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How a former refugee went from Australian government to UBS on Wall Street

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Natasa Bogunovic of UBS

It’s not often you find a Wall Street executive who was born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, then moved to Australia, graduated with a Master’s degree in law while working in government before relocating to the U.S. four years ago. That is Natasa Bogunovic’s story in a nutshell, but that only scratches the surface.

Bogunovic, who is currently chief of staff to the America’s chief risk officer in New York, is an ethnic Serbian who was born in Bosnia and grew up in Croatia. Fleeing the chaos of the Croatian War, her family moved to Australia in the early 1990s, where they got a crash course in English and Vegemite before attaining Australian citizenship.

Initially, risk management, banking and finance were not among the areas that the Serbian-Australian planned to pursue professionally.

“I always thought I would get into government policy or international affairs,” Bogunovic said. “I just followed what I thought was interesting and had the potential for doing good.”

She got a Bachelor’s degree in public policy, political science and international relations at the University of New South Wales. As part of her final research project, she completed a thesis on the experiences of homeless youth, which led her to volunteer as an outreach worker and at a homeless shelter in Sydney, before becoming a government child protection caseworker.

“I enjoyed it – I was fascinated by it, but it was pretty hard working in an environment where I couldn’t make a significant difference other than to meet the immediate needs of shelter and clothing, and I never set out to be a social worker…policy and international work kept calling me,” Bogunovic said.

Working in Australian government                 

Around that time, she began to envision her career path going in another direction, but not to financial services – yet. She began her Juris Doctor degree in commercial law at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), and applied for a job working in the parliamentary and cabinet support unit in the head office of the government’s department of family and community services.

But after an election cycle when she was working as a policy officer in the office of the minister for community services Bogunovic decided against working in party politics. This role led to a series of roles working for Clover Moore, the first popularly elected female Lord Mayor of Sydney.

“I wanted to work with Clover as she’s an Independent deeply committed to social justice, sustainability, progressive policies and the arts,” Bogunovic said. “I really enjoyed that work.”

Shifting gears, then a move across the world to the U.S.

After working in public policy for close to a decade, Bogunovic decided that she had to do something different.

“I was too young to run for office myself or take on a more senior position in government, and I didn’t want to be that person stuck in a public policy role, waiting for my turn or being given a senior role because I’d been around forever,” she said. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to change industries, then I might as well change countries.’”

By this time, she had completed her Juris Doctor. Following her gut instinct, she moved to New York.

“I realized finding a successful new career path was about conviction in what I knew and translating it to apply for any job,” Bogunovic said. “I knew I could write well and speak well, and that my experience in politics, the public sector and government helped me to develop a range of transferable skills, but I didn’t know how to apply them to other industries – until I stopped to think about it.

“I had to understand what my skills were and promote them,” she said. “I was only able to do that by being away from my previous job and talking to as many people as possible.”

Bogunovic spent a lot of time networking, learning how to talk to people who she didn’t know – from a guy who owned a diamond company, consultants and Silicon Alley types to bankers, private philanthropists and one of the most prominent hedge fund managers in New York – broadening her network, not asking for anything specifically, but being honest about why she was there and what she was looking for.

“Over time, the more I spoke, the more I could articulate what they could do for me, even if it was just to introduce me to someone else,” Bogunovic said. “I got better at articulating what I know and how it could apply to a particular role or firm, which was a great education. Some of those skills people don’t take the time to learn.”

“I didn’t want to take just anything that was offered to me,” she said. “I believed that the right position would come along, and that’s what happened with UBS.”

Welcome to UBS on Wall Street

While UBS didn’t have a full-time position for her initially, the bank hired her as a contractor in the legal group.

“I joined UBS on a project-to-project basis, and after shock wore off of working at a big company and I got up to speed with all of the PowerPoint presentations and jargon, I very quickly realized that there was not much I didn’t know how to do or couldn’t figure out providing I didn’t get placed in IT!” Bogunovic said. “This is what I know, and this is what I can figure out, and this is what I’ll never know because my brain doesn’t work like that – people appreciated that transparency.

“I was honest about what I knew and what I have the capacity to learn, which was way more than I gave myself credit for,” she said. “I had a great first year, then the project came to an end, and the people I worked for tried to find me a full-time job.”

After a stint as a compliance contractor, eventually, a full-time job opened up with the Americas Chief Risk Officer, who was also the global head of enterprise-wide risk control. The Americas CRO hired her as the head of projects and strategic initiatives, and when there was an internal re-organization in May 2015, Bogunovic was promoted to the role of Chief of Staff for Americas CRO and Enterprise-wide Risk Control.

The first six months were especially challenging.

“Risk is a very difficult and complex discipline, and at first I thought I was in over my head, coming in with a law degree and experience working in government,” Bogunovic said. “The people I work with have different types of training, including a bunch of quants with a statistical mindset.

Advice for job-seekers and career-changers

Sometimes mid-career professionals feel that it may be too late to change industries, but it doesn’t have to be.

“You should always think about what you want your future career to look like and start picking up the skills you need,” Bogunovic said. “I’ve never thought about my career in terms of the end goal, this is what I want to do, but I have always wanted to be versatile, and I’m always open to learning new things.

“Because I don’t have a finance background, some people wouldn’t even think about doing what I did – I had to constantly trust and have confidence in myself,” she said

Coming into UBS without any banking experience, Bogunovic had to be confident in what she could contribute and realize that she would have to work really hard to catch up.

“Always be honest about what you don’t know – don’t be afraid to say, ‘I’m very new, can you tell me about this?’” Bogunovic said. “You have to be confident asking for help and people will appreciate it – you can’t overdo it, though, you can’t keep asking the same questions.”

Photo of Bogunovic courtesy of UBS

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