If you put together an ideal resume for a person wanting a successful career in the financial services industry, the educational and career accomplishments might include an accounting degree, perhaps a background in law, and jobs at firms like KPMG and Gerson Lehrman Group.
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If you look at Kristi Riordan’s career history, you’d see all of those things.
But next to the “occupation” line, you’d find a job title that might surprise you: Chief operating officer at New York-based Flatiron School, a place where students learn the basic tools of computer coding.
Navigating a Sea of Career Possibilities
Like many young adults, Riordan wasn’t sure what kind of career she wanted when she was accepted to undergrad at Iowa State. As she moved from class to class, and thought about her options, it was always her father’s words that hung in the back of her mind. He was a small business owner who always instilled practicality in his daughter. Skilled with numbers, Riordan decided a degree in accounting would be the best option.
“It was highly practical and I could have really good job outcomes and a strong career in that field,” Riordan said of her choice.
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And she did. Not long after graduation, she went to work for KPMG as an engagement manager. While a position at the public accounting firm was a great fit for her degree, Riordan discovered the role and the profession was too technical.
"Fortune rewards those who are prepared. Good opportunities tend to come up if you are actively creating them and looking for them."
“I wanted to be involved in something that was solving bigger business problems, more strategic issues than audit and tax functions,” she said.
She knew she needed to go back to school, but again, she faced a fork in her career road: An MBA or law degree – which would give her the best tools to face her future? She looked to her mentors, including one professor whom she had grown close to during her time as an undergrad.She found the answer buried deep in her past.
“I was always interested in the law. I did a lot of speech and debate in high school,” she said. “I loved speaking, the argument analysis, and rigor of the law. I studied the LSAT while I was in undergrad, but went into public accounting to get my career started. Law school was always in the back of my mind.”
Her professor positioned the decision to her this way: You want to move into a more general business role, and at KPMG, you’ve gained so many practical skills – by opting for an MBA, you’d be repeating the same lessons in a classroom you’ve learned in the real world. Why don’t you round yourself out by going to law school?
Deciding that a JD would allow her to focus on her critical reasoning and problem-solving skills, which would complement the skills she’d acquired in her career, Riordan decided to pursue law school, while working part-time at KPMG, with the intent to stay in the business world.
A Career Refresh
After law school, Riordan spent two years in the personal wealth management division of Blackstone (BX) before she moved to GLG, an early start up at the time – helping connect institutional investors with people who could help them make better business decisions.
What she liked most about her career there was the flexibility the company had a start-up, and the ability to play a major role in helping it grow to a network of more than 500,000 experts that served global Fortune 500 companies.
In her last two years with the company, she helped launch new products focused on serving those Fortune 500 companies. It was then she again was faced with a choice.
“It became so apparent how quickly technology was moving and how professionals should refresh their proficiency and knowledge-base with it,” Riordan said. “I was hearing more about chief marketing officers who needed to refresh their knowledge.”
But she wanted to be deliberate about her next move.
“I wanted to get back to an early-stage company. And I wanted to take all the things I learned at GLG and bring them to an organization with a lot of potential. I love learning, and the idea of knowledge-sharing and creating an environment where its accessible – but that’s an area we haven’t quite figured out. There’s so much more to learn about how to deliver education.”
That’s when she found the Flatiron School.
The school offers 12-week, full-time and part-time courses designed to immerse students from all backgrounds – investment banking, technology, medicine, journalism, and even high school students – in the world of programming, to prepare them for careers in software development.
As COO, Riordan gets to work in the two realms she’s always wanted to bring together: Business and education.
She spends her time on the business side: Everything from making sure people get paid, and recruiting, to marketing and commercialization, assessing what markets to take products into, where the school will host new programs, and how it support the operations and reach parents of young students who participate.
“I spent a decade learning how people learn, and how we learn through technology. I wanted to continue to do that close to a product,” Riordan said. “Coding skills are so important, technology skills are so important. And I saw so many people in the market who were displaced because they couldn’t refresh their skill set. When I went to Flatiron, I liked that they had the potential to reach so many people who needed that refresh.”
For Riordan, a woman who has worked across a range of industries, the most important thing she learned about growing professionally was to let her career grow organically, but be deliberate about how and where it goes.
“Fortune rewards those who are prepared,” she said. “Good opportunities tend to come up if you are actively creating them and looking for them. If you do the job before you really well, and you’re always trying to find new ways to add value while adding good relationships, wonderful opportunities come up that you have the chance to say yes to.”
As far as her own career – has she been able to hit her own refresh button and learn to code herself?
With a smile, she said that yes, she slips away and learns a new skill or line of code when she has a free moment to spare.