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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

How to Break Into Finance & Banking

Ever wondered how to get started working in PR, entertainment, finance, or another profession? Follow along with our “How to Break Into” series, a guide to breaking into these cool fields and more, brought to you by those who know it best.

Have you always been interested in accounting, finance, and investing? Wondered what it might be like to work on Wall Street? These three professionals felt the same way, and they went for it. But while they all started out after college as investment bankers, their careers now look very different from one another.

Read on to hear their stories and see where a career in finance might lead you, plus get some insider tips for breaking into the industry.

Jennifer Bennett

Financial Advisor, Morgan Stanley

Brief Description of Job: Wealth management for high net worth individuals and families. 

Years of Industry Experience: 10

Why did you choose this field?

I was attracted to the opportunity to work closely with clients and learn about their financial lives. I always had a general interest in personal finance and investing, but it was the chance to work not just as an investment advisor but also as a financial counselor that really intrigued me.

I enjoy getting to know my clients: what they find important, what they want to achieve in life, and where they see themselves in the future. So much of this job is about listening. If you don’t genuinely have an interest in and care about your client’s financial well-being, then they can see right through you.

What did you want to do in college?

I wanted to work on Wall Street, and when I landed a job at an investment bank after college, I thought I had made it. While it was a great learning experience to work on the institutional side of the business as an equity analyst, I came to realize that it wasn’t what I wanted to do longer term. I wanted to have a more personal connection with my clients. I’ve always been a planner and interested in investing, so the financial advisor role was a natural fit for me.  

What advice would you have for someone breaking into your field?

It’s a great profession, but not always an easy ride to get there. Turnover for new entrants is brutally high. If you’re motivated to beat the odds, plan on spending a lot of late nights and weekends at the office to make it happen.

In the early years, most of your time is spent trying to grow your client base—in fact, finding clients is crucial to your success. Whether you find them by giving seminars or presentations, through social or business contacts, or at networking events, find them you must. This is a tough business, but it can be very rewarding for those who can distinguish themselves. Once you can demonstrate that you provide value, more and more of your new clients will come as referrals from existing ones.

What has been the most surprising thing about working your field?

I find it surprising the relationship that people have with money: how they spend it, how they save it, and what it means to them. Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure can bring peace of mind. It can also bring stress and conflict.

There are an abundance of investment options on the market and the wealth planning process can be confusing. Most clients that I work with don’t have the desire to understand what the beta or standard deviation is on their portfolio—they just want to know that they are saving and investing appropriately to accomplish their goals. Sometimes clients set goals that are unrealistic, and so then it becomes a matter of breaking down each goal into manageable areas.

What I enjoy most about my job is trying to demystify the world of finance and helping clients make smarter financial decisions.

Steve Chien

Investment Banker, BNP Paribas

Brief Description of Job: Mergers and acquisitions advisory

Years of Industry Experience: 4

Why did you choose this field?

Investment banking provides a steep learning curve, friendly camaraderie with other college grads, and a wide range of exit opportunities. Former colleagues of mine have moved onto hedge fund investing, grad school, startups, or strategy and business development in a variety of industries.

It’s also one of the few ways for a recent graduate to afford to live in NYC. One of the best aspects of the day-to-day work is that I don’t just provide clients advice on transactions and strategy, but I also get to participate in the execution, unlike many types of consulting.

What did you want to do growing up?

Be James Bond.

What has been the most surprising thing about working your field?

Networking with recruiters and headhunters can be as helpful as networking with family and friends. Many smaller financial services firms, including hedge funds and private equity investment companies, are lightly staffed with respect to HR, and they rely on recruiters to be gatekeepers.

What advice would you have for someone breaking into your field?

Some junior banker candidates I’ve interviewed focus solely on their technical skills, such as accounting and finance jargon, in interviews. While technical skills are an important element of a junior banker’s skillset, it's just as important to be a human being and to not take yourself too seriously. Every interviewer will be trying to answer the question, “Will this person be tolerable—or better yet, make my life better—when we're working late?”

What is different about the hiring process in your field than in other fields?

Cover letters are rarely read, so I wouldn’t recommend spending much time crafting them. Smaller firms may take them into consideration, but a typical bank hiring process will filter through hundreds or thousands of resumes, and generally anything more than a brief and friendly note introducing yourself and directing the reader to the attached resume is unlikely to make a difference.

What industry-specific job search resources would you recommend?

Mergers and Inquisitions provides career and interviewing advice for the investment banking and investment management industries, and Wall Street Oasis hosts discussion boards frequented by junior finance types.

Ashley Harris

Corporate Development Associate

Brief Description of Job: Corporate development, business development, M&A, capital raising, and financial analysis

Years of Industry Experience: Going on 4

Why did you choose this field?

I started my career at a bulge bracket investment bank on Wall Street; I was told it was a useful starting point for future business leaders and thought, “Hey, why not—can’t be that bad.”

Having been a history and business psychology double major at a liberal arts-focused university, I found that finance was certainly an acquired taste that I eventually got the hang of over time. However, I’m a people person and a right brain, and I saw years of Excel models, PowerPoint pitches, and sleep deprivation in my future. As my two-year analyst program came to a close, instead of searching for private equity or hedge fund opportunities, I opted for corporate development.

My interest in corporate development initially stemmed from my desire to get closer to the fundamentals of how a company is run. As an investment banking analyst, the numbers on my screen were meaningless. As a corporate development associate at an early-stage venture, it is my job to look at those numbers and say, “Who, what, when, where, why, and how?” on a daily basis.

What has been the most surprising thing about working your field?

My corporate development experience has been characterized by the fact that I’m able to touch every facet of what we do. I started at the ParentCo, stayed on for a year, then participated in the initial organizational strategy and capital raising for the company where I now work, which is structured as a joint venture between the ParentCo and a private equity firm far away from Denver, our home base.

Many times you hear corporate development and you think, “M&A and capital raising,” but for a company, not an investment bank representing a company. Usually, in a company’s lifecycle, M&A and capital raising fall somewhere in the middle, after the company has established itself in its market. At my company, M&A and capital raising were our very first steps, and only now are we in market establishment mode. ParentCo and Private Equity Firm joined together and funded an idea (not assets, which would have been slightly more normal) in October 2012, and I’m lucky enough to have become a part of the team that makes that idea come to fruition.

That said, I do everything at our company, from business development to board-level reporting and participation to marketing and advertising to miscellaneous and non-glamorous roles like creating invoices, IT, and generating efficient systems that get everyone organized. Down the road, I’ll do more M&A and capital raising-centric work, but we have to be successful in our business development first.

In my opinion, the best thing about being a corporate development professional is that you are able and have the tools necessary to look at an organization and say, “Where can I help?” While I certainly wasn’t in my professional prime as an investment banking analyst, it definitely provided me with some of the tools I needed to ask that question.

Networking is absolutely key. That’s important to remember, because investment banking analysts are very accustomed to having recruiters come to them, but companies looking for corporate development professionals aren’t necessarily going to use recruiters for their searches. The process can get very competitive, especially in New York, but it’s generally successful—everyone from my banking class was able to secure a role somewhere after our term ended.

My best advice to someone looking for a role in corporate development is to pick an industry and meet as many people as you can in that industry, and more often than not, an interesting role requiring a finance background will pop up. And even if it’s a “miscellaneous finance” role, my favorite part of my past two-ish years at my company has been my ability and my supervisor’s willingness to transform my role into something I’m really confident in. That might be unique to the early-stage role, but I truly believe that if you prove you’re valuable to a company, you can make yourself fit wherever you’re looking to fit (and wherever you’re most confident!).

Moreover, I moved to a “non-target” city, Denver, and very much took a leap of faith. I knew literally no one and I moved for an industry I hoped I would be passionate about (unconventional oil and gas development). But about a year and a half later, taking that chance was the best thing I could have done for myself and my career, and I can only hope it continues to pay dividends. Flexibility, willingness to be mobile, and an open mind are essential.

Want more? Check out these finance professionals at The Muse!

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