J.P. Morgan’s commodities CEO who left for AI start-up: Don't go into banking unless you're "jazzed" about it

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Catherine Flax worked her way to the top of the ladder (or close to it) in banking, climbing to the role of CEO of global commodities for Europe, the Middle East and Asia and then the chief marketing officer of J.P. Morgan. But her route to the top was not exactly conventional.

She finished a Master's degree in economics at Brown University, and then decided to spend some time teaching at university and...hosting a radio show. This was in the mid-'90s, and led to some consulting work for the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her first finance job came at Williams Company, structuring and trading commodities. All of this doesn't exactly suggest a route to the top at J.P. Morgan and is unlikely to be a path any graduate recruits take these days. This, says Flax, is a shame.

“How banking has evolved from a recruitment of talent perspective is regrettable,” Flax says. “Banks tend to hire directly out of their intern programs, so students have to decide very early on what their specialization will be, which was not the case when I got my start and worked to my benefit.”

More to the point, she says, it means that students have to set themselves on the track to an investment banking job before they realise what they really want to do. Often, this means that people view banking as a stepping stone to another career.

“If more young people would be a little less afraid to try things that seem appealing, they would get more out of it, rather than ‘I have to do my time in banking,’ which is fine if you really like it,” Flax says. “Banking is much more regulated and slower moving than it used to be – there are so many boxes to check, so it’s not as entrepreneurial."

“There are enough people that actually love banking, so if you don’t, it’s going to show – you’re always going to be pitted against the person you’re sitting next to you at a bank and evaluated against that person. If you don’t love it now, you probably won’t love it later. Why not doing something you’re really jazzed about?”

Flax's advice for young people going into banking counters that given by other former senior bankers who believe that a large investment bank offers the best training for those who want to eventually do something else with their lives. Flax, though, believes that you should do something you're passionate about - want to work in fintech, go straight into it.

For the past three and a half years, Flax has been a managing director and the Americas head of commodities, foreign exchange and local markets at BNP Paribas. She's also been providing strategic advice to AI fintech start-up Pefin. Earlier this month, she bit the bullet and quit banking to become CEO of Pefin.

“It did require some soul-searching on my part if it was the right thing to do, but I have a strong entrepreneurial bug that I caught from family members who have their own businesses, so I’ve always had it in my head that when I’m done with banking I will do something like this,” she says. “The last couple of years, spending as much time as I have done in the whole fintech ecosystem and realizing all of the transformation that has to happen in banking, while I enjoyed trying to facilitate that transformation from within a big bank, it is frustrating, because it’s not always easy to make sweeping changes.

Pefin is hiring

Pefin uses AI algorithms to provide subscribers with personalized, fiduciary financial planning and investment advice. The 20-person firm recently moved into a new, bigger office in New York and is hiring.

“In addition to the consumer launch in the U.S. that is happening imminently, we’re also rolling out a B-to-B, white-label offering for advisers and insurance agents and a third division for employee benefits,” Flax says.

“Our most pressing hiring need is computer science, which is the number-one major of the people sitting on the floor, and some have undergrad only, some Master’s, some PhDs, so it’s a range,” she says.

The firm uses various programming languages, including, SQL, HTML and R. It has user-interface (UI) engineers on its development team, but it is not looking to add anymore for the time being.

Photo credit: chombosan/GettyImages

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