,” and I remember our first meeting, I said, “These are all the things I see that are wrong,” and I had no solutions and she told me that, and I was like, oh, okay. I can’t complain about things being wrong. I need to fix them, right? She also just demanded perfection in terms of email communications, in terms of presentation skills, et cetera. She ended up going to maternity leave and I had another manager named David who really took me under his wing, really counseled me, really said he wants me to be the best I could be there, and then I had another African-American man named Keith, another attorney who also did the same with me and he’s actually one of my mentors to this day, and then just the atmosphere and the energy, right? Like, you’re on a trading floor, you’re going into that giant building with a billion other people that has, like, its own gym and own doctor’s office because you never leave, right? So, that energy was, like, a lot. I initially didn’t like it, but then I had learned to lean into it. I remember maybe my first year of struggling a little bit of just, like, a wild stallion, did not want to be controlled, but then I learned that, hey, this is my career, I need to show up, and this is big boy time. So, put on my big boy pants and don’t complain and get the work done, and I also learned to not be so worried about what people thought of me, if that makes sense. And then my second year, because of that, my performance jumped tremendously and I also just knew the rules a bit better, so I didn’t feel like I was faking it when I was giving people advice. I just do what I was talking about, so I ended up, like, giving presentations that were international and had more seniority, and then I ended up giving presentations to managing partners and people that ran billion-dollar businesses where I was lead, and yeah, it was good, it was good, and I’ll need to side-sleeve for a couple of reasons. One is, I didn’t like being the person that no one ever wants to talk to. When you send someone an email and it has a little compliance, cause that’s your title, like, on it, people tend to not want to talk to you and no one wants to hang out with you, and I was like, this is a weird energy, and I also just didn’t want to be back office the rest of my life. I want to be more of a revenue generator. It’s harder to replace you when you’re a revenue generator than when you’re in your back office if things go down, and also, I think that was the year where Warren Buffet did a giant buyback of equity, so the cash bonus pool dropped tremendously. So, I did better, but I got paid less than my bonus, I was like, that makes no sense. So, for those reasons, I was like, I need to leave, but it was a good place to be though.
Priscilla: Cool. So, I know you went to get your MBA at UT Austin McCombs School of Business. How did you end up using your MBA years in Austin to get familiar with the startup world and start to envision a future as a startup counsel?
Frankie: So, my first year, I was really just focused on school work and not doing anything outside of Austin and just doing some clubs and whatnot. My second year is when I got plugged into the startup scene and that’s when I became more involved in places like Capital Factory, that’s when I started freelancing and working with my friends as an attorney. I was like, hey, one of the great things about MBA is this, is that whilst you learn about risk and everything’s going to break, and start seeing opportunity, and you start saying, hey, whoa, there’s a way to make money here. So, that’s when I had my aha moment. I was like, wait, I have a lot of grit. I’m licensed to practice law. People are asking me for help. I should just put up a shingle and make some money.
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Frankie: So, during my fall semester, I worked for Longhorn Startup Lab and it’s run by Josh Bear and Bob Metcalf who are two of the pillars of the Austin tech community, and just got connected to a lot of folks in the scene, so I worked for a firm called Egan Nelson, good firm, really good people, they’re a quality boutique here in Austin, learned a lot, I think, for anyone that’s thinking of eventually hanging up the shingle and being their own solo lawyer, I do recommend that you go to a firm or somewhere first where you learn from people who’ve done it before and who really know their stuff because there are so many mistakes you can make and if you’re just learning on the job and it all falls on you, you’re gonna make those mistakes and that’s not going to be good for your clients. Some people make it out okay doing it that way, but it’s really risky.
So, went there, they focused on startups. We helped companies from formation all the way through exit, left there because a law firm model is this: law firm model is you either are a rainmaker bee or working bee, and I felt that if I stayed there, I was always going to be a working bee, and that’s just not my personality. Going back to a comment I made about working at Goldman being back office, I didn’t want to be quasi back office at a law firm, I wanted to be the rainmaker, and I want to bring in new relationships, and I didn’t see that happening there. So, that’s why I joined another firm. I ended up joining another firm as a partner, left because I thought I could do it better on my own market.
Priscilla: Tell us what it means to be a startup counsel, and what do you do and why do you do it?
Frankie: I help clients with everything. Alright, a couple of weeks ago, there was a client that was dealing with an issue where two of their employees and the contractor decided to start talking poorly of the management and how they didn’t know what they were doing, and all this other stuff, and I helped them in a situation of how to terminate those folks while also protecting themselves as a company, messaging around that to other employees and customers because they were central employees, and how do you get that done thinking through that strategically? There’s also items like I helped a client close on some fundraising, which during the time of COVID is hard to do. So, initially, they went to traditional venture capital type money and they weren’t getting any bites there because they were hitting the traditional metrics of monthly recurring revenue and whatnot, and then we were able to raise a round which is going to help the company fill some orders and make some more revenue in, and all that, right? And then, and I’ve done things, like, like what sort of entity should I be when I’m thinking of forming a company? Should it be an LLC? Should it be a corporation? And there’s many considerations around that, right? Generally, if you’re looking to get venture money and grow really fast and sell, it should be a corporation, generally, right? And so the reason I call myself counsel is I have a partnership with my clients and a real relationship. To me, it’s hey, most of my clients get it, they’re like, alright, I’m going to spend a little time with Frankie now, we’re going to think strategically about this issue or something that’s coming up, and then that’s going to save me a ton of money or a ton of dilution in the future, and then me, Frankie, I know not to burn time on things that don’t matter. I know to be thoughtful about, hey, I know their cast situation is tight now, maybe I can give them a payment plan, or sometimes, if a plan is really good, I think, I loved their idea on their team, I might take some equity and then I’ll cut my rate. Those are things that I can do when I work for my own firm that I couldn’t do when I worked for another firm, like, they take an equity thing. A lot of lawyers don’t like doing that because inside baseball, the malpractice insurance won’t cover it if you take equity in a client, so if a client has a claim against you, your malpractice is not going to cover it. So, that’s scary for a lot of attorneys, I get why they don’t do that. My risk profile is a little higher, I’m fine doing it, right, for certain clients. Those are things, like, these are things and levers I can pull and things I do with clients where I really see, like, it is a true relationship and I really wanna help them out.
Quick aside, quick story, I tore my Achilles, it’s terrible, don’t play football if you’re over 35, about nine days ago, I posted something on social media about it, and then one of my clients sent me some “Tiff’s Treats” and said, “Please get better. Hope you and the family are doing well,” like, I wouldn’t get that at a big firm, right? The big firms sees you as a number. You meaning the founder as, like, a number. With me, these are people, this is, like, friends, these are friends, if you will, and I want to help them grow their business. So, I’m counsel, not an attorney for that reason.
Priscilla: Yeah, I love that. I love that you get to cultivate those relationships and make them meaningful ones at the same time. So, as you look back, Frankie, at your 12, 14-year career, your early career years, what is the one thing that you would go back in time and tell younger Frankie about career in terms of advice?
Frankie: Great question. Go back in time and shake me. I would have told my younger self to be more patient, to be easier on myself in terms of I have a tendency to beat myself up when I make mistakes, and also just to really be grateful, this is a non-career piece, but I think it flows into your life which flows into your career, t all works together, to be more grateful for what you have in your life and not focus so much on what you don’t have, and that was taught to me by my wife who’s a yoga teacher and author. She really showed me that and it’s actually made me a much happier person.
So, those are the things I would have told myself. If there’s any specific career advice I would give of myself besides the be more patient if you work is that, you’re always selling, every interaction of every single person, you’re always selling something. Be ready, you never know what can come of any interaction with someone. Someone may have an opportunity for you five years down the road. They remember you from that good interaction of you or they maybe remember a bad interaction of you because you weren’t prepared, and they made, no, we’re not going to consider this person for that. Always remember that you’re selling, be patient and be grateful for what you have.
Priscilla: That is such great advice. I think it’s so true that whether you like it or not, you are always selling yourself, right? And people are deciding if you’re someone that they’d want to work with or they’d want to call up for something, so yeah, thanks for sharing that, I appreciate you being here, Frankie, it’s just so inspiring to hear your story and how you went from child of immigrants growing up with not a lot, humble beginnings, but making it all the way to Penn Law, and I know now you teach part-time at Penn Law and you do so many other amazing things, so thanks so much for being with us today.
Frankie: Awesome, take care
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. Talk to you next week.