By Mary-Katherine Brooks Fleming
I rose, sweating in the relentless DC summer heat. I hated this professor and his poor imitation of my thick Southern accent. For the third day in a row I would attempt to explain why I believed this company was using its accounts receivables and deferred tax credits as part of a broader effort to conceal a massive ponzi scheme, and for the third day in a row the professor would berate my ignorance of corporate accounting methods and, to the amusement of my classmates, label my observations as ‘crazy.’
“Ms. Brooks, did you ever think that maybe, just maybe, this is a good company and you simply aren’t able to understand basic accounting principles?”
Beyond the humiliation I resented his power over me: it was 1997, the end of my freshman year, and I needed a passing grade in this Accounting class in order to switch majors from Math to Finance. I understood the accounting principles in question—that wasn’t the problem. My professor and I had philosophical differences on interpreting this particular company’s treatment of its inventory.
“Professor, did you ever think that maybe, just maybe, the only reason Enron isn’t in bankruptcy right now is because shareholders and analysts are willing to ignore corporate fraud as long as the share price is rising?”
I often wonder how many of my classmates went on to become research analysts at investment banks, and how many of them spotted Enron’s accounting tricks but kept quiet. You’d have to be pretty sure of yourself, or completely crazy, to call out one of the largest blue-chip companies in the world for corporate fraud (this likely explains why no one called Enron out until 2001). You may be crazy, but you might also be right.
This story illustrates a defining aspect of my personality: I have always been, and will likely always be, that crazy person.
When I graduated from high school, I already knew that I was crazy because everyone told me so. I had high hopes for college, but my dream of fitting in was shattered pretty much as soon as I unpacked. The guidance counselor at my rural high school in Tennessee had existed to manage teenage pregnancies, abused children, and troubled lives—not to help anyone prepare for, much less navigate, life at an Ivy League university. I was woefully ill-prepared, and I tried to mask my fear behind a boisterous personality and amusing accent.
I decided I was going to major in two subjects I knew little about but liked a lot: Math and Russian. Russian I could start from scratch, but it soon became clear that my high school math courses were deficient beyond belief. My calculus professor was outraged that Georgetown’s admissions office had accepted someone who had never taken pre-calculus, and thought I was crazy for deciding to major in my weakest subject. I decided to take his advice and become a Finance major, so I could “make up numbers with all the other kids who can’t do math.”
After graduating in 2000, most of my fellow Finance majors went straight to banking jobs on Wall Street, or moved to New York to find their fortunes in some other way. I did not have a job, and didn’t know anyone in New York, so I took stock of the world around me: Russia was experiencing its second banking crisis in two years, and my expat friends in Moscow were returning home. In the U.S., the internet bubble was bursting and classmates just two years ahead of me were being laid off en masse, so I saw no reason to follow my unemployed classmates to New York. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I came up with the crazy idea of moving to Asia, which had recovered from the infamous 1998 flu.
By this point, I had long since given up on trying to fit in and was learning to use my uniqueness to my advantage. When I showed up in Hong Kong’s Exchange Square, handing out copies of my resume and buying drinks for anyone who looked like a banker, I had no competition and interviewed with every investment bank and brokerage firm on the island. When I accepted a job with a brokerage firm three months later and moved to Tokyo, I was the only finance expat in Roppongi who was female, 21, and spoke with a heavy Southern accent. When I moved back to Hong Kong four years later, I didn’t fit in much better but had matured enough to enjoy it. I took pleasure in the small things, like the shock on the face of this site’s editor when she heard me order a drink in my favorite vodka bar. “You speak RUSSIAN? No offense, but I barely understand your English. Seriously, where are you from? And how did you get HERE?” These questions never offended me—I loved telling the story of how I arrived then thrived in Asia. It underscored my tenacity, my determination, my fearlessness, my innate ability to promote the hell out of myself, and most importantly my willingness to take calculated risks. I was confident. Proud. Seven years into my career, I had molded my weirdness into uniqueness and made it work for me. I wasn’t crazy anymore, I was awesome.
In early 2007, my father became a candidate for a heart transplant, and I started looking for jobs closer to home that weren’t bound by rigid market hours. I thought my early success in Asia would provide limitless options, but I was shocked to realize how narrow my choices had become. I’d gone to a great school and had done really well for myself, but my experience was confined to a very niche area of finance, with a brokerage firm instead of a full-service investment bank and in Asia instead of the U.S. According to headhunters and hiring managers, I was ill-suited for any position other than the one I had, even though I possessed and was able to demonstrate all of the skills necessary to succeed in new industries that sounded interesting to me. The story of how I ended up trading stocks in Asia wasn’t cute anymore, much less appealing to potential employers—I was told that I sounded ‘flaky’ and ‘directionless.’ After all, I had majored in Russian then moved to Hong Kong, and now I wanted to leave Asia and Finance too? The decisions I made were logical—shouldn’t I get credit for finding my way from dot-com bust to opportunity? For being flexible and achieving even though the world had shifted in a way that no one had foreseen? For staying with the same firm for seven years and building a successful business? I worked HARD. I was GOOD. Unfortunately, I was also STUCK.
Thoroughly shaken, I decided the wisest next move would be grad school and paid a consultant $2,500 to rewrite the story of a flaky, crazy Southerner into that of a confident, unique business leader. It worked.
The irony of my time at Wharton was that I went there to create options for myself. But the major recruiters at business schools are big corporations, consulting firms, and investment banks. And they hate risk. They avoid it like the plague. To succeed, you had better fit the mold. When 2008 unleashed a series of events that would make ‘risk-averse’ a positive attribute, I realized I’d better squeeze myself into that mold if I wanted a job. As a result, I practiced explaining my career trajectory as a series of non-risky, thoroughly correlated events that were part of a master plan, and talked my way into a job that I hated and paid way less than the one I had before business school. That, by far, was the craziest thing I’ve ever done. Adding insult to injury, the job I took was in a highly specialized niche of the financial landscape (reinsurance) and served to limit my job prospects even further.
So, I came up with a crazy plan to finally start thinking about what I enjoy doing, what I’m good at doing, and how to get a paycheck for doing it. I also finally started being honest with myself about the sort of person I am and the type of life I want to live. Two years and 200 dates later, this led to reconnecting with a grad school classmate I had never thought of as ‘husband material,’ and eight months later I married the man of my dreams. Two years and 200 interviews later, I finally started being honest with myself about the type of career I need to pursue, and now I’m running my own IT consulting firm for non-profits by day and devoting my time to managing marketing and business development opportunities for a fashion start-up by night. If you look at my resume, you won’t see anything that points to IT specialist much less fashion designer, so this career change might seem to be the craziest of all. But maybe that’s what makes it right.
Photo provided by Mary-Katherine Brooks Fleming.