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April 02, 2009

Building an International Finance Career

Catherine New
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This post is part of a special series celebrating the School’s Alumni Forever Week (March 30 through April 2).

Profile
Karen Kalina ’94
Director, Strategy and Portfolio Analysis, Siemens Real Estate

Tell us about your career path since getting your MBA.
Before Columbia Business School, I worked at the United Nations. I worked on various budgets, and that inspired me to go to business school. I knew there was some method I needed to find out. I also speak five languages, including Czech and German, so my dream was always to get over to Eastern Europe. After I graduated, I worked at State Street Bank and Trust in the global custody division and later their credit and risk management group, focusing on Europe and Eastern Europe. After leaving State Street, I moved to Prague to work in financial services with KPMG Consulting on bank privatizations and then to Credit Suisse Financial Services in mergers and acquisitions in Weisbaden, Germany. After the Internet bubble popped, I had been in Europe for six years and I made a decision to come back to the U.S. I looked for jobs through the School’s job BANC network. Through a fellow alum I found a position with Siemens.

What has the transition from financial services to corporate business been like?
I am now celebrating five years at Siemens. In financial services I was a three-year person, so that tells you something! You can shift internally in corporate business and it is more flexible than financial services, which calls for a very defined set of skills. Working in finance as a woman with two kids, I had to make trade-offs. I am believer of staying in the work force as a working mother, but I knew being in mergers and acquisitions, where I was on the road all the time, would be too much. When I missed my second child’s first steps, that was an eye opener.

What has been your experience as a woman in finance?
I’ve always thought that being a woman in finance was fantastic. There are less of us so we tend to stand out more. I think that was an advantage because you automatically got more visibility; I stood out because I wasn’t wearing a necktie. Once you’re in, how do you handle it? There are not a lot of people to meet in the bathroom. You find other women in external organizations and keep in touch with them.

Looking back at your Columbia Business School experience, what was your aha! moment?
I was having tough time with Introduction to Finance, but I also didn’t have trouble visiting my professors’ office hours. The obvious one was in Bruce Greenwald’s class. I went to his office hours and he looked me in the eye and he said, “Not only can you do this, you can be great at it!” That was a turning point for me. His confidence that, yeah, I could do it, really empowered me, as did the knowledge that he and many others would support me. I knew at that moment that this was really possible if wanted to do it. Up until then, I would have done marketing or international business. Finance changed my life. The other person who was an “aha!” is Laura Resnikoff. I took Turnaround Management with Laura when she was still a new professor. That class was very small; it took place over the summer and I was the only female student. She’s an amazing teacher and a tough cookie. She really challenged us and especially challenged me. But again, she gave me a real “You can do it” impression. Her class taught me that I liked not only finance but also the whole business and strategy. Every job I’ve had since State Street has contained strategy elements, and Laura’s course opened my eyes to that possibility.

What advice do you have for MBA or prospective MBA students?
Let go of incredibly high expectations. When I graduated in 1994 it wasn’t that great of a job market. If you don’t start at most spectacular place on planet, you’re still going to be okay. I never thought of working at a major corporation, but each one has a finance group and excellent training programs. It is also important to pursue the things you are inherently interested in. Look inside yourself for career advice, because that is important, wherever it might lead you. In finance, people can get trapped into a certain narrow way of thinking. The world is a lot bigger than New York City.