Sofia’s Story – Women Who Code NYC

Following is a keynote speech from WellWallet founder Sofia Rossato, given at the Women Who Code NYC event hosted by M Science in New York City on November 1, 2018.

Good evening everyone. Michael and Sunaina from MScience asked me to share my story. I’d like to honor my gratitude to them with transparency. I’m going to speak from the heart and share my journey with you. My hope is to give you a few ideas that may help you along your own journey.

In the Beginning…

I was born in Argentina to a big Latin family. My grandmother had 9 children. When I was six, my parents decided to come to the U.S. Our family stayed with my aunt when we first arrived and we slept in their garage for over a year.

I remember seeing my dad wake up before the crack of dawn and come home exhausted from working construction jobs. He did this every day, day after day, for years. I remember thinking how proud of him I was ? to see someone work that hard for his family. At the same time, I remember feeling financial and cultural insecurity.

I remember feeling financial and cultural insecurity.

My identical twin sister and I quickly decided that we would never feel this way again. We worked hard to get rid of our accents because we saw how immigrants were treated. (Side note: this hurt later on, because I forgot some of our native language (Spanish) and had to re-learn in college).

We also became straight A students and even tutored other kids. I especially enjoyed tutoring the kids who were the underdogs, the kids other people had written off. We knew that education was our ticket to opportunity.

The Value of Creativity and Love

Along the way, we never forgot the value of creativity and love. Our parents taught us early on that there were many kinds of capital, including intellectual, artistic, monetary, and athletic capital. They all have value. That’s why we got into the arts. My sister and I were accepted into a magnet arts high school called New World School of the Arts in Miami, FL. You might be familiar the Laguardia High School of Music & Art here in NYC. Their provost came down to Miami and created our high school. Mica, my twin, was accepted for visual arts and I made it in for theatre.

We knew that education was our ticket to opportunity.

Even though my parents didn?t go to college and had us when they were very young, they shared many lessons. My mother was valedictorian of her high school and a big reader. Through her, we learned the value and the power of critical thinking. I remember having so much fun testing each other in chemistry and math using flash cards. My sister and I graduated 3rd and 5th in our high school class. (Side note: darn you Mandy Greenfield, you were 4th and got in between us! 😉 )

Early Payoff

Mica received over $500,000 in scholarships to the top art schools around the country. She?s now a high fashion photographer here in NYC. I was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania and graduated magna cum laude ?but not in STEM. My majors were International Relations and Spanish Literature.

(Side note: I highly recommend everyone here gets an identical twin. They don?t have to be a blood relative. Get an accountability partner. The thing about having an identical twin is that you have a natural ally, competitor and soul mate. We liked chasing each other and collaborating. So figure out who your twin is and have fun!)

Impostor Syndrome

I don?t know if it was the immigrant thing or not having wealth, but I had a sense of impostor syndrome very early on. I remember thinking:? there?s always going to be someone smarter than me, someone more talented than me. For a while, I was obsessed with the idea of genius. Can someone learn to become a genius, or do you have to be born with it?

Elon Musk was in my class. Who was I to think I could compete in STEM with those guys?

At the time, a STEM path (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) seemed daunting. That was for the kids who went into Penn?s management & technology program. Elon Musk was in my class. Who was I to think I could compete in STEM with those guys? So I did what I knew I could do: work hard. Working hard was my security blanket.

The Mother of All Invention

My need to be financially secure outweighed my insecurity around STEM. So I looked for internships in finance. My mom and stepdad were living in St. Simon?s Island, GA at the time. The summer between my freshman and sophomore year I landed an internship with a financial advisor at Paine Webber, a wealth management company. This was a tiny, one-man office. It was also a time when the internet was just coming about.

Working hard was my security blanket.

I remember calling my boyfriend at the time and asking him: I have no idea how to help this guy. His client list is all over the place and he needs help getting organized. My boyfriend said,”Well, why don?t you build him a database?”

I said, “What?s a database?”

And that?s how it started. That summer I taught myself relational database technology and learned about financial markets. Meanwhile, I also worked as a waitress at a fancy golf resort. Part of me was worried that people I knew might see me working as a waitress. But you know what? In a waitress’ uniform and a hairnet, no one saw me.?That was also the summer I learned a thing or two about job shaming.

Landing My First Real Job

When I graduated, I got a job at an early fintech startup in NYC called Wall Street On Demand. I wanted to be close to my twin sister. My title was ?Marketing Manager,? but the actual day-to-day involved answering customer service calls. I remember my ego taking a hit and thinking, “Is this really where I am supposed to be?”

I remember thinking, “What am I doing?”

I graduated top of my class at an Ivy League institution with $40K in student loans. And here I am, making $30K in NYC, answering customer service calls, and living in an illegal place in Brooklyn before Brooklyn was even cool. We lived in a commercial space, which meant that we had to sneak through a secret door to get to our bunk beds for sleeping. I remember thinking, “What am I doing?”

Why Bosses Matter

But something kept me going. One of those things was a great boss. I would answer phones during the day, and work on databases nights and weekends. I remember one day, I walked into his office and said, “Hey, I realize you asked me to create an acceptance environment for our interactive voice response system. But I have no idea how to do this.”

He looked at me, smiled and said, ?Of course you can do it. You?ll figure it out.? Then waved me away. So I just did it.

I can?t tell you how many people left before things really took off for them.

Again, find people who believe in you, even more than you do. Then take that courage and make it your own. It?s amazing what it does to your confidence when you have to figure out things for yourself. And, you know what? You find out that you can do more than you think you can.

Sometimes You Follow Your Heart and End Up Loving Your Work

My company moved to Boulder, CO. I followed them because I fell in love with a man who would later become my husband. (Side note: if you?re dating someone from your company and you think no one knows, everyone knows.)

This company was bought and sold multiple times. I stayed with them through every single sale. We grew from 12 people to 400 people. We were bought by Thompson Reuters, Goldman Sachs, and finally IHS Markit. Along the way, we built some of the most innovative tools for the largest online retail brokers in the world. Quotes, charts, news, stock screeners, alert services and more.

We were helping people learn about investing and saving. And surprisingly, it was artistic. We had the largest assemblage of financial data designers in the world. These were people who went to art school. Creatives who understood the art of visualizing complex financial data in ways that were beautiful, simple and elegant.

From Customer Service to Chief Operating Officer

My roles at the company took many paths over the following 20 years. From customer service manager and database developer to head of several departments, including project management, product management, the commission management business, and COO of the indices franchise. My last role was COO of the information division at IHS Markit, which, at the time, was an $1 billion division of a multi-billion dollar financial information company.

It did not feel like I was there for 20 years. This was because I went from working at a 12 person start-up to an 11 thousand person conglomerate. I had many jobs and many chapters there.

OK, So I’d Done It… Now What?

So I had done it. I made it. I broke the broke cycle. I paid off my debts and had become financially independent. I made it to the fancy title at a big company. I had built these financial moats around myself so that my family and I would stay safe. And the question that kept coming up over and over was: now what?

The Catalyst to a Second Career

Then, in July 2016, one of my best friend?s husbands was killed by a drunk driver. He was a brilliant Google engineer named Bill Davis. He left my friend, a mom with 3 young boys, alone. When that happened, something in me changed.

I thought a lot about the impact I wanted to leave behind for my kids, and the state of the world when I left this planet. I had spent many years helping institutions (hedge funds, large asset managers, banks) and I wanted to get back to helping the little guy and little gal. The individual. And I knew that there was more than one way to do that.

Money Shame

Meanwhile, I had also struggled with the concept of money. I noticed that there was a lot of shame around it. My artistic side of the family thought I focused too much on money. I also noticed that many people around me felt money shame. Either because they did not have enough of it or felt overwhelmed by the concept. And yet, I?d always felt excited about helping friends understand the money game. I wanted to share all of the good tips and tricks I had learned over the years.

Putting Your Money Where Your Heart Is

Then I realized you can combine any two concepts in a way that is heart driven and real. Even money and technology. If you think about it, money and technology can be beautiful. They are the mother and father of human built systems. And they are powerful.

We can take back concepts like capitalism, which have been vilified. We can take the intrinsically good aspects of money and use them to build a better world. So the big idea became: what if we could transform the economy into a force for good?

Money and technology can be beautiful. They are the mother and father of human built systems. And they are powerful.

We used to think that the only way to have a positive impact was through donation. As it turns out, where you spend, invest, save, bank and even protect your assets, has power.?And women hold much of this power. Studies show that women are better long term investors because we are more risk averse. We also control 86% of household purchasing power. Women are also set to inherit trillions of dollars over the next 2 decades. And with that, we will control over 69% of investable assets.

What if we didn?t have to give up purpose for profit? What if we could have both?

Women and millennials think, spend and invest differently than traditional male investors. We care about the type of planet and communities we leave to our kids. I kept thinking:?What if we didn?t have to give up purpose for profit? What if we could have both?

Launching WellWallet

WellWallet was created as a platform that helps you make and save money, while having a positive impact on People & Planet. It is an automated money assistant (a personal financial management tool) that helps you profit with purpose.?I?m happy, anytime, to give you more information about WellWallet. And we’d love to get your feedback on our app, which just launched in August.

Seven Ideas to Put Into Action Today

For now, I want to leave you with 7 actionable ideas:

  1. Surround yourself with people who make you brave. It?s more than simply saying: you?re the average of the 5 people you hang with (which is true). It?s about finding people who dismiss your insecurities as if they didn?t even exist. Because there are people who believe in your abilities even more than you might.
  2. Realize that this is a long game. Whether you have many chapters in a single company (like I did), or switch careers multiple times, nothing will happen overnight. I can?t tell you how many people left before things really took off for them.
    (Side note: Speaking from personal experience, the majority of my wealth came in the second decade of my career. During the first ten years, I was investing and learning. Remember that the more you have, the faster it compounds on itself. That goes for both money and knowledge. But you must put in the work during the early years.)
  3. Don?t believe the idea that this is a zero sum game. We can make the pie bigger. We don?t have to compete with each other for the one or two token spots we think are made available for women at the top. We get to decide the rules of the game and lift each other up. Make the pie bigger and bring your sisters with you along the way.
  4. Sell the Dream. Oftentimes, when bosses or investors are vetting your idea, women will get asked preventative questions instead of promotional questions. Even though studies show that women are better deployers of capital, we are oftentimes asked how we WON’T lose money. So? when you are pitching any idea,?talk about the dream. Of course you’ll need the details to back it up, because unearned power catches up to you. But don?t get pigeon holed into a corner talking about how you won?t fail. Let them know that the details are in the due diligence packet or the business plan. Because what you want them to remember and internalize is the big dream.
  5. Look for asymmetrical risk. Look for opportunities that have 4x the upside v. the downside. When you spot that opportunity, take it. Do this tomorrow. Find a project or a contact that you’ve been wanting to start or reach out to, and ask yourself: what?s the worse that could happen? Just the act of doing this will begin changing your mindset. And begin changing the way others see you, too.
  6. Be a good human. And remember who you represent. When a VC friend of mine was thinking about which female entrepreneur to feature in the intro to her book, it was between Sarah Blakely, the billionaire founder of Spanx, and Elizabeth Holmes from Theranos. Luckily, they stuck with Sarah. Remember that people are watching us.
  7. Find the Heart and Art in everything you do. It doesn?t matter if you are fixing bugs or defining a big vision. All of it matters. And all of it needs your influence. Remember, we get one life. It doesn?t owe you anything and it won?t always be fun or exciting. But every single moment matters. How you get up from your chair, how we greet each other, how you comment your code or deliver that pitch. Turn all of it into ballet. Because life is more beautiful this way. So make it beautiful and make it your own.

Thank you. I am grateful for your time this evening.

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