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Taking the Bulls by the Horns

A Woman in the Trenches of Finance

By Marjorie Whigham-Desir • July 20, 2008
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Kinita “K.C.” Copeland is thriving in the male-dominated world of global finance. Despite the meltdown in the mortgage market, this Wall Street trading associate keeps it all in perspective.

Like a jaw-dropping ride on a 100 mph high-flying roller coaster, few careers offer the sheer thrills and chills, twists and turns of those found in the world of global finance. And, no sector in the financial industry is having as much turbulence as the mortgage market. But that’s where Kinita “K.C.” Copeland is successfully riding the mortgage securities roller coaster. As a trading associate for a top Wall Street investment firm, Copeland analyzes and works with other traders in packaging residential mortgages to buy and sell on the international stock market.

When she joined the firm two years ago, the industry was on the ascent. It was soaring, reaching levels and peaks previously unknown, but a downturn in the credit market has now sent the mortgage business spiraling. Managing difficult times and challenges in a male-dominated industry is nothing new for Copeland. She weathered the downturn in the tech sector in her former career as an IT consultant for Andersen Consulting, now Accenture. She was on the fast track to making partner, having been with the firm for six years when most consultants burn out and leave after two. But as the company went public, changed its name and the 1990s tech bubble began to burst, Copeland had already set her sights elsewhere—finance.

Even with a career switch to the gripping business of high finance, Copeland continues to thrive, learning new skills while gaining an evolving perspective on the world and her role in it. Her mantra: Project the image that you want, and try to manage yourself by what you want to be respected for.

“People respond to adversity differently. Having been a consultant, I have always been in critical settings. So that has taught me how to deal in a crisis setting,” says Copeland.

She characterizes the nature of Wall Street as different from other companies in corporate America. “While all companies want to make a profit, people put more emphasis on what we do than on someone working in a factory making widgets, because we are in the business of turning money into more money. The difference is perception,” she states. From her point of view, both are equally important, and she brings that philosophy to the job to keep what she does in perspective. “On Wall Street you always know how much money you’ve made, while the guy in the factory may not always know that. But I don’t see these things differently. I don’t think my job is any more important than the person who comes to fix the copy machine, or empty the trash, or the CEO for that matter. We all have important jobs to do.  I try to keep a healthy perspective on what I do,” she explains.

Rising to meet life’s challenges

Copeland learned to meet life’s challenges head on early.  Born outside Atlanta, Copeland spent her childhood growing up in the College Park neighborhood of the southern metropolis.  But when her parents divorced, she and her mom packed up and moved cross-country to Los Angeles to live with relatives and help her family start a new business in the Crenshaw-Baldwin Hills area of the city. “I didn’t live up in the hills,” comments Copeland, referring to her former South Central Los Angeles neighborhood.  She was 13 and just starting high school, but the new environment didn’t stop her from becoming student body president of her high school, or being selected to attend a college-prep program at the University of Southern California sponsored by the National Association of Black Accountants. She liked accounting, and the experience at USC gave Copeland an idea of what a career in the field would be like. But she also thought she’d like engineering. “I wanted something that was a nice mix between a business and engineering career. Macro- and microeconomics fell within the industrial engineering discipline and that attracted me,” explains Copeland. “I had already figured out that I liked the concept of working in an office,” she quips.

Copeland wanted to find a college that would allow her to blend her interests in critical sciences with global economic concepts. She found it back home in Atlanta at historically black Spelman College. “I knew about HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities); I had familiarity with these schools. I knew that Atlanta was a place that nurtures black professionals, so it wasn’t a foreign concept, but I was selective about which schools I wanted to attend,” says Copeland.

Spelman had a unique dual-degree program that it offered with the Georgia Institute of Technology, which allowed students to earn two degrees in five years—one at Spelman, a bachelor’s degree in science; the other a bachelor’s in engineering at Georgia Tech. She packed her bags for Atlanta, leaving Cali behind. Copeland finished both programs with honors: a Ford Merit Scholar at Spelman, and the Dean’s List and engineering honor society at Georgia Tech.

“Spelman is a phenomenal place for any woman to gain a sense of self. They accept girls and young women, and give us enough guidance, nurturing and support to help us figure out how to find our place in the world and motivate the world to change. I wasn’t discouraged from pursuing careers or my place in male-dominated environments,” adds Copeland.

Making It in a Man’s World

After graduating from both schools in 1998, Copeland went on to obtain a coveted position as an IT analyst at the consulting firm then called Anderson Consulting, now called Accenture.
It was there that she interfaced with major corporations such as BellSouth, Northwestern Mutual Life, Sun Trust Bank, and Freddie Mac, and where she led an IT team that oversaw the integration of data needed for the corporate merger of Astra Pharmaceuticals and Zeneca Group, now known as AstraZeneca. During her almost six years with the firm, she rose from analyst to manager. It was also where she whetted her appetite for finance. One of her clients even tried to woo her away.

“I was steadily working my way to a six-figure salary. I thought, ‘I’m working my way closer in the pipeline to becoming partner. But I had already made up my mind to go to business school,” she explains. B-school was to be Copeland’s ticket to the career switch from the IT to financial sector.

She tried in 2002. Copeland applied to Duke, the University of Michigan, NYU, and Emory, but was wait-listed at all and rejected at one. “It was so competitive, very competitive. It was the year the tech bubble had burst, so there were a lot of very smart people out there trying to retrain themselves. There was also the affirmative action decision at the U of Michigan—they told me ‘no’ right away—so I figured that decision might have had something to do with their immediate response. So, I decided to go back and get my test scores up. I was disappointed, yes, but defeated, never,” recalls Copeland.

It was time to retool. She took a GMAT (Graduate Management Aptitude Test) prep course and continued to work as a tech consultant, saving her money to doggedly pursue the school she really wanted to attend—the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. It also meant getting herself known on a more personal level with key influencers and decision-makers.

“I chose Duke before they chose me, but they came around,” quips Copeland. “I would find out what cities the counselors would be recruiting in, and if I were traveling to that city for business, I would show up where they (the counselors) were. I was confident about this school—I could see myself there—and I wanted them to know that I really wanted in,” she explains.

It worked. She was accepted to Duke in 2004, and graduated with an MBA in finance in 2006. Copeland says that she got the idea to go into finance from working with her clients while a consultant. “But I didn’t know the area I wanted to be in, so I decided to get academically trained in all areas of finance. But what caught my fancy was the capital markets.”

While at Duke, she was a Diversity Fellow on student government, representing the B-school. In her second year, Copeland was invited to join the Board of Visitors as the student representative for The Fuqua School of Business. “It is a two-year position offered during the second year of B-school, so you finish your term as an alumna,” she explains. The plumb spot allowed her to network with movers and shakers in academia and corporate America. She also managed to graduate as a Merit Scholar and raise $50,000 for the B-school’s Student Investment Fund.

Again Copeland parlayed her position to gain another coveted opportunity; this time a summer internship as a sales and trading associate in the fixed-income-- a.k.a. bond-trading-- division at a top investment house on Wall Street. Her new specialty: mortgage securities. It didn’t hurt that she’d worked on the Freddie Mac account—the Federal government’s institutional lender/backer for mortgages—as a consultant only a few years before. Not surprisingly, when she graduated in May 2006, she was offered a position in that same firm, in which she started that August. It is where she continues to hone her skills today.

What’s Next?

“K.C.”, as she is most often called, considers herself very fortunate to be where she is, even now, with all the ups and downs of the credit market and the mortgage meltdown going on in this country. “I feel blessed to be here almost two years now,” she reflects. “I feel that because it is a very competitive industry to get into, and the industry itself is crippled at this moment. Wall Street is in a downturn and many of the people who helped to recruit me are no longer at the firm,” adds Copeland.
Not just ‘all work and no play,’ Copeland enjoys being a sister to her three brothers, reading and international travel—she’s visited nearly 20 countries—and of course, shopping. She also recognizes that her professional success has come at a very personal price: At 33, she’s still a single woman. “I think I have definitely sacrificed my personal life for my professional growth, and I understand why some women make other choices for themselves,” Copeland admits, but says that she wants it all: the husband, kids and house in the ‘burbs, along with the career.  Now that I’m pursuing my second career, I think it’s time to ensure that I am equally balanced with a fulfilling life outside of work. I would love to have a family and a thriving career, along with community involvement that reinforces my personal values.”

It is this reflection and recognition of what is going on around her that seems to give this sister a single-minded purpose: to learn all she can and bring it back to her community. “I am very grateful to be on Wall Street at this very moment given the housing and credit crisis. I am learning things that I will be able to take back and articulate to my community,” says Copeland. “One of my long-term goals is to educate women and minority communities more about economic empowerment. A dollar is a dollar, and everybody’s dollar spends the same way. But we make less than advantageous decisions with our money,’ she suggests.  “People need to understand more and take advantage of investing in a 401(k). And with the money that you earn [from those investments], the more economic wealth you can have—not just from those instruments, but what those funds are invested in,” she explains. Copeland’s goal, she says, is to pass along this knowledge to those communities that have historically been disenfranchised. “This is a unique environment in which I can develop personally and professionally. So I want to continue to grow, but I don’t know where I’ll be when I finish growing up. Everyday I wake up, I just want to survive the madness of today and see what it has to offer.”

As for those who may want to get into finance or find their way to Wall Street, Copeland offers three tips of advice:
• First, do your homework. “Educate yourself about the business. Study the economy; read the Wall Street Journal and other business periodicals, and watch CNBC and other sources for business news.” Learn how money and the financial markets work.
• Second, there are many ways to get into the business and make inroads into Wall Street. Pursue getting an education at an undergraduate or graduate school from which investment banks, hedge funds, and private equity and asset management firms recruit. Also seek to connect with professionals who have experience in the industry. “The path has been established already, so don’t be discouraged by what’s going on. Minorities and women have been on Wall Street for decades now, and increasingly our presence is growing, but there is still work to do.” If you work for a company that goes to Wall Street to raise capital for its business, find out what investment firms it works with.  Investigate whether they have a banker or someone else they work with, who would be willing to discuss getting into the field with you.
• Just try! “This is a competitive business, but it’s not an impossible feat.  You won’t get anywhere not trying. I’ve gotten so much more than I came here for.”

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