Careers

The secret to my success on Wall Street

I was a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin when I saw a poster that read: " Make $10,000 for the summer with an internship on Wall Street."

For a young woman who had $5 in her bank account, $10,000 seemed like a fortune and the answer to all her problems. I thought: "That's where I need to be!"

Even though I was a business major, I knew very little about Wall Street and less about how to land an internship. I soon learned that the odds were not in my favor: I was a woman, I was Hispanic, I had no connections and no legal papers for employment. Wall Street was a boys' club, and I didn't have a membership. Regardless, I had my eyes set on Wall Street and I put all my efforts into getting there.

"By the time I was 27, five years into my career at Goldman...I had gone from making $10,000 as an intern to making over $340,000 as a vice president."

After attending an information session for the Sponsors for Educational Opportunities (SEO), an organization that brings outstanding students from underrepresented minorities to Wall Street, and speaking to a Goldman Sachs recruiter, I learned a couple of things. First, if I was going to work on Wall Street, I wanted to work for Goldman Sachs. Second, to get an internship at Goldman Sachs, my grades needed to be near perfect, I had to have other internships, I had to have leadership positions, and, somehow, I needed to stand out from the other 17,000 applicants.



As a sophomore, I wasn't qualified to land an internship at Goldman Sachs just yet, but I started to create a roadmap and an execution plan to get there. The first thing on the plan was to land another internship. Through the help of the Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement (HACE), I interned at the Chicago Fire, a Major League Soccer team. The internship was unpaid, but the experience was invaluable.

I couldn't afford to live in Chicago with an unpaid internship, so I also worked for HACE part time. I stayed with family an hour and a half away to save on rent, and used the commute to read "How to Win Friends and Influence People," twice. For extra cash, I dressed up as a mascot during special fan events for the Chicago Fire. It turned out that dressing up as the mascot would always be a point of conversation with recruiters and the thing that stood out on my resume.

Back on campus my junior year, I had checked a few items off my execution plan: I had excellent grades, I had been sworn in as the president for the Hispanic Business Student Association, and I'd had another meaningful internship. I realized that beyond the $10,000, an internship could lead to an amazing career on Wall Street, where $10,000 could eventually be my bi-weekly paycheck.


I decided that, if I was going to make it on Wall Street, I needed mentorship and I needed a network — two things that SEO offered.

I applied to SEO and was accepted for a summer internship on Wall Street. The only problem was that SEO doesn't take requests for where to be placed over the summer. I could have easily ended up at another firm. Instead of leaving it to chance, I called the Goldman Sachs recruiter that I'd met and stayed in touch with. I told him that I would love to come spend the summer at Goldman through the SEO program. He made one phone call to SEO, and my internship with Goldman was secured.

Once I was at Goldman, I created another plan to turn my internship into a full time job. Once I had the full-time offer, I turned that plan into, "How to become the first Hispanic woman partner at Goldman." I came up with that plan after reading books like "How to Win Friends and Influence People," " 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," and others.

My strategy was:
1. Check in with my bosses periodically on my progress
2. Set and receive expectations for compensation
3. Be intentional about promotions
4. Self-promote (something many people are afraid to do)
5. Be flexible

Every new year, I'd sit down with my boss and set expectations for the year — measurable, tangible items that I could compare against my performance. Then, in the summer, I would set up another meeting and share my progress on the items they outlined in the winter. I would ask questions like: "Am I on track to be promoted this year?" and "Given the revenue of the team and my contributions, what type of raise should I expect?"

By the time I was 27, five years into my career at Goldman, I had been promoted from analyst to associate, and from associate to vice president. I had gone from making $10,000 as an intern to making over $340,000 as a vice president.

I re-evaluated my plan every year, and after being promoted to VP, my plans changed. Amazingly, I no longer wanted to pursue becoming the first Hispanic woman partner at GS. But I learned a lot during my time on Wall Street.

The No. 1 lesson I learned is that there is always a way. Navigating a world where men still rule wasn't easy. Seeing my future when I was scared every day that I may get caught for not having legal papers, wasn't easy. But where there is a will, there is a way.

I left Wall Street, but in my new career as an author, writer, speaker and advocate, I continue to employ the same strategies that got me through the maze of Wall Street.


Commentary by Julissa Arce, the author of the forthcoming book, "My (Underground) American Dream" (Sept. 13, 2016). Arce made national and international headlines when she revealed that she had achieved the American Dream of wealth and status working her way up to vice president at Goldman Sachs by age 27 while being an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Follow her on Twitter @julissaarce.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.