The CareerExplorer Discord Community had the opportunity to speak to Karen Arrese, a Business Development Manager, in a live, fireside Q&A.
Karen Arrese works in Education Technology as a Client Relationship and Business Development Manager. She earned an honors BA in Economics from Union College and studied during her junior year at London School of Economics.
She spent the first 10 years of her career at large Wall Street banks managing foreign bond and currency investment portfolios, and earned a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation. After starting a family, Karen found new inspiration working with start-up companies and pivoted her career to technology start-ups eight years ago.
Karen is the mother of three daughters ages 17, 19, and 21 and is actively involved in helping them to navigate the college application process, to choose majors, and to secure meaningful internships and job opportunities.
The transcript below has been modified and abridged from the original conversation.
I was a ‘70s ‘latchkey kid’ — a latchkey kid had a key in their shoe to let themselves into and out of their home, as parents were rarely home. My parents divorced when I was five years old and we moved many hours away from my father. My mother worked long hours and I raised my three-year-old sister as best I knew how.
I was loved and that was my greatest gift. I was extremely independent from a very young age and always wanted a better life — that was where my drive and willpower came from.
Finance and Wall Street
Did you always know what you wanted to major in?
I didn’t know what I wanted to major in at all! My high school guidance department at a big public high school said I had strong math and science scores and should apply as an engineer — so I did. It wasn’t a well thought-out decision, but luckily it was quite easy to make a change once I had better information.
I started my undergrad work as an engineer. I loved math and science so it seemed natural to me. I could only fit one elective course into my first year schedule, and tried economics. It fit like a glove! I took the plunge and set aside engineering.
Was it difficult getting a job on Wall Street after completing your Bachelor’s Degree in Economics?
Timing is everything! And this was the case for me. I graduated into a very weak early ‘90s job market. So my plan, like many, was to pursue a graduate degree and I was admitted to law school. A month before my graduation, a professor encouraged me to interview for a position he had just been made aware of. I had the right basic economic knowledge, and my transcript proved my work ethic, so I was offered an entry-level trading job on the spot.
In general, Wall Street jobs are in demand, and as such it is generally competitive to secure a job. However, there are a wide range of positions — from administrative roles, to sales, to HR, to investment management — and the competitiveness spans the range.
Was it stressful managing foreign bond and currency investment portfolios?
Yes, it is a stressful job. Like many jobs that are tied to public markets, many variables that you can’t anticipate or control can affect your performance. The expectations are high as you are entrusted with assets that are critical to a company, government, or family’s future.
What are some unique things about working in finance compared to other fields?
Finance is an exceptionally driven, hard-working environment. The good news about working for a big bank is that opportunity is plentiful. If your first job isn’t the right fit, but you’ve proven yourself, you can move internally to something more suitable. Jobs range from very fast-paced trading, to marketing, to support roles that focus on detailed administrative skills.
I hear New York has demanding work schedules, but pays well. Is this true?
The pace of New York City is FAST! I am a born and bred New Yorker, but many transplants do remark that the demands do take some adjustment.
Finance jobs can be lucrative. But it is a very broad industry, with responsibilities and pay that vary greatly. Pay in New York is generally at the higher end of most ranges, but expenses are as well. So, you want to find a job that is fulfilling and that can also pay your living costs.
What are the positive and negative aspects of working on Wall Street?
The energy is palpable on Wall Street — the general talent and volume of very smart, cultured people is exhilarating! Wall Street is all about learning, learning, learning — every moment there is challenge, new information, and a new experience. For me, that was a huge plus.
That said, it can be very mentally and physically draining. The hours are long, and the work is very fast-paced. Most of my trading desk experienced some negative effects from this type of stress and from constant performance measurement. Your value was on your chair each morning!
What investing fundamentals do I need to keep in mind when making an investment?
Investment advice is very complicated. The first and most essential component is assessing your own risk tolerance. I spent three years earning my CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) and truly could never advise anyone without hours of understanding their personal obligations and risk tolerance.
What was your incentive to go from a financial institution to a small start-up?
The switch from Wall Street to education technology start-ups was partly because I had started a family. It was nearly impossible to trade bonds all night, and take care of three children the next day. That said, I have always embraced change, so I had that in my corner.
How did you overcome the fear of failure?
It takes some practice to establish a mindset. There is a Wayne Gretsky quote that I repeat to myself and my daughters — “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.”
If you don’t put yourself out there, it is certain that great things won’t happen. The worst is that you have tried!
Was there a huge pay-cut when you transitioned from working on Wall Street to working for a start-up?
I was making a healthy salary after 10 years on Wall Street. It was my expectation that I would make less in a new industry, especially with a start-up. But the give and take for my quality of life was well worth it.
College Questions and Advice
What are colleges and universities looking for in a potential student? How competitive is it to get accepted?
The world is a bit upside down this year, so it will be interesting to see in which direction college acceptance numbers move. Top colleges are very difficult to get into these days. With many kids applying to 10-15 schools, the numbers are just rough. Colleges look very simply for one thing — a student who will succeed at their university.
Show your ability to multitask, make mistakes, and move forward. Listen, and be part of a community. A well-rounded person with some specific focuses is likely to do well!
What advice would you give to someone having difficulty deciding on a major?
My advice is to try out a few things. Introduction classes are broad overviews that provide a wealth of information.
While at orientation for one of my daughter’s colleges, the President implored the students to take off their blinders and try something they actually may hate. You learn as much from knowing what does not suit you, as what does.
What advice would you give to someone in the middle of their undergrad that has had a change of heart about their choice of major?
In general, I would recommend listening strongly to your gut but weighing practical considerations as well. Being passionate about your path is a key ingredient to success and fulfillment. Yet, I wouldn’t make a hasty change if you are truly ‘in the middle’ and changing course would be expensive and delay obtaining your degree.
I would explore whether you might minor in something that may add an interesting complement or whether you can change the focus of your major — for instance, in the field of economics, managerial economics and environmental economics are quite different. I would weigh the practical paths — as well as ensure you are moving toward a compelling job. For example, you may not love the intricacies of some psychological theory, but it could set you up for a career in human resources.
My parents keep comparing me to my successful sister. What can I do to stand out to them?
That’s a very important question and it is one of the great challenges of parenting — to be pleased for one child without making another feel less successful.
You should always be yourself. Success comes to each of us at different times and in different ways. Be open with your family about your goals and aspirations. Remember they can’t read your mind!
A lot of students are considering taking a gap year to figure things out and to think about the direction they want to go in. Would you recommend a student doing this?
The challenge with a gap year now is that so many fantastic gap opportunities are also not available — travel, limited jobs, etc. I think it is a perfect year to learn online. My own daughters took many, many courses this summer on a wide range of topics. They learned, they grew, and the cost was minimal.
Any Final Advice?
Go into things with realistic expectations, but see the glass half full in each challenge. I like to approach life and career with pragmatic optimism.
Having a supportive family or network around you to make career decisions is very helpful and I am lucky in that regard. Some people, however, have to dig deep and rely on themselves. Expect some setbacks and know the resilience you are building when you overcome them. I love the Teddy Roosevelt “Man in the Arena” speech.
If you get in the ring, at worst you will have fought, at most you will succeed! We all have valuable qualities to offer; it is a matter of staying centered and resilient and finding the way to show yourself to the world.
Optimism and confidence can move mountains together.
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