You don’t need me to tell you how hyper-competitive, White, and male the worlds of finance and technology are. I believe I am being entirely fair in saying it is not any small feat that I – Black, female, and from a working-class Tennessee upbringing — have successfully navigated both of these worlds.
But I have not done it through “beating the odds” – a phrase that conjures up an image of someone at a craps table shooting dice and getting lucky. “Beating the odds” is a total erasure. It undermines the very deliberate hard work, diligence, and persistence that it actually took to get where I am.
If my experience demonstrates one thing, it is that the total of one’s experiences combined with unrelenting preparation will lead to opportunities. Preparation + opportunity leads to “beating the odds.”
In reflecting on my path, I flash back to middle school, when I watched the 1999 TV movie Pirates of Silicon Valley (which I’m pretty sure I was a lot more into than the rest of the world). To say that I became obsessed would be putting it mildly.
Up until then, I had wanted to be a doctor (and was expected by many to be a nurse and never leave Tennessee). I got the message loud and clear: Medicine was the noble profession that smart people pursued. I had no idea tech careers even existed. But after my rapt movie-watching and my realization that I hate blood, my mindset changed. I set out to teach myself HTML.
I quickly progressed to playing around with color codes and creating random web and landing pages. I loved working with computers. It made me feel like I was on the cutting-edge of something or in on some big secret. While my peers aspired to be police officers and, yes, nurses and doctors, I was out in left field with my newfound interest interest in technology and this whole computer thing.
I started researching tech luminaries. I discovered Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and the empires they were building. When it came time to apply for college, I sent applications to several schools close to Microsoft in Seattle and Apple in Silicon Valley. I gained admission to many — in fact, every school I applied to in California save for Stanford. But in the wake of the Stanford direction, my high school self swore off the entire state of California, so I ended up on the other side of the country, at Wellesley College. It was among the top-five liberal arts colleges in the country at that time, and between the ranking and the scholarships, I was sold; off I went to major in computer science.
Not so fast. My path took some twists and turn from there. After a year as a computer science major, I had received my first grade below a “B.” In addition to fearing further damage to my GPA, I also started thinking that programming wasn’t the right path for someone as extroverted as I am. I love talking and was not a fan of long and often solitary coding marathons that seemed like they were required of all effective software engineers. I decided computer science was not for me.
After talking to upperclassmen and my school’s career services office about what fields might have a high potential for earning and give me a solid corporate foundation, I learned that a career in finance could check both of those boxes. I became laser-focused on grooming myself to be the most well-studied and hireable investment banking candidate out there.
I spent an inordinate amount of my sophomore year of college studying the fundamentals of finance and banking to prepare myself for internship interviews. No one explicitly told me that I’d have to work harder than other people in order to overcome the presumption that I wouldn’t be a good fit for the roles I was pursuing. No one had to. I already knew what the deal was.
My preparation paid off. The four methods of company valuation, the formula for DCF, major line items on the three key financial statements — I knew all the fundamentals down cold. I ended up landing a coveted finance internship my sophomore year and getting invited back the following two summers.
After graduation, I plowed through the finance world for five years and learned a lot, yet I still found myself fascinated by all things tech. Even though I felt distant from the Silicon Valley changemakers and communities I constantly read about — I was literally 3,000 miles away — I believed I could have a place there. To unlock those opportunities though, I needed to practice dogged persistence and act with enough energy and preparation to fight the societal typecasting that too often works against people like me – Black, female, and a “unicorn” in Silicon Valley.
I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I did know I was ready to move on from serving the old captains of industry. In tech and out in the Valley, there may not have been a ton of diversity, but there also wasn’t the same legacy. I saw the power of the internet to transform not only the lives of consumers, but the entire corporate landscape – and I wanted to be a part of that. It had been 16 years since I first saw Pirates of Silicon Valley, but my desire to remain on the cutting edge never left me.
My first position on the West Coast was in business development at a mid-stage company. I got to strengthen my presentation skills and use my banking knowledge to help the CEO spin off a small subsidiary. My new role forced me to learn and build skillsets I’d never had to use as a banker – from making cold calls to manning customer relationship management software to creating marketing collateral for the sales team using Adobe Creative Suite.
Being around all of the entrepreneurial energy in the Bay was infectious. A few exciting years and roles later, I decided to transition to working for myself.
Honing the skills and licenses from my finance days and the experience and network I’d built in tech, I launched Spry Ventures, a strategic advisory firm. I also recently started a company called Ambitious Grads to provide the ultimate guide for anyone fresh out of college and considering careers on Wall Street and/or in Silicon Valley, and my e-book comes out in the fall.
Through Spry, I advise investors and employees at tech startups about opportunities to sell their company stock in the private market. The same little girl who fell in love with Silicon Valley through a mediocre TV movie now has a seat at the table advising tech executives and leading nine-figure stock sales.
In retrospect, everything I had done up until starting my own companies – the things I’d learned when I was “supposed” to be taking organic chemistry in pursuit of a nursing degree – made my current role in Silicon Valley a possibility.
So yes, you could still argue that I “beat the odds.” But I still don’t see it that way. My accomplishments are the sum of my work and decisions over the years. At a young age, my community instilled in me that I needed to be twice as good to get half as far. It’s a common refrain for minority kids who grow up without direct access to an abundance of professional role models they see working the same jobs they one day want.
People have all sorts of different definitions of success. For me, success is the sum of preparation and the relentless pursuit of opportunities you choose for yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s as simple as getting lucky. You need intent — and more.
Images courtesy of Sequoia Taylor