I gave up a burgeoning pop career to become a J.P. Morgan trader, now I've started a fintech firm
Rachel Mayer was raised in her father’s native country of Venezuela, and for a while, it looked as if she would follow in his footsteps. He is salsa singer Bazil Alexander, who is quite famous in Latin America, so Mayer had a leg up from his music-industry connections, but her American mother gave her some career advice that ended up being pivotal.
“Growing up I always sang – I had a passion for music, and I was on track to becoming a pop star in Venezuela – I had a song on the radio, and I was touring, but my mom convinced me to apply to MIT,” Mayer said. “When I got in, it was an opportunity that I felt I couldn’t pass up."
This is not as dramatic a switch as it seems – Meyer had always been good at math, and wanted to work on Wall Street. It was a toss up between pop stardom...or trading.
“In addition to music, I’ve always had a passion for numbers and fast-moving environments, so I knew from a young age I wanted to go to Wall Street, and I fell in love with trading and the markets,” Mayer said. “I worked for Lehman Brothers and J.P. Morgan all throughout college, and my senior year I landed a full-time trading role on the emerging markets FX and interest rates desk at J.P. Morgan.
Over the course of her five-year stint at J.P. Morgan, Mayer worked her way up the ladder until she was running the FX electronic trading platform for emerging markets currencies and rates. That role involved algorithmic currency trading and interacting with the bank’s customers and engineers, and navigating electronic communication networks (ECNs). She was responsible for presenting the FX e-commerce product to J.P. Morgan’s salespeople and clients. Mayer claims to have grown the emerging markets trading business to billions of dollars per day in traded client volume, all-time highs.
The pros and cons of working at a big bank
Looking at the positive aspects of the job, Mayer said it was an unbelievable learning experience that helped her to really understand how the industry and the world run.
“In terms of currencies and interest rates, I came to understand how large institutions invest their money and hedge their assets,” Mayer said. “Plus, our trading desk was the most diverse at the bank – it was half women, with 10 different nations represented, and I had a great manager.
“Ours was also one of the most profitable trading desks at the bank, which goes to show that diverse teams perform better,” she said. “Overall, it was a great experience, because I learned about market-making and algorithmic trading, and I got the opportunity to build the electronic [emerging markets] FX trading desk from the ground up.”
As with any job, there were certainly downsides as well. In particular, Mayer noticed a big difference in 2015 due to various provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act kicking in.
“That was a tough year for our desk, because the new regulations hit hard – they really stifled creativity and innovation, and it wasn’t as fun,” Mayer said. “There’s the transparency provision, the mandate to retain records, now you can’t chat over Bloomberg terminals that much, and having to have a collateralized agreement with every institution you do business with.
“Especially because emerging markets products are very volatile, it’s very hard to impose generic rules that apply to a Treasury bond and also apply to a 10-year interest-rate derivative from Brazil,” she said. “One regulation doesn’t necessarily apply to both of them in the intended way.”
From the Wall Street trading floor back to the classroom
Mayer was ready for a change. She won the Lester B. Knight scholarship award for excellence in business and engineering and was awarded the Simmons Graduate Fellowship to pursue her Master's of Engineering degree at Cornell University.
“I took a year-long sabbatical from J.P. Morgan to go to Cornell,” Mayer said. “I had a great opportunity to be a creative, free thinker – I could really think about the problems and issues that individual investors face outside of Wall Street.”
There, she joined a startup competition at Cornell, where she met Adrian Soghoian and Zafrir Schop, who would become the two other co-founders of new fintech firm Trigger Finance, which grew from the seed of the idea of a platform to let people create rules to track and invest in the market.
“Trigger was born out of that startup competition, and Cornell became the first investor, so at that point, I quit my job at J.P. Morgan,” Mayer said.
Trigger is mobile first and feeds real-time data to its users based on social media content and events from reputable sources.
“Our mission is to help investors remove the emotion out of investing,” Mayer said. “Trigger monitors all types of data and lets do-it-yourself investors set rules, for example, if X stock goes below 20, buy or sell, or if the interest rate moves a certain amount, make a trade, or if Trump tweets about a company, alert me. With our Trump Tweets Trigger, if he tweets about any publicly traded stock, we’ll send an alert to your phone in real-time and let you know whether that stock is in your portfolio.”
The app implements artificial intelligence, using natural language processing on data sets such as the president’s Twitter feed. As of now, the app is free. The company plans to pursue a “freemium” model, eventually charging a subscription for advanced features and functionality.
“We’re a year and a half in [since committing to Trigger Finance full-time], and it’s extremely liberating because you are your own boss on a small team – there are no rules, no guidebook, and of course we have mentors, but no one is telling you which direction to go in,” Mayer said.
“It forces you to have so many skill sets, from fundraising and product development to paying taxes and payroll, things that you don’t get exposed to being a trader on Wall Street, where you become an expert but your skills narrow as you progress in your career,” she said. “Being an entrepreneur is an amazing experience to build something from scratch and enjoy the satisfaction of seeing your vision become a reality.”
In addition to Cornell’s investment, Trigger Finance got up and running with an angel investment round from friends, family and senior Wall Street executives. In a couple of months, the company is going to raise a larger institutional investment round. At that point, Trigger will look to add headcount.
“After our fundraise in the Spring, we will start hiring, looking for engineers, marketers and former traders and bankers,” Mayer said.
Photo courtesy of Trigger Finance