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An Open Letter to All Young Women of Wall Street

Dear young women of Wall Street,

I was once in your shoes as a newly minted investment banking analyst — fresh from college, brave, ambitious, and hopeful. I am one of you, so take what I write to heart.

You are joining one of the most rigorous, infuriatingly complex, and rewarding careers that you can have. And I know you've probably heard the horror stories and are wondering if you're prepared, if you really know what you've signed up for. There may even be naysayers in your circle of loved ones who worry for your health and well-being. Wall Street is a grueling place that can break you if you let it. I, too, have been troubled by the recent reports of young analysts suffering emotional traumas under the pressures of the job (and tragically even committing suicide in one recent case). Yes, the personal risks are tremendous, but so are the rewards. My five years in investment banking gave me many invaluable lessons. But the ones I cherish most are the lessons that I learned about myself. 

I will never forget stepping into the investment bank on my first day of work. The high-stakes energy was palpable and so were the knots in my stomach. Friends and mentors who told me that i-banking was like "drinking from a fire hose" weren't joking. I constantly felt like I was out of my league during those first weeks. I made typical rookie mistakes and I stepped into the potholes of office politics. My body physically hurt from sitting for long hours and my brain was mush from the 15-hour days and sleep deprivation.

I'm not too proud to admit it: I took breaks to cry in a bathroom stall and I secretly wanted to quit more than once — especially after getting yelled at for missing an unreasonable deadline. Wall Street has a habit of bringing all of your undealt-with insecurities and anxieties to the surface. I got over the hump by checking my ego, truly humbling myself to the experience, and leaning into the discomfort of change. The best thing you can do to survive those early uncertain days is to become a student—learn the nuanced mechanics of the business and how you can add value to its bottom line. Much like STEM fields, women on Wall Street can be relegated to lower standards for hard skills, like driving revenue, which can hinder advancement.

As gender-gap guru Susan Colantuono explains, women are often coached on soft skills and relationship building but are never explicitly told that they are being evaluated on their ability to yield results. Technical skills matter. If you have them, no one will be able to question whether you are qualified for the job. And that’s exactly what I made sure to do: I first built a strong foundation and grew confident in trusting my own instincts. I started raising my hand for more difficult projects over time, and those bold moves helped to set the stage for my future promotions.

A word of caution about conforming to the banking world: It’s really easy to assume a "Devil Wears Prada" attitude. Much like all the concrete and brick of Wall Street, the cutthroat nature of the business hardened me. I’m a big-hearted Southern girl and was very unhappy underneath that mask. I also quickly realized that it prevented me from making real connections with my team. When I started showing up to the office as my genuine, compassionate self (with flawless spreadsheets in tow) I noticed more people wanted to invest in me. I also felt better at work once I started taking care of myself. I committed to an exercise schedule, carved out dedicated mental space, and started eating healthy foods. It may sound a little Mad Men-ish, but looking good is tied to your credibility in this business. 

When I became more authentic, I realized I was also able to maintain connections with other women in the office. Yes, Wall Street may still be a male-dominated industry, but there are countless women at all levels of the organization; especially those who work tirelessly behind the scenes in administrative support roles and within the firm’s infrastructure. I realized that they were cheering me on, and by simply acknowledging them for their contributions as part of the tribe, I gained access to this valuable (and often unseen/untapped) support system. Executive assistants would put me on the calendars of top bankers and I was able to get packages to clients faster because of my connections in the mailroom.

Despite several years of success and promotions, I still felt unsatisfied—but I was afraid to leave. The industry makes you feel as if it is the epicenter of life on earth and if you quit then you have failed. I’m here to assure you that there is life after banking. Banish those fear-mongering wolves. Celebrate your accomplishments and also forgive yourself for not being anyone’s martyr. You have earned your street cred: critical thinking, innovative problem solving, ninja-speed analytical skills, personal clarity, and an entrepreneurial toolkit. These are priceless. Whether you want to build a 20-year career or realize that Wall Street is a single stop on the journey, you are now in a very special club that most people only experience through movies. 

Wherever you are in your career, you must not forget to remind Wall Street — and yourself — of who you are: strong, brave, ambitious, and hopeful.

I, along with all Wall Street sisters past and present (like business news journalist and MAKER Maria Bartiromo in the video above), are cheering you on!

Love,
Andrea M. O’Neal

More From Levo:
• How to Get More Responsibility at Work
8 Amazing TED Talks Every Woman Should Watch in Her 20s
How to Deal With Hyper-Organized Coworkers (When You Aren't One)

Photo Credit: Cultura/Seb Oliver/Getty Images