The banking industry has never had the best reputation, and the 2008 financial crisis certainly didn’t do anything to improve it. Goldman Sachs, in particular, was vilified by the media for its contributions to the crash—Rolling Stone infamously declared that the firm was a “great vampire squid” responsible for engineering “every major market manipulation since the Great Depression.”
I graduated high school in 2008 and entered college in the midst of an economic meltdown. Students preparing to graduate from college were getting their job offers revoked, and began entering into a very challenging job market. The ubiquitous fear of unemployment subconsciously led me to the one area of my university that wasn’t struggling to place its graduates: the business school.
Even better, the business school didn’t require students to define a major or concentration, which was an enormous relief for someone as indecisive as I am. The career center was dedicated to placing its students with Big Four accounting firms, top-tier investment banks, CPG companies, or management consulting firms. For my limited efforts in recruiting, I was fortunate to receive an offer from Goldman Sachs for the Summer of 2011.
As an intern in the operations department, there were no 100-hour weeks that are common in investment banking. The internship was paid and covered my living expenses. My time was split between organized networking, informal mentoring, and managing small portions of efficiency improvement projects for the division. I unintentionally stole someone’s copy of The Wall Street Journal every morning, and saw more Broadway shows than I could reasonably afford when I had free time. I postponed being a responsible adult and made a conscious decision not to worry about my finances. It was the greatest summer of my life.
In August, I was offered a full-time position with the firm, and with the summer experience still fresh in my memory, I promptly accepted. I still had one more year of college to finish up, but already had a job lined up for me come graduation time.
When I returned as a full-time employee in 2012, the negative perceptions of the firm still hadn’t waned. My (and others’) common response to “What do you do?” was “Work for a bank”—omitting the specific name of the bank entirely out of fear of being accosted. This was under the assumption that every new connection had the same opinion of Goldman Sachs, which, of course, wasn’t necessarily the case. Before I moved to New York, my dental hygienist asked where I would be working.
“Goldman Sachs,” I replied.
“Like the department store on 5th Avenue?” she asked.
Nevertheless, I began enjoying my experience as I had during my internship. The thing the media forgot was that the company had over 30,000 employees, most of whom worked in operations or technology. Sure, I met my share of conceited bankers and traders, but those stereotypical investment bank employees weren’t really who we were. I realize that my role in the operations division was different than a role in most other divisions, but this also can show the misapplication of stereotypes against the company. In fact, the majority of my coworkers were intelligent, funny, and driven for success measured in ways other than money. The firm itself was a model of overall efficiency, and the frustratingly complicated tasks were usually being addressed and upgraded by management. An investment bank may not have all the perks of a tech company, but the culture was supportive and the benefits were more than satisfactory.
Any one of my friends reading this may question how generally positive my reflections on my time at Goldman Sachs are. The truth is, I wasn’t passionate about the work. Of course, I don’t know if anyone is passionate about clearing Listed Derivatives, but most of my coworkers were at least interested in finance and the financial sector in a way that I never was. At 22, I knew I would be paying my dues in a less than ideal job somewhere, but reasoned that it would be more productive for me to accomplish this in an industry where I saw a future career path.
A few months ago my aunt reminded me that “work is work.” Her frustration with my generation is that we seem to forget this fact and believe, perhaps too strongly, that we’re supposed to love what we do.
“You may be right,” I told her, “but I’m going to spend my twenties trying to prove you wrong.”
I was never the type to live with regrets, but was always happy to admit that if I were given the chance to redo college, I would have been a computer science major instead. In February, I was given my second chance when I was accepted to Hackbright Academy, a 10-week fellowship designed to help women become highly-skilled programmers. My coworkers were extremely supportive of my decision to leave, and management even offered to let me come back to the firm after I completed the fellowship—something I had not expected and probably did not deserve. I respectfully declined the offer because I didn’t want to restrict my career options. I wanted to find a job that truly inspired me.
One of my managers wasn’t pleased with my decision, and raised a lot of fair points. Even though my interest in pursuing software engineering wasn’t new, I hadn’t mentioned this to anyone on my team. He noted that there could have been opportunities to get me involved with the more technical aspects of projects, which were bypassed because no one knew that I cared. In different circumstances, he argued, I could have found work I felt passionate about at the firm. The conversations we had during my last two weeks at Goldman Sachs evolved into a valuable lesson about communication.
When Greg Smith tried to rally the masses into raising their pitchforks against the man, he was met with tepid reactions. For good reason: The general public (except, perhaps, my dental hygienist) is smart enough to realize that any human at any company will complain about their clients, or their coworkers, or the job itself. This is not to say that Goldman Sachs is innocent; they paid over half a billion dollars to settle with the SEC over the subprime mortgage crisis. I made my decision to work there knowing this, and perhaps this perception set a low bar for my experience.
Last week, I learned that three of my former coworkers had been laid off. Someone at the firm had to make that difficult decision, hopefully for some justifiable business reason. While I might not agree with the decision itself, I’m hopeful that these individuals will use the opportunity to move on to something they find more satisfying. I can’t pretend to have all the answers having barely lived my own life, but would rather have an optimistic outlook than move on from the firm with any kind of resentment. When I look back on my short tenure at Goldman Sachs, I won’t see a toxic and destructive environment, but a supportive and educational foundation for the rest of my career.