Someone once told me that, when asked, you should give two reasons for why you want to do something: one which is the superficial reason and the other being the personal reason. Two distinct reasons. One high-minded, the other slightly base. Take the opportunity to show the interviewer you are human, and fundamentally no better than them; ditch the holier-than-thou save-the-world answer immediately upon bringing it up.
So what’s my answer? Why and how did I get interested in finance and investments and money management? Hailing from Brooklyn, NY, I’m a no-nonsense kind of girl. So I’ll dispense with the superficial reason and give you my personal reason.
I’m interested in investment and financial services because no one in my family has a clue what that means. My brothers are doctors, my sister and both sister-in-laws blond nurses, my mom works in medical billing, and my dad works in medical engineering. We know healthcare, we all generate a decent, steady income, and it all just sits in the bank. We get the news last.
In high school I did what I was good at: biology and chemistry. I won awards, aced the tests, and so on. But when I was filling out my financial aid forms for college, reality struck.
The final pages of the FAFSA – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that is required of every college and graduate school student applying for financial aid – asked whether your parents owned any homes distinct from the one you live in, and what is the market value and purchase price of the homes. It turns out that my parents invested in was a house in Palm Beach, Florida, which they purchased at the near-height of the housing bubble in back in 2005. As with most so-called investment properties in Florida, the value of this house has since plummeted to negative equity. Someone at the Polish community center told them to do it. The mortgage they are paying off is now higher than the market value of the home. I saw the discrepancy in the numbers and begged mom to tell me what happened and she did. I freaked out.
I knew that more failures of this sort would happen if our family continued to close ourselves off from market news. I picked up an Economist subscription the summer before my first year at Harvard and could not decipher it. The more I read and outlined, the more distraught I became. I had no background.
Freshman year I took a class called Social Analysis 10, which is Harvard’s introductory economics class that over 600 freshmen, sophomores, and even some juniors at Harvard take. It was fun, I did well, but it was too theoretical. I still could not understand any financial newspapers or magazines. I let it go for a while and joined the crew team. Second semester, I quit the crew team and did nothing at all.
Having no extracurricular activities and dedicating myself to my school, I began having trouble making more friends. It was far past the first few months of school, and by now most of the students in my class organized their cliques around their activities. I felt out of place. When a custodial worker asked me casually what my interests were, and I had absolutely no answer, I knew my lack of a goal anymore was becoming a serious problem.
In the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I attended Harvard Summer School in Tokyo, for lack of another idea of what to do. I had a great time — I learned about the history of the samurai and about why eastern and western medicine have grown distinct. I had an amazing host family which I am still in contact with. One of the boys in the program held an executive position in Veritas Financial Group, a club on campus dedicated to teaching students at the liberal arts college the skills necessary to excel in finance. He kept telling a friend of his in the summer school program to join Veritas in the fall. I was jealous that he wasn’t recruiting me, a girl, but instead yet another guy.
So in the first semester of sophomore year I took only three classes. Instead of a fourth class, I joined seven business/finance clubs on campus. Seven: Veritas Financial Group, Harvard Financial Analysts Club, Harvard Women in Business, Smart Women Securities, Harvard Investment Association, Harvard AMBLE, and the Harvard College Investment Magazine. I went through their training curricula, showed up at almost every meeting, met a lot of amazing people, and got super involved. I opened an account on E*Trade with a little less than $900 and learned how to choose stocks. Retaining my science geek pride, my first investments were in companies producing light emitting diodes (CREE and VECO), in which I made 28%.
In summary, my path to getting smart about my personal finances and investing came from personal experience that affected me deeply, not high-minded nonsense about the wisdom of crowds or the efficiency of markets. I resolved that I would no longer turn a blind eye to personal finance and embarked on a journey to better understand investing so that I could be in complete control of my — and my family’s — financial future.