A Career Change Success Story

It took me six years to fully change my career, and I’m still learning about the path in which I am headed. Here’s my story on the steps I took, why I took them, and most importantly, the many errors and lessons I learned along the way.
This is the last part of a four part series on career change. Here I share how I used school to land a full-time job and to finally change my career.

  1. Part I — When Your First Job Out of College is Not Your Dream Job
  2. Part II — Will This Decision Lead to Career Suicide?
  3. Part III — Can Graduate School Lead to Career Change?
  4. Part IV — A Career Change Success Story

Part IV — New Career, Here I Come!

It’s Okay To Focus On Your Strengths Rather Than Your Weaknesses

Finance. Yes, that’s what I chose to study in graduate school. I remember sitting in exams thinking, “Why did I choose this subject matter? Why am I paying an institution for this sick torture?”

I always felt I should work on my weaknesses in order to be a well-rounded person. As I mentioned in my previous post, quantitative skills did not come naturally to me. I used graduate school as a time to identify every weakness I had and tackle it straight on — finance, statistics, financial modeling, excel, accounting, optimization models, private equity and investing. I threw myself into more quant-heavy topics than I ever had before, and I had a love/hate relationship with my life.

Knowing what I know now, I should have targeted only one or two classes at a time. However, school was a great place to try new things and fail fast. My incredibly smart classmates challenged me every day, and the experience was humbling. More importantly, it was a time that allowed me to see where my natural talents came in handy — presenting, public speaking, design, networking, connecting people and more.

From this experience, I learned that sometimes it’s actually better to keep improving my strengths. The aforementioned skills have been essential in my current position.

The Major You Choose Can Impact Your Job Opportunities

Studying finance led to my internship in global finance at Colgate-Palmolive. Many formal internship programs hire based on majors. For example, a brand management internship would require a marketing degree, whereas investment banks look for finance degrees. For this reason, I almost chose a dual major in finance and information systems. I decided against it, as there were too many classes outside of these majors I wanted to take.

While there are many positions and companies that require a specific degree or major, plenty of others require a graduate degree only. For example, my role at IBM requires a Master’s Degree in Business/Management, but most of my colleagues studied a variety of subject matters within their MBAs. My finance degree is very helpful in understanding the markets, our customers, financial selling, negotiation and more.

During my venture capital internship with Charlie O’Donnell of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, Charlie suggested I consider sales. He recommended I set up meetings with successful sellers to learn about their positions and what makes them successful. Even though sales had many qualities of a job I would like, I was hesitant to consider it because of its negative reputation. I received this advice halfway through my MBA, and I didn’t listen. However, Charlie was right. Since I’ve started a job in sales, I meet with other sellers a few times a month to share ideas, get their advice and learn how to become a better seller.

I think in school, both undergraduate and graduate, we’re extremely focused on choosing a degree, a job and a career path. Unfortunately, we can miss learning about other opportunities. However, if I had taken Charlie’s advice sooner, I would have learned that the field is quite broad. There are incredible individuals working to help their clients solve problems and meet their goals. I was too quick to assume the field was narrow.

How I Fell Into Sales

NSHMBA, the National Society of Hispanics MBAs, hosts a conference every year open to any MBA student. It includes a job fair, company seminars, resume/interview reviews and networking opportunities. I attended and was able to secure interviews on-site and post conference. At the job fair, I stopped by the IBM booth, as I wanted to apply for their consulting arm. The line of students was 20 people deep, as most consulting groups attract tons of applicants.

A sales program manager and recruiter, Bill, asked why I was interested in consulting. I said I love problem solving and determining ways to simplify processes via technology. I couldn’t have teed it up for Bill any better. This is exactly what I do in my position today. It took that one conversation, and I submitted my resume on the spot for their client representative role.

I can honestly say if it weren’t for meeting Bill and talking with him face-to-face about what sales is, I might have ended up in a completely different direction. I once again was laser focused on consulting and other job offers when I should have had a broader perspective.

But Wait, How Do You Transition from Small Companies to IBM?

When I meet with people I haven’t seen in awhile, I’m often asked “Why IBM?” Well, I’m here to say large companies are a great fit for learning, for balance and for personal growth. Both Colgate-Palmolive and IBM have offered me these opportunities, though I realize my experiences won’t reflect everyone’s at these two companies or other large corporations.

There are also many advantages to startups and small companies — you can wear many hats, your individual impact can be seen directly, potential financial benefits (stock options), food/fun/social perks and more. However, I’m at the stage in my career where I’m focused on learning from my colleagues with 20+ years of experience and refining my skills in sales.
*Our next event will cover how to succeed in both startups and large corporations: Startup or Corporate? Succeeding No Matter Where

Here are my top pros of working at large companies:

1. Structured Training and Orientation: Large companies typically provide interns and new hires significant training opportunities depending on which program you join. In my internship, Colgate-Palmolive offered training and meetings with various finance managers to learn more about their departments.

I liked this program because it gave me exposure to many areas within the company and created networking opportunities. Lastly, the training was not only helpful for my internship, but also something that added value to my candidacy for other positions.

IBM offers sales training programs that range from six-months to a year. In the six-month sales training program I joined, I went through sales school as well as extensive product training. I worked with a coach and a few mentors to help with my transition into my job.

2. 9 to 6: I’m someone who tends to spend evenings working, attending networking events or working on various side projects. My internship helped me to realize the benefits of working in a position that ends when you walk out the door. It allowed me to concentrate on school.

Now I tend to take work home and hop online after dinner. While this schedule is something I choose (I get my workouts in mid-day or early evening) it’s helpful to have the support of a company where the standard is people sign-off at the end of the day. As our work and personal lives continue to intertwine due to smartphones and urgency from managers and clients, it’s great to work in a position where it’s not mandatory.

3. Formal Mentoring Programs: Many large companies have an incredible mentorship program in place for new hires or those identified for leadership tracks. Not only have mentors help me with completing my training program, but they have advised me on selling, meeting with clients, navigating the complexities of a large company and more.

Today I have four mentors I meet with on a bimonthly, monthly or quarterly basis. These mentors cover management within my department as well as outside of it. They’re a mix of ages, career paths and genders, and I found them through formal and informal (just asking) channels.
By working at IBM, I’m happy to report I’ve landed a position I love. I work with a team that constantly challenges and teaches me, and with a client that constantly keeps me on my toes. I wouldn’t change any of the failures, detours, mistakes and lessons over the past six years. There were times that were exceptionally difficult, but changing careers is never easy. However, I do hope that next time I plan on changing careers, I do it in less than six years.

Now it’s time to give thanks to all of the companies that hired me/allowed me to volunteer and helped shape the person I am today: Ameren UE, Cardozo School of Law, Business Center for New Americans, Fondo Esperanza, Insituto Chileno Norteamicano, Arts Brookfield, Intelligence Squared U.S., Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, Colgate-Palmolive and IBM. Also, a special thanks to all the mangers and co-workers I had at these companies who were patient and supportive as I grew. Lastly, I’m forever grateful for the support I received from family and friends, as not one step in this journey was done alone.