Wall Streeters find life really is greener on the other side

February 6, 2013

Ex Wall Streeters talk about the better life working at a startup

Here’s a post from UF contributor and intrepid Wall Street reporter Lauren T. LaCapra, who is on assignment:

By Lauren Tara LaCapra

“One last question,” the moderator asked the panel of former Wall Streeters now working for fast-growing tech startups. “Would any of you go back to banking?”

One by one the five panelists, some of whom work for hot shops like FourSquare and Spotify, each shook their heads: “No…no…no.”

The responses from the former traders and investment bankers was a comforting message the three dozen or so people who still work on Wall Street and had gathered Tuesday at  General Assembly — a tech hub of sorts in New York City’s Flatiron neighborhood — to learn about life beyond stocks, bonds, commodities and derivatives.

The panel was sort of a group therapy session for finance types considering making the jump from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. And these days there are plenty of people interested in doing just that as layoffs at big banks continue and finance just doesn’t thrill as it once did.  The problem for Wall Street is there’s a huge talent drain taking place and it’s something firms are going to have to keep an eye on.

Exhibit A of this exodus from finance is Sameer Syed, the panel’s moderator and organizer of the quarterly roundtable discussions at General Assembly. The former JPMorgan analyst, who now works in corporate development at video advertising startup Genesis Media, said he started the panel discussions because he knows lots of  young professionals on Wall Street who are considering leaving finance, but find it difficult to network in such an unfamiliar terrain.

Attending the panels isn’t easy because the intent is keep the discussions small and open to a select group. The first roundtable had a waiting list of 70 people, and the one on Tuesday evening likely had more,  says Syed.

The panels are a bit of a culture clash. While much of the crowd was distinctly suited-up — with briefcases and work laptops in tow — the panelists were dressed down in casual shirts, jeans and sneakers. Think of it as Abercrombie and Fitch giving the Brooks Brothers set a lesson on how to dress.

“I didn’t feel fulfilled in banking,” said Charles Birnbaum, an ex-Deutsche Bank and Bank of America banker who is now director of mobile and international business development at Foursquare.

Birnbaum got to FourSquare through sheer determination: he offered to intern free of charge, and worked his way into a full-time position, and then a leadership role. Birnbaum said he has felt more professionally fulfilled watching the mobile check-in firm grow and develop — at times even taking out the trash — than he ever did on Wall Street.

Jim Moran, co-founder and president of the coupon web site Yipit, said he was let down nearly from the beginning of his previous career in banking.

After finishing a training program at private- equity giant Blackstone Group, the firm’s CEO Stephen Schwarzman paid a visit to his class. Moran was excited to hear what the legendary PE banker had to say, but was disappointed.

“He said 99 percent right is 100 percent wrong at Blackstone,” said Moran. “That means in college, you’d get an A but at Blackstone you’d get a zero.”

By comparison, the experience in startup-land includes lots of failure, Moran said, but he has learned with each mistake. Before Yipit, he also founded UnHub and 140it and each experience has been unique, he said. In banking, he found himself getting into extended debates over Oxford commas and bullet points that were less than fulfilling, he said.

“Banking is a commodity — an expensive commodity, but still a commodity,” he said. “We could have been replaced by Lazard or Evercore or any other bank that can provide advisory services.”

But making the jump from finance to the land of start-ups doesn’t necessarily mean shorter days and less work. The difference is there’s often more flexibility and greater reward.

“I work at home, I work forever, but I have a lot of autonomy, which I really appreciate,” said Nihar Singhal, an ex-Barclays leveraged finance banker who now heads business development for SeatGeek.


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