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Career Stories

How to Break Into Finance (and Set Yourself Up for Success!), According to This Pro

smiling person wearing glasses and a suit with a red tie
Jarvis Alexander, Manager of the Data Specialist team at FINRA.
| Courtesy of FINRA

Jarvis Alexander knew exactly what he wanted to do upon graduating from college: help empower the Black community through personal finance. What seemed a little fuzzier was how to get started on that career path. “I’d only taken one economics course in college,” he says.

He devised his own crash course in personal finance, reading books, blogs, and news articles to educate himself, while working as a loan processor to get his feet wet in finance. Soon, he’d set his sights on becoming a personal banker or financial advisor. He applied “to what felt like every bank or investment firm in Chicago,” he says, but never made it past the first round of interviews. Determined not to be dissuaded, he asked for feedback and was told that a lack of sales experience was holding him back.

So he took a one-year detour into sales, in order to land the banking gig he’d had his heart set on. It wasn’t the first time that changing his trajectory fueled more momentum in his career—and it wasn’t the last. When the 2008 recession hit, he pivoted to financial compliance at a small broker dealer, and in 2014 joined FINRA (the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority).

Here, he shares what it’s like to work at a mission-driven financial organization, why he loves the company culture, and how flexibility can accelerate career growth.

What attracted you to work at FINRA?

I’ve always wanted to help people. FINRA’s investor protection mission was one of the foundational reasons I wanted to work here. The icing on the cake was when I realized that FINRA would be my first true step toward becoming an analyst. I loved the idea of conducting investigations, compiling information and data from various sources, performing a wide array of analyses, and drawing conclusions.

What are you responsible for in your role?

I was recently promoted to Manager of the Data Specialist team from my position as a principal risk specialist. As a specialist, and now a manager, my core functions revolve around analyzing transactions on the purchase and sales (P&S) blotters of broker dealers. We are also referred to as blotter specialists or blotter analytics specialists.

I like to explain that the position can fall into four buckets: conducting an analysis and making recommendations based on the trading activity on P&S blotters, assisting in the risk identification phase of an examination, training staff how to identify and mitigate risks using our analytics tool, and participating in the development and implementation of analytics within various tools. And I joke that the fifth bonus bucket is writing, writing, and more writing.

What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?

I am working on expanding the Data Specialist team and the analytical tool that drives our work. It’s exciting to help develop a team of specialists that can aggregate big data sets, conduct novel analysis and identify actionable risks. There are also many planned enhancements for our analytical tool, which makes for a fun and fast-paced work environment. Knowing that the end goal is always geared toward investor protection and market integrity gives me a sense of purpose.

What do you like best about the company culture?

I love FINRA’s focus on innovation, relationship building, and diversity and inclusion. Our company has been going through a transformation, and there has been a focus on leveraging the ideas of individuals across the organization beyond what we’ve “always done.” The effort that I’ve seen to tackle challenges as they come and to make changes when needed, is truly admirable.

Also, while at FINRA I’ve built some of the most meaningful work relationships of my career and friendships with people across the country. The ability to work with people with unique and diverse backgrounds is amazing. I’ve really seen FINRA step up and reconfirm its commitment not only to providing a flexible and positive working environment during the pandemic, but also to diversity and inclusion, which includes its support of various employee resource groups (ERGs). Again, the focus on acknowledging needed areas of improvement and allowing honest and meaningful conversation surrounding those topics shows FINRA at its best.

Tell us about the weekly Python training sessions you host for your coworkers.

The Python programming language training group, called ChiTownPyTown, has been one of the most fulfilling things that I’ve been a part of at FINRA. I had prior programming experience from college, and I wanted to share that knowledge with others. But this group is set up as a place for us to all learn from each other. Python isn’t a skill we might use every day in our current roles, but as data and analytics become more prevalent it’s a valuable skill to have.

What does it mean to you to be named FINRA’s 2020 Working Father of the Year?

My son is my heart and I take very seriously my responsibility to protect him, teach him, and prepare him for the joys and challenges of life. The most meaningful part of the recognition has been the amount of positive feedback that I’ve received from every part of the organization. It’s been a very joyous and humbling experience.

This year has been challenging for many people across the globe, from the pandemic to the fight for social justice and against police brutality. Even still, FINRA has been incredibly flexible with allowing employees to work from home, implementing summer/fall hours, giving additional time off, and allowing flexible arrangements for parents who need to pick up their kids or help with at home learning.

What has been the key to your success working in an industry where people of color are often underrepresented?

My answer is common amongst Black professionals and people of color in general: I’ve strived to be more knowledgeable, work harder, produce better work, and demonstrate a high level of professionalism. Stereotypes, implicit bias, and systemic racism are hard to overcome in the best of situations; so being steps ahead allows me to make sure that I can at least start at the same line as everyone else.

Additionally, as I work toward success, I make sure that I leave myself open and available to help those people following in my footsteps. The challenge of people that are underrepresented within a field is that the path toward success may not always be clear for people who share their same background and experiences.

What traits and skills does someone need to succeed as part of the data specialist team at FINRA?

Be inquisitive, analytical, a good communicator, and have the ability to build relationships. Being analytical might seem self-explanatory, but I mean the ability to take seemingly unrelated items and identify red flags. There are times when there is no “playbook” to the steps that you should take, so relying on your ability to synthesize and analyze is crucial.

Still, an analysis is somewhat meaningless if you’re not able to effectively communicate the risk and the recommendation. The vast majority of the job is communicating, either written or verbally. And the role requires you to build and leverage relationships to learn new analysis techniques, work through issues with firms, implement updates to the analytical tool, and help foster a good working environment for everyone.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

Set a goal, create a system to reach that goal, be deliberate in your actions, and enjoy the process. Goals allow you to set the direction of your career journey, but they will not predict where you will ultimately end up. So it’s important to tally up small wins and enjoy the journey. This advice has served me well, and I will continue to use it since my career journey is far from over.