Welcome to Office Hours, where members of the Argent community share personal career stories and, in the process, dispense invaluable advice, rare insight, and inspiration through lived experiences.
Grab a seat—office hours are now open.
Julissa Natzely Arce Raya launched her career in finance and a corporate structure with tight parameters around what it means to be professional, and who gets to be a leader. Tighter still for a Mexican woman who, at the time, was an undocumented immigrant. But despite a work environment where she felt the need to suppress parts of her identity to succeed, Arce Raya would go on to become a Vice President at Goldman Sachs, move into a role at Merrill Lynch as a Director, and ultimately, leave it all in search of a new purpose. Today she’s a three-time best-selling author, including her 2022 release entitled You Sound Like a White Girl: The Case for Rejecting Assimilation. Though Arce Raya still finds herself challenging corporate structures to this day, below, she shares more of her journey to feeling empowered to show up wholly as herself and why rejecting assimilation can’t only be a call to action for employees, but to employers, as well.
YOUR CAREER TODAY LOOKS MUCH DIFFERENT THAN WHERE IT STARTED. SO, TO START, WHAT DREW YOU TO WALL STREET AND FINANCE EARLY ON?
“My interest in Wall Street started when I saw a poster on my college campus that said I could make $10,000 interning on Wall Street. That was more money than I could imagine. I thought that’s where I needed to be. I proceeded to learn everything I could about Wall Street. I switched my major from marketing to finance. It was sort of a natural transition because I always liked numbers. Numbers were the one place where I felt smart all the time, even when I didn’t speak English. I took part in a program called Sponsors for Educational Opportunities (SEO) and, through the program, I got an internship at Goldman Sachs. I eventually went on to a full-time job at Goldman where I focused on creating derivative products for wealthy clients. If a client wanted a product that didn't exist, we would create it for them. I really enjoyed my job for a long time. I found a lot of fulfillment. Every day at the end of the day, I felt accomplished.
“My first boss was incredible and a great example of what all bosses should be. He was a champion for me, he taught me a lot and helped me navigate a world that I was not familiar with at all. I always think that if I had a different boss perhaps my career would not have been as successful, even though I would have worked just as hard. And that's where I think working hard isn’t enough, there are so many other things that need to happen to find success.”
WHAT KIND OF OTHER THINGS? WHAT DID YOU FIND TO BE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE?
“There were a lot of positive things about my career and there were also some very difficult things about that job. When you’re a first-year analyst on Wall Street, you’re working 80 to 100-hour workweeks. You don't sleep, you don’t have weekends off. The learning curve is really steep. But neither the learning curve nor the number of hours I had to work was the most difficult. Those two things were almost easy for me. I knew what it was like to work hard because when I was in college I went to school full time and had to take a Greyhound bus every weekend to San Antonio to sell funnel cakes. The hard work didn’t scare me or bother me. The thing that was the most challenging was the culture shock.
“Not only was I Mexican and a woman and an immigrant, but I also had no idea of this sort of elite world in which a lot of my colleagues grew up in. I wasn’t able to take part in conversations about skiing in Aspen or sailing to the Bahamas or Hampton shares. Not initially. And those were the things that made me feel like I had to become someone else in order to be successful. That I had to assimilate. That I had to leave my hoop earrings at home and put on my pearls on Monday morning to go to work. That I had to dress a certain way so that it was considered professional.
“So many of those rules about what’s viewed as ‘professional’ are so antiquated. And they force people to leave behind some of the best parts of themselves to fit into corporate structures. How much more powerful could we be if we were able to carry our full entire selves into the office? And bring all of those things that make us unique, that makes us strong, into the workplace with us? I think companies should want to have their employees bring everything with them, not just half of them.”
"So many of those rules about what’s viewed as 'professional' are so antiquated. And they force people to leave behind some of the best parts of themselves to fit into corporate structures."
WERE THERE ANY TIMES THAT YOU FELT LIKE YOU COULD BRING YOUR FULL SELF TO WORK?
“When I was at Goldman we were building out initiatives for wealthy Latin American families that were clients of Goldman. And because I spoke Spanish, I was asked to lead this effort and, at first, I was hesitant. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed because I’m Mexican, so therefore I must run the Latin American team. I could run any of the North American teams. Then I realized I have a very unique set of skills that can help me to kill it and do well in this position. So I eventually did take on this role and it was a really great move for my career. I grew the team, I grew revenue. And it then helped me to say to my bosses, ‘I don’t just want to lead the LatAm team.’ I had proven myself and so I went on to lead our Southwest team and my responsibilities grew from that. It was about taking on those responsibilities but also advocating for myself.”
HOW DID YOU EVENTUALLY SHIFT AWAY FROM FINANCE AND PURSUE YOUR CAREER AS A WRITER?
“The reason I wanted to make money so badly in college is because I supported my parents since I was 18. In many Latino communities, the responsibility for our parents’ retirement is on their children. All the decisions I made were framed by this responsibility. Once I became a Vice President, I thought finally I could take a risk; finally I had enough money in my bank account that if I fucked up it would be okay. And so I took a year off and I traveled for the first time in my life. I poured back into myself. Then, against my own intuition, I went back to Wall Street and was miserable because I already knew that chapter of my life should be closed. It was a wake-up call that what I wanted to do during the time I took off was to ask myself, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’ And for the first time, that question was only about my own ambitions, dreams, and aspirations. And I didn’t quite figure it out. After I left Wall Street I went to work at a nonprofit for a year. After that year, I shared my story of having been undocumented and working on Wall Street. Because of that story, I had the opportunity to write my first book. And now, seven years later, I’ve written three bestsellers.”
AMONG THE MULTIPLE CHAPTERS OF YOUR CAREER, WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT REJECTING ASSIMILATION AS AN INDIVIDUAL, AS WELL AS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF CORPORATIONS?
“Feeling empowered to reject assimilation is an ongoing process that includes advice for individuals, but I think the majority of this work has to be done by those workplaces. Because I can assert myself, wear my big hoop earrings and bright red lipstick, and go to work, but if I’m going to be judged and not promoted because people think I’m not professional then diversity and inclusion efforts are just for show. The onus has to be on the people who hold the levers of power for us to be able to bring our full selves to work. But I think as individuals we can and we should carry everything about us everywhere we go and the more that we do that, the more space we’ll be creating for ourselves and for others.
“For me, a big inspiration to reject assimilation has come from learning the history of my people in this country. And more than knowing about what my people have been through, what they have survived, it’s also been about learning the beautiful ways in which they have stood up for themselves in the past. That history can really, really empower us.”