It’s easy to close your eyes and imagine what your life would be like, starting out in a financial services career, perhaps as an investment banker, a bond trader, a research analyst or an investment manager. You’d wear suits and have a busy schedule, for sure, and probably live in a large city, most likely New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. You’d work long hours under high pressure, but you’d be surrounded by a lot of smart, energized young people, and you’d always feel challenged as you learned new things every day.
But understanding exactly what a career in financial services entails, or even what the term, “financial services” refers to, is far from simple. So, let’s ask the so-called stupid question: What are financial services? And what function do these services play in the world? We put this question to Laura Born, a professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and former Managing Director of Investment Banking at JP Morgan who keynoted the Forte Financial Services FAST Track Conference. “Financial services comprises a host of exciting jobs at all levels and it’s a career choice you can pursue for a lifetime. You can go full throttle, downshift to have a family, and then, if you so choose, speed up again sometime down the line.”
There are many different kinds of jobs within financial services, each of which requires a different set of skills, interests, and personal qualities. Yes, a first job in investment banking can require a 24/7 commitment at the beginning, though lots of women say they relish the adrenaline. In other positions the parameters, though no less challenging, are quite different. A trader, for example, works while the market is open. Some positions—sales, for instance—require lots of client care, while others, such as research, mean that you’re basically your own boss, acquiring expertise in a particular investment area like technology or pharmaceuticals, then drafting reports that consist of your own analyses and recommendations. Some jobs are higher pressure, some less so. Some require people skills, others take place more in the backroom.
Born defines financial services as a triangle of relationships. There are corporations and there are governments—cities, states, and countries–all of which are entities that have financial needs. These entities require access to capital, in order to expand, put out a new product, or build a new plant. They rely on the services of professionals who will raise the money for them and manage the money they have. And they need high-quality advice on how to handle their complex finances, now and in the future. Perhaps the CFO of Apple Computer needs capitol to roll out some incredible new smart phone and, in order to raise that capitol, wants to buy back a bond it issued years before. She knocks on the door of banks and brokerages, expecting them to handle things. Then there are investors. Some are individuals, some are institutions; all of them are looking simply to invest their money and receive a good return on it. In short, the financial services industry exists to facilitate the interaction between corporate/government entities and investors. They are the intermediaries which provide a pathway by which capital, services, and high-quality advice can flow. The industry also includes secondary markets in which fund managers bet on the fluctuations of the monetary markets themselves. But, always, it goes back to that original triangular relationship.
Here’s something else you may not have considered: through their role as global intermediaries, these institutions make a huge difference in the world. In a global economy, financial services touch all aspects of geopolitics—social, political and economic. As Born says, “When there’s a crisis in Zimbabwe, it affects the mining and the price of gold, which affects the commodities market, which affects the New York Stock Exchange. And, when things are going well on the NYSE, it’s good for those miners and their families in Zimbabwe.” The chances of a war between two countries who have a trade relationship with one another—a relationship that can only be created through a team of financial services professionals—is far, far less likely than a war between two countries that have no trade relationship. Most investment firms employ full-time professionals whose job it is to partner with or provide their outright support to non-profits who are doing essential work with poverty, education, health, and the arts.
Many of the women in financial services who are lending us their voices here at Forte tell us that they can, and do, have it all. They work with smart people at challenging jobs which they love. They have families—yes, lots of them have kids– and the opportunity, if they want, to scale back on their jobs while remaining in the field they love. And, when they get a chance to think about it, they know they are, indeed, contributing to make the world a better place. “If you’re smart, you have lots of energy, and you have a passionate personality–the kind of person who gets excited about pursuing a problem to the end–then a career in financial services can offer unparalleled challenges and opportunities for success, especially if you’re a woman,” says Born.