It’s supposed to be hard to get a banking job if you don’t come from the middle classes. Banks are supposed to love elite students who play high level tennis and have spent a year volunteering in Africa. Research says they’re not going to hire you if you didn’t go to the right school and you don’t wear the right shoes. This isn’t my experience. I’m none of those things, but I’ve got a front office job at a major investment bank, starting soon.
The thing is that getting into an investment bank isn’t just about cognitive smarts. It’s also about people smarts. As Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein likes to say, banks want to hire people who are “complete.” Goldman recruiters say they’re bored with all the impeccably qualified middle class students who apply. This is one reason why they’ve started using digital interviewing systems to broaden the application pool.
My background, which was not upper middle class or even lower middle class has made me different. It makes me stand out and it’s given me the people smarts banks say they want but can’t get.
I’ve been the man in my house for as long as can remember. My father died when I was a toddler and my mother was diagnosed with severe clinical depression 16 years ago and doesn’t work. My family have no business connections: nepotism is out of the question. It’s been up to me to find a way of getting into banking so that I can help my family and live the life I want to live.
Because of my background, I have experience in the real world. Students at elite schools have often started little vanity businesses on the side just to show entrepreneurialism on their CVs. When I was 15 I started my own business selling products locally to support my family. I studied in my local library and I hustled heavily. I was disciplined and determined. Banks responded: I’ve had more than a dozen internships and work experience placements in the past few years.
In my opinion, it’s because I’ve had a “rough time” that banks like me. They look for individuals who will grind but who also understand how to read people, persuade, sell, sympathize and form robust relationships. These are forms of human capital that few, if any, university degree can just hand you on a plate. They’re grown and incubated. A deprived background filled with hardship, grievance. stress and time working in the real world can be the perfect training ground.
Banks have begun recognizing this. In the UK, J.P. Morgan runs an Aspiring Professionals Programme in partnership with the Social Mobility Foundation. This offers high-achieving secondary school students from low-income backgrounds an opportunity to take part in a two-week work placement at the bank’s London offices. It’s not in the back office – these students are exposed to revenue-generating front office jobs.
The thing is, as professional services firms like PWC are recognizing too, there’s more to ability than attending a top school and graduating summa cum laude. These students are the “excellent sheep” written about by ex-Yale professor William Deresiewicz. If banks want fully-rounded individuals they’re going to have to look outside their elite comfort zone. They’re starting to do that more and more, and people like me are the beneficiaries.
Kris Brent is the pseudonym of an incoming analyst at a U.S. bank in London