Author: Cynthia Van
Bankers and traders have been leaving Wall Street for Silicon Valley en masse in recent years. While high turnover on a desk has always been normal, more and more of the people I’ve worked with in finance over the last decade are leaving the industry for good.
I recently spoke at a Wall Street to Silicon Alley roundtable in New York, where I met a large pool of professionals interested in the transition from finance to a technology start-up. Their stories sounded similar to mine, so I wanted to share some of the topics we discussed and more on why and how I made the move from finance into tech start-up.
So, how did I end up at Bipsync?
I spent the first half of my life planning to be a doctor: a respectable, responsible career choice, and who doesn’t want to save lives? I realized in college that spending several more years in school wasn’t going to be for me, so I graduated with a degree in Biochemical Sciences and no clear career path.
I landed as a banking analyst structuring mortgage-backed securities in 2007, unaware that I’d stumbled into the heart of the imminent financial crisis. The industry was full of uncertainty, and through multiple layoff rounds I became intimately familiar with the systemic paranoia and employee expendability of the time. Like many of my colleagues, I was laid off at the end of 2008.
Despite the professional whiplash, I gratefully accepted another offer for a similar banking role in 2009. This time I struggled to find motivation; many of my managers were sick of performing the same daily tasks but handcuffed to their paychecks, and the outlook seemed bleak for upward mobility and personal fulfillment. I transitioned into sales & trading internally then hopped to another firm, following a well-trod career progression.
I loved working in a fast-paced environment with brilliant people, but eventually I no longer wanted to be a warm body filling one of thousands of seats and subject to a strict, steep hierarchy. I was again in the wrong place at the wrong time when the LIBOR scandal hit, and finally I saw the writing on the wall and walked away.
Short of acquiring an advanced degree, what’s an ex-financier to do next?
I turned to technology because the recent explosion in the NYC startup scene has made it much easier to find a company where the product and the ethos are appealing. I wanted to be a piece of a smaller team where the opportunities for learning and growth would be limited only by my personal capacity. The transition from finance to financial technology requires some legwork, some luck, and considerable patience. Here are some suggestions from my experience to get you started:
1. Plumb the depths of your personal and professional networks
Networking gets a bad rap, but I’ve gotten more out of networking than I’ve put in, and I don’t mean schmoozy glad-handing. Look up interesting events to attend, introduce yourself to random people, and reconnect with old acquaintances for a casual chat. I found my first post-finance job through an eighth-degree connection (we could’ve connected more directly, but these things can be squirrelly), so you can imagine the rabbit holes I went down. Casual conversations will help you figure out where you fit in, what you’re interested in, and possibly even who’s looking for you.
2. Size and timing matter
Organizations with 200+ employees won’t feel like start-ups. For the start-up experience, I found it best to target companies with 20-50 employees. The funding and infrastructure will provide the support you need for learning, and you’ll get the exposure you need to the rest of the company. Smaller companies are more likely to be flexible regarding relevant work experience requirements, and companies that have recently raised money in a Series A or B round are likely looking to hire and expand aggressively.
3. Perfect your personal sales pitch
If the person conducting your interview doesn’t have a background in finance, your work experience may not seem directly relevant to the role. Start-up hiring managers are looking for people who have demonstrated initiative and are excited to join the company, and you’ll need to figure out during the interview what nuances they’re looking for and translate those specifically to your skill set.
4. Find a natural transition
You’re probably good with people and with numbers. If you’ve worked in finance, fintech is a great place to start. Do you have a client base you can bring with you? Do you have industry knowledge? For me, sales in finance translated best to either technology sales or account management in fintech. Your initial target role should be a fit in terms of skills and function, and once your foot is in the door it’s relatively easy to acquire new skills and pivot internally.
5. Be persistent
When beginning your search, remember that there’s a human on the other side of every interaction. Be persistent, but also be respectful of that human’s time and patience. I spoke with people at 40 companies before landing my first start-up job, some merely on an informational basis, but I won’t misrepresent the amount of effort you should be willing to put in to find your dream job.
Today, I’m in a seat where I have autonomy and schedule flexibility, and I set my own deadlines. There’s no safety net and there isn’t day-to-day consistency, but I love facing unexpected challenges and accelerating my personal growth. In a start-up environment there’s the satisfaction of knowing that everyone is pulling together and committed to building something you care about, which was never the case in finance. What could be better?