“I made decisions based on my value system because I saw that the system I was working within was flawed.”

Growing up, Juan Avila was more of a creative type, but from a very early age his engineer father stressed the importance of mathematics. So much, in fact, that Avila’s father would have him complete homemade math worksheets, hoping to sharpen his skills before he even began attending school. Now named one of Chicago magazine’s Five Star Wealth Managers, Avila is reaping the benefit of his hard work and emphasis on education as a senior vice president (SVP) of Mesirow Financial. As chairman of the board for the Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement (HACE), Avila also places a great amount of emphasis on giving back to the Latino community. Here, the SVP discusses a turning point in his career and the importance of establishing your values and sticking by them.

“When Latinos enter corporate America, we have a tendency to hope our hard work gets noticed; we hope to be given opportunities; we hope to be promoted. There’s a lot of hope, but hope shouldn’t be an investment strategy or a career plan.”—Juan Avila, Senior Vice President

While attending Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, I did a project on one of the largest financial-services firms and it was eye-opening. It was clear they developed amazing salespeople, but it’s not really in the best interest of the client to be the best at selling and not be good at investing. I later joined this firm and worked hard to differentiate myself. I wanted to be a proactive leader to my clients and protect their assets in what would become a turbulent market. The firm’s economist warned that a housing bubble was on the horizon, but no one listened.

I did listen to this warning and was able to be ahead of the curve in September of 2008 when the financial markets collapsed. I made decisions based on my value system because I saw that the system I was working within was flawed. When the firm I was at was acquired by another firm it felt like a slap in the face, but it was also a very formative time and I decided to do what was right based on my values. I wanted to find the right partner for my clients, a place that was consistent with my beliefs—and that’s how I ended up at Mesirow Financial.

When I came to Mesirow Financial, I knew that their motto was “independent minds, innovative solutions.” They welcomed my ability to think outside of the box and question the status quo. When Latinos enter corporate America, we have a tendency to hope our hard work gets noticed; we hope to be given opportunities; we hope to be promoted. There’s a lot of hope, but hope shouldn’t be an investment strategy or a career plan. We can’t continue to let our careers happen to us. A great deal of my success is a result of breaking norms—both professionally and in the Latino culture—but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Last year at an HACE [Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement] board meeting, I told the board we needed to continue to focus on our work and let the organization speak for itself. Another board member called me out on it, saying that we need to make our success known and not wait for people to notice us. Even after 20 years in the industry, I caught myself falling back into the same cultural norms. I realized how deeply ingrained these things are and it was humbling. I’m now more in tune with this issue and make a conscious effort not to revert back to old habits.

If you’re going to enter this industry, there are three critically important things you need to know. The first is learning to network. As Latinos we’re taught to be humble, but this is the time to be aggressive. Oftentimes in this industry it’s two-thirds who you know and one-third what you know. Developing a career map is also key. Again, you can’t let your career happen to you; you have to develop a five-year plan and map out the direction you want your career to take or else you’ll find yourself stuck in the same cubicle for years. Lastly, focus on requesting professional development. Many just take the positions they’re given, but you need to request opportunities to grow. Find a company that will invest in you and encourage your continued growth.

UPDATE:

Juan Carlos Avila joined Toroso Investments, LLC as managing director and partner on Dec. 14, 2012.