From Non-Target School to Sales & Trading to Commodities Banking in Western Canada: How to Break In and Survive as a Female in Finance
Ladies, have you ever wondered what it’s like to work in investment banking as a female?
And guys, don’t leave us just yet – you’ll be pretty interested to learn how you can transition from a non-target school to sales & trading to commodities investment banking… and how another region of Canada differs from the previous cities we’ve covered.
In this interview, we’ll speak with a female Commodities IB Analyst who works in Western Canada for one of the “Big Five” Canadian banks.
Here’s the play-by-play:
- How to break into IB in Canada, even if you come from a non-target school – the application process as well as the interviewee’s experience at 3 different banks
- Why online applications (might?) actually be more effective in Canada, or at least not disappear into a black hole quite as quickly
- What it’s like working in commodities IB in Western Canada for a “Big 5” – the tasks, hours, and culture, and why working in a “regional office” has its advantages
- Working in IB as a female – everything from how many females actually work in the industry to the personalities of female bankers – and yes, even how to dress and how banking will impact your personal life
A Unique Background
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your story?
A: I studied at a “non-target” Canadian university, where I completed a business degree.
Most of my internships were quite random, except for one finance-related position in capital markets. That was my first real exposure to finance and I really liked it.
Q: So, then you moved into banking after completing your degree… right?
Since I was at a non-target school, few banks were recruiting on campus – but I found an interesting position, decided to apply, and got hired!
Unfortunately, I realized after a few months that the program was poorly structured – recruits received little guidance and our interests were not taken into account when assigning the rotations.
I didn’t want to end-up there long-term, because I was scared of getting “stuck” in the back office or in a “less interesting” trading desk after the rotational program.
I figured that luck had knocked on my door once, but probably wouldn’t a second time unless I did something.
Quick note: Canada’s “Big Five” are Canada’s 5 largest banks: Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD), Bank of Nova Scotia (Scotia Bank), Bank of Montreal (BMO) and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC). In Canada, they’re sort of like the bulge bracket banks in the US and they tend to work on bigger deals and attract higher-profile clients. Previous interviewees have mentioned these 5 banks and described them as well.
Q: So that must have been when you decided to aim for an IB position, right?
A: No, not just yet! Being straightforward just isn’t much fun.
I knew I wanted to get out of the rotational program and get a front-office finance position, but I wasn’t 100% set on IB.
I was working full-time and didn’t have much time to network, so I started applying for jobs online – directly on the banks’ websites – to see if that would lead to anything.
At this point, it was August and so most banks were gearing up for full-time hiring.
I applied to investment banking and a few other front-office positions at 3 of the “Big Five” banks and got a few interviews from that.
Q: Wow, pretty impressive based on what we usually hear about online applications.
And you didn’t network at all? Is it even possible to break in without networking?
A: I did some networking to figure out what I liked and which area of finance I wanted to work in, but I didn’t rely on it for recruiting purposes.
So it was really just those initial contacts I made when I was figuring out what to focus on, and then 100% online applications.
Q: It’s amazing that this strategy worked, but I don’t know if I’d recommend doing the same…
A: I should probably also point out that I had really high grades and very relevant full-time work experience, including the S&T rotational program at one of the Big 5 banks.
Without both of those, this never would have happened. And as a student or recent graduate you really do need both: high grades or solid work experience alone won’t be enough to win interviews with minimal-to-no networking.
Side Note: While it might not be the case for bulge bracket banks in the US and Europe, based on several peoples’ experiences (including this interviewee, myself, and other contacts), online applications for the Canadian Big 5 Banks appear not to go straight to the garbage in some cases. Your results may vary.
Interviewing at the Big 5
Q: OK, so going back to the recruiting process, which positions did you end up getting interviews for, which banks did you interview at, and how did it go?
A: I’ll go bank-by-bank here because my experience was quite different at each of them:
I got a first round interview for an IB analyst position (general fall recruitment). It was my first IB interview ever and I was not extremely well-prepared going in – so as you’d expect, the interview turned out to be very technical and a bit of a disaster.
Their response at the end: “Your personality is a good fit, but you lack the technical knowledge.”
I got 2 first round interviews (2 different positions, general fall recruitment), and a 2nd round interview for a S&T position.
The S&T interview was not too intense, but I didn’t advance beyond the 2nd round. Their main comment: “You didn’t have a good grasp of commodities” (it was for a desk in their FICC group).
I knew this was true, and it actually led me to accept my current position (see below).
This position was for a specific IB analyst position (i.e. not the general fall recruitment) in the bank’s Commodities Team in a Western Canada regional office.
Here’s the full run-down of this process:
- 1st Round: Phone Interview
- 2nd Round: Full day in the regional office… including 12 interviews (for a total of 7 hours of back-to-back interviews)
- The 2nd round was a mix of fit and technical questions, including some very technical questions on commodities-related modeling. I had used a more complete technical guide to prepare this time, but I walked out thinking that I performed poorly and wouldn’t get the offer.
To my surprise, they called the next day and offered me the position.
I had never lived in or even considered living in the city where I was interviewing, but I decided to take a leap of faith, accept the position, and move there.
Q: Quite a change! So why’d you decide to take this leap of faith?
Lots of people jump to NY or London on a gut feeling, but you don’t see that quite as much in regional offices…
A: First, I figured this would allow me to learn more about commodities – I had always been interested in the sector and wanted to learn more.
Second, I felt that gaining experience in the industry would lead to great exit opps in Canada, either in a corporate finance role at a commodities company, in S&T on a commodities desk, or even at a PE fund specializing in commodities / natural resources.
Finally, I felt that I would get more exposure in a regional office since the team is smaller – and this last point has definitely proved to be correct so far!
My advice: if you are serious about IB, be ready to move anywhere and work in any team because competition is fierce, interviews are random, and you never know who’s expanding and who’s “downsizing.”
Western Canada Culture
Q: So we’re going to delve into those “female in finance” questions in a bit, but let’s start with a few broader questions about the region and your team first…
Do you enjoy IB so far, and how do you like working in a smaller regional office?
A: It has been great so far, despite the long hours and occasional egos / office politics you have to deal with.
You also get seemingly more client exposure here – even in my 2nd month into the job, I was already attending meetings with CEOs and CFOs.
Q: So how did you escape becoming a pure “Excel monkey”? Is your office just different, or is there more client exposure in Canada in general?
A: I’d say it’s a combination of my firm’s culture and my specific office.
Right now, for example, we are working on 5 deals and I work on all 5, which is a real benefit of working in a regional office.
In Toronto, on the other hand, each analyst will often work on fewer deals since the work can be distributed more evenly.
So at least from what I’ve seen, you definitely get more exposure in regional offices and smaller teams.
Q: But not better hours, I’m assuming?
A: Well, it’s different.
My “average” day is from 8-9 AM to midnight, but it can run up to 2 AM.
Those are fairly standard for investment banking hours, though you could argue that sometimes we start earlier.
Also, we tend to work more and harder during the week, but we generally have weekends off… or at least have better hours then.
The “Female in Finance” Survival Guide
Q: One of the topics of this interview is “Life as a Female in IB,” so let’s move to that now.
A few people might look at your story and say, “Well, obviously being a female, she had a huge advantage in interviews.”
Do you think that’s true?
A: There are quite a few women working in sales & trading in Canada, especially in junior positions, so it didn’t make much of an impact there.
There are fewer women in IB, but surprisingly I don’t think it helped at all with male interviewers – contrary to what you might think.
It actually helped more with female interviewers. In the regional office where I work, there were very few females on the team at the time of my interviews and they were really happy to see another woman!
Keep in mind that this is based on my experience in this region, and I would not be surprised if things are different in Toronto or other cities.
Q: So are things any better today? How many females are working on your team?
A: No. Worse, in fact!
The female contingent has gotten even smaller since I first interviewed here… just something you have to get used to, I suppose.
Q: Would you say you get treated differently than any of your male counterparts?
A: Slightly differently, maybe.
Some MDs or Directors bring me to meetings, but that could be for any number of reasons: do they need me there? Or do they want to show a group with better gender balance?
Q: Given that IB is male-dominated, has it been hard to fit in or hang out with your co-workers?
A: It depends on your personality more than anything else.
I am pretty laid back and have always had a lot of male friends, so it has not been too difficult to fit in most of the time.
Now, if they have a “guys’ night out” or they go golfing or something like that, then sure, it’s harder to fit in and I might not tag along.
Q: What about professional relationships between male and female bankers?
Is there a lot of competition, and does the gender imbalance make it worse?
A: There’s a lot of competition between people at the same level, but not specifically between male and female bankers… partially because, well, there are so few female bankers here anyway.
Q: How do females dress? Are you expected to wear full business attire?
A: Full business attire is required. The rule of thumb is that you always have to be able to go to a meeting, which means either a business suit or a dress and a jacket every day of the week.
When you’re sitting and working, though, you don’t have to wear your jacket, and for women even a dress shirt is not necessarily required.
Some people claim it’s a good idea to “show yourself off” in interviews and on the job… but, um, please do not do that.
Seriously, avoid cleavage and outrageous colors and be conservative with your style.
Q: Now to a more controversial point: some people claim that IB makes women more “aggressive” or “tom boy-ish.”
A: I don’t necessarily agree with that, but it does make you more impatient – regardless of whether you’re a woman or a man.
You also start to forget that “normal” people are on different schedules.
Also, men outside banking don’t find females in IB “hot” the way women tend to think bankers are “hot,” which means your mindset may be different.
Note from Brian: I laughed reading this comment. Is this even true anymore? Are females actually attracted to male finance professionals? I don’t know, but I suppose we’ll leave this in. Yes, living in NYC for these past 1.5 years has made me jaded.
I won’t speculate on the reasons why, but you can come up with a few guesses…
Q: Right, and what about the impact on your personal life as a female?
Are most female bankers are single? Do you think it is even possible to have a family?
A: Some of the female associates and VPs have boyfriends, so yes, it is possible, but many female bankers simply have different priorities.
While relationships are possible, I would say that kids are not. It’s hard enough to raise kids when you have a normal job, let alone when you work crazy hours like in banking.
For the guys, though, it’s a bit different. In my team, for example, most of the guys are either in a relationship or are married and most of the senior male bankers do have kids.
Q: Any other tips for aspiring female bankers?
A: First, you need to have a thick skin. If rude comments, “guy talk,” or anything like that “offends” you, don’t even think about this industry.
Second, you should go into it for the right reasons.
Guys can justify doing it (at least initially) for prestige and money, but as a female you need to be more genuinely interested in the profession.
Finally, there are not many mediocre female bankers around – only the best “make it.”
You need something special to make it to the top of the ladder in this situation, and you have to set your priorities such that you’re putting in the time and effort to make it there.
Q: Thanks for that.
Final question: What are your future plans? Are you considering any exit opps, or will you stick with banking in the long-term?
A: I’m not sure. I have received great feedback so far, and there are definitely possibilities to move up here.
But for women, it really depends on your personal life and your priorities… which is one of the reasons why there aren’t a lot of female bankers.
Q: Thank you so much for your time – very interesting and much appreciated!
A: No problem, I’m a fan of this website, so I was glad to help!
The Financial Globe-Trotter started investing at age 11, after drawing inspiration from It’s a Wonderful Life. She’s from Canada, has worked in private equity, and is now enrolled in a Master’s Program at a top European school.
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