“The position has already been filled” might sound like the last thing you’d want to hear when arriving for a job interview. But for Kayte Toczylowski, that interview-day setback put her on an unexpected career path in finance.
Toczylowski originally had set her sights on law school. But when her undergraduate student loan bills started rolling in, she decided to press pause on chasing that (very expensive) dream and work for a bit instead. With no runner-up career in mind, “I cast a wide net for my first job search,” she says.
Two weeks as a headhunter was enough to convince her that field wasn’t for her. The day after she quit, she applied for an HR position at a broker/dealer. When she arrived, the aforementioned snafu took place—but the company had another opening, this one in the compliance/legal department. “I had no idea what compliance meant, but legal struck my fancy,” she says. Her enthusiasm landed her the gig, which she held for eight years before seeking out regulatory experience at FINRA—the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. In her nine-plus years at FINRA, Toczylowski has been promoted four times, and is currently the Vice President, Member Relations and Education.
Here, she shares how an unwavering focus on professional development supercharged her career, what it’s like to pave the way for women in finance, and why you should embrace—rather than shy away from—hard conversations.
What attracted you to work at FINRA?
FINRA’s mission, “Investor Protection, Market Integrity,” really spoke to me. I do feel like I help people on a daily basis. When I worked in FINRA’s examination program, not only did I investigate potential investor harm, but I also saw my role as partnering with broker-dealer firms to strengthen their compliance programs. I’m shocked that I ended up in a “finance” role. But that’s one of the things I love about FINRA. Yes, it is technically in the financial services sector, but there is so much more than just finance jobs here.
What are you responsible for in your role of Vice President, Member Relations and Education?
Our team conducts firm outreach, provides educational programming for firms and their financial professionals, and creates and maintains resources to help firms understand and comply with FINRA rules. We act as a bridge between firms and FINRA, to bring firms’ concerns to the appropriate departments. I am also responsible for ensuring that the content we deliver at our events is meaningful and helpful to our firms. The events help firms understand FINRA’s rules and regulations, and also provide networking opportunities for member firms to interact with each other and FINRA staff.
What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?
I joined the department in April—right in the middle of the pandemic—and had to immediately work with the team to transition our fully in-person program to a virtual one. Watching the team collaborate and innovate has been inspiring. We quickly moved our smaller-scale outreach efforts to video meetings. Over the summer we rolled out our first educational programming via Zoom. And we are just about to launch our first large-scale live virtual conference. It has been a true group effort.
You’ve worked your way to VP through a series of roles at the company. How does FINRA help nurture and develop talent?
It is pretty crazy to think about my career in that way. I had five different roles at FINRA prior to this one. The company has an incredible mentoring and leadership development program, and I take full advantage of it. Every employee is given the same toolkit, which includes a large and diverse online learning program with hundreds of courses on professional development and an online mentoring program that allows you to search and select a mentor at FINRA. There are also more formalized mentoring programs that match future leaders with current FINRA officers. I took full advantage of these programs for many years.
What has been the key to your success working in an industry where women are often underrepresented?
This has been a struggle for me over the years. I definitely still feel the “imposter syndrome” creep in occasionally and need to remind myself that I belong at the table. Early on in my career I was almost always the only woman in the room—and by far the youngest. I was afraid to speak up for fear my perspective would be discounted, or worse, laughed at.
The biggest key to success was that I still showed up. I didn’t let these feelings stop me. I found mentors that guided me and pushed me to speak up. They validated my perspective. It was very uncomfortable at first—growth always is! But the more I spoke up, the easier it became. I also became more used to being “the first.” I was the first woman examiner to go on maternity leave in my office. I was the first to need a mother’s room in the office.
What advice do you have for women looking to pursue a career in finance?
There has definitely been progress made over the last decade increasing gender diversity within the financial sector, but there is still work to be done. Don’t be afraid to be “the first.” Know that even if you don’t look like the others in the room, you belong, and your perspective is needed and valued.
I also encourage anyone looking for a new career or opportunity to network. There is a lot of power in calling a hiring manager to discuss a potential opportunity ahead of applying. Work to establish relationships with people in the roles that interest you. Learn from their experiences and build skill sets that will help you achieve the goals you have.
How does FINRA hire with diversity in mind?
FINRA understands an inclusive environment will yield stronger and more robust results. We need a large array of skill sets to fulfill FINRA’s mission, and I’ve been very proud of the efforts FINRA has made to ensure we are attracting a diverse candidate pool. But that sense of inclusiveness isn’t limited to recruitment: FINRA’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) help to build an environment where our teams can show up as their full selves.
Tell us about your involvement in FINRA’s ERGs. What impact have these affinity groups had on employees and the company culture as a whole?
I owe much of my success and leadership development to FINRA’s ERG program, and in particular to the FINRA Women’s Network (FWN). Just like my career, I started with FWN on the ground floor as a member, then as a volunteer on the career development sub-committee. That role grew into co-chair of the subcommittee, then a member of FWN’s management committee and ultimately to the ERG’s co-chair. That progression alone taught me so much. I learned how to truly collaborate and partner with colleagues. The experience taught me how to prioritize projects and how to effectively speak to large audiences. ERGs give us that opportunity to stretch and grow in ways our day jobs may not allow.
Aside from the personal development opportunities, the ERGs at FINRA connect us. I have learned so much about different cultures, religions, and beliefs through attending ERG events. The ERGs provide a safe space for us to learn, grow, and have courageous conversations.
What advice do you have for women looking to follow a similar career path as yours?
Don’t rush your vision or your path. When I first started as an administrative assistant, I paid close attention to the work I really loved to do, and tried to find roles that would let me do more of those things. Once I had a clearer vision of what I wanted to do, I started talking to people about my goals. I listened to their advice and took action. Listen. Take feedback. Put yourself in situations that allow you to gain the skills necessary to get you where you want to go. And always remember you belong at the table.