I left behind my career in banking, PE and the Big Four for a social media start-up. Here's why
I remember trying to reassure myself as I walked out the doors of my swanky Madison Avenue and 42nd Street office: “Just breathe! Don’t worry; it will be okay!” It was my last day of work at Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), an investment management firm focused on commercial real estate.
I should have felt relieved and joyful. This was my decision – I had gone into the office two weeks prior and told my manager I wanted to take a break from work so I could spend more time with my three-month-old daughter. Then why did feel like I was carrying the world’s weight on my shoulders? Probably because it wasn’t an easy ride getting to where I was.
I completed Bank of America’s investment banking analyst program in 2006 and then went to grad school. In 2008, during the onset of the subprime crisis, I had recently graduated with an MS in real estate. I had to put in four times the effort to land myself an internship at a small private equity shop.
I would go on to work as a senior consultant at EY for three years, providing advisory services such as financial modelling, sensitivity analysis, evaluating capital structure alternatives, conducting due diligence and assessing market feasibility for hotels and commercial real estate. I also lead quarterly collateral reviews and asset valuations for several high-profile private equity firms, REITs and banks. Then I joined JLL.
Lean and working mean hours
Smaller real estate companies and PE firms are generally run very lean. Junior staff is expected to do the majority of the heavy lifting – an excellent learning experience. As an added bonus, the private equity firm and the companies that I worked at subsequently specialized in investing, managing and advising in the field of hotels and hospitality. Due to the operational aspects, managing a hotel portfolio company can be more involved than other real estate assets.
Within months of joining, I had become an Excel modeling whiz, reading through thousands of pages of legal documents and operating agreements, negotiating with vendors and inspecting countless properties.
On the flip side, I had to start getting selective with how I spent my limited free time, which was extremely limited. Another peculiar thing about real estate investment – especially the hotel industry – is that it is still very male-dominated and can get very intimidating. I was one of the only three women working at my office. However, I was lucky to have great bosses who were very encouraging and never sidelined my effort.
The need for flexibility from my employer
The advisory side is predominately client-facing. Employees and consultants do not enjoy a great deal of flexibility and have to put in a number of hours of face time. That can get a bit tough when balancing the needs of a young family along with work.
Remote jobs are close to non-existent in the industry. However, I got very lucky. While on my mommy sabbatical, I got approached to work as part-time remote consultant for a family office on a one-off real estate project. The position would last a year. This kind of arrangement is very rare in the financial services industry.
Following the completion of my part-time project, I felt that I was ready to go back to work full-time. I started networking with my mentors and friends, who secured interview for me at a few real estate companies. I made it to the final rounds at a few places and was also offered a role with a regional firm.
But something wasn’t clicking for me. I was no longer excited about the types of job roles and profiles I was being offered. I would also recoil at the thought of working an 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. job with close to zero flexibility. I couldn’t imagine getting so little time with my daughter. If I was going to trade time with my daughter for work, it would have to be something I was passionate about. I also wanted a role that offered more flexibility. I put on my research hat and started meeting with friends who worked in different industries: HR, marketing, sales, and PR, for example.
Career turning point
During the course of my research, a friend put me in touch with Arshya Lakshman, the founder/CEO of futurON Systems, who was looking for help with her technology startup. Start-ups were never first on my list of choices for a career move, but I kept an open mind. I had two very casual-but-informational meetings with her. Within a week, Arshya reached out to me with a job offer to help her oversee operations for futurON, a startup that was incorporated in India and looking to launch its first product, Milofy, in the U.S.
While I had no formal background in operations, I was open to learning. We were putting our faith in each other. As the founder, she hoped that I would quickly ramp up and oversee various aspects of operations. I hoped that the switch would be an enriching experience.
Apart from Arshya’s larger than life attitude and infectious humor, a few things attracted me to this role. The work was very different from what I had done in the past, which was very exciting. There was a ton of opportunity for learning and it offered me a lot of flexibility. Most important, though, I finally felt passionate and excited about what I was going to do. I really liked the idea behind Milofy and all it has to offer. It was designed to connect couples offline with the use of online tech, which I thought sounded cool.
Five months into my new role, I work an average of 10 hours a day, have exposure to different aspects of the business and have become an important voice within the company. Thanks to the flexible hours and my boss’s attitude of “work from anywhere as long as job is done,” I am able to spend good quality time with my toddler – who is frankly a “threenager” at this point – and also manage to have a social life: a win-win situation.
My advice to others? If you ever find yourself torn between making personal and professional decisions, just take a deep breath and go boldly where your passion lies, even if it’s outside of the traditional financial services industry. It will all be OK.
Neha Jain is the head of U.S. operations at Milofy, a couples-oriented social networking platform backed by the venture capital firm Accel. Previously, she worked as an investment banking analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, a senior consultant at EY, an associate at JLL and a principal at Mango Tree Investments.