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The path from poverty in South America to a career on Wall Street

disadvantaged background, poverty, Guyana, South America, careers, jobs, Wall Street, banks, bankers, banking, Wells Fargo Securities, Bank of Montreal, BMO Capital Markets, internships

Kamellia Saroop

My parents immigrated from Guyana in the early ’80s, both from poor farming families. My father worked to pay for his college education while being financially responsible for his parents and younger siblings, and my mom worked in teaching and in insurance. None of them had backgrounds in finance, so I started from scratch on figuring out my career.

Growing up in an immigrant family, I held financial security as a priority. My parents envisioned me as a pharmacist or doctor, though this type of work didn’t excite me. I was attracted to finance because of its ties to our economy. I wanted to understand how to do fundamental analysis of companies and figure out what impacts investor decisions and the movements of the financial markets.

Seeing my parents work hard to achieve their goals despite their humble beginnings inspired me to go after the career I want. You need this type of hunger to get your foot in the door on Wall Street.

Getting my start

I became interested in financial services during my freshman year at the City University of New York’s Baruch College. I wanted to become an expert in evaluating specific companies across an industry, and I felt that the college’s Financial Leadership Program would equip me with the necessary skills to achieve this. I knew I needed to learn more about finance beyond what I was reading from career guides and I wanted to build my soft skills, so I applied to FLP. It helped me to gain access to employers for which some other schools are a higher priority for recruiting.

If you are looking to break into finance with few connections, building your network can be frustrating if recruiters just focus on the Ivy League and a small number of other elite schools. Luckily, Baruch’s reach on front-office positions in finance has been growing, and I’ve found building connections with its alumni to be helpful.

The process of applying for an internship in finance and establishing your career requires you to prove yourself. A lot of interviews in financial services are designed to test your ability to handle stress and the quantitative nature of our work. If you’re passionate about this world, reading financial publications regularly and taking relevant classes are musts.

My first finance internship was for a family office in New York. After that, I interned at a boutique investment bank evaluating deals in the technology space and then in equity research at Bank of Montreal (BMO) Capital Markets. These roles confirmed that I was on the right career path.

These internships, as well as Baruch’s classes and campus clubs, taught me how to manage my time, as I worked while attending school full time, and deal with different personalities and cultures. Seeing a woman of color in the workplaces I’ve been in was rare. I come from a different background than some of my colleagues, as many of the interns I met had come from families with roots on Wall Street or from schools whose students are heavily recruited for finance jobs. so I’ve had to learn about – and adjust to – these differences.

During my summer at BMO, I treated every day as if it were an interview. Taking an Excel class at Baruch, teaching myself financial modeling and getting additional training through FLP also helped me to acquire skills for fundamental analysis of companies and prepare for working at a bank.

I realized the importance of building my network and demonstrating endurance and a willingness to learn. Coming from a hardworking culture like at Baruch, students sometimes forget the importance of meeting others in their organizations. If I had a do-over, I would have connected with even more people across each firm while working those internships. Often, students seek out the people whose jobs they want. That approach is too narrow and doesn’t educate them about other roles they could potentially be interested in.

After almost five years at BMO Capital Markets, I decided to join Wells Fargo Securities. Its equities presence is growing, and I worked on an equity research team that was collaborative, hard-working and personable.

Work environment and hours

Many people think of the banking industry as traditional and rigid. While some aspects of bank jobs confirm these stereotypes, I was surprised by how much my coworkers cared about issues like diversity and equality in the workplace.

Even a small amount of support went a long way in getting my firms more involved with investing in scholarships for under-represented minorities interested in business and hosting events with prominent women in finance. Nonetheless, lack of representation for both groups is still an issue across banking.

It is widely understood that you give a large number of hours of your life to certain jobs in this industry. But the exposure and experience that you gain pay off in spades. For the first couple of years, you have to be able to say yes to everything and work many hours.

Working in a fast-paced environment where a large amount of money is dependent on the timely flow of information is exciting to me. Although it is hard work breaking in, I never had second thoughts. Working in this type of environment has prepared me for anything and was a great way to meet people who have served as mentors and contributed to my professional success.

Kamellia Saroop is currently a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business and a former equity research associate at Wells Fargo Securities and, prior to that, BMO Capital Markets.

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