How My Father’s Death Sparked My Investing Career

A Tale of Birth and Rebirth, of Finding Passion in Pain

This past Saturday would have been my father’s 51st birthday, were he still alive. It’s also the day that my investment career officially started six years ago. As I was reflecting upon this date’s dual meaning, I felt compelled to share its significance with you.

I often get asked how I changed course from the pre-medical path I was previously on to my career now in the investment world. The answer I give usually includes this story.

It all started on April 8th...

THIRTY-SIX SHORT YEARS

When I was younger, April 8th was a day I always looked forward to. We'd bake a funfetti or marble cake, top it with some store-bought frosting, stick these multicolored plastic balloons into it, and get the whole family together at my grandparents’ to celebrate my dad’s birthday. His mouth always morphed into a goofy smirk as our tone-deaf voices sang in unison. But in the blink of an eye, that all changed. Just seven months after his 36th birthday, he succumbed to his illness and passed away.

I remember the overwhelming uncertainty I felt on the first April 8th after he died. I didn't know what to do. Were we supposed to ignore the day now? Or continue to celebrate in his honor?

While in college, my boyfriend-now-husband and I started a tradition of buying a piece of cake (the infamous Lithuanian coffee cake from Claire’s Cornercopia) to celebrate. We'd stick a solitary candle in, light the wick, and whisper-sing happy birthday to my dad, sometimes in the back corner of a crowded campus dining hall.

Try as I might to bring a small ray of sunshine to an otherwise cloudy day, I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I was one year older while he wasn't. That guilt made April 8th a day that I dreaded. And for the nine years immediately following his death, that's all I thought it would ever be. That is, until April 8, 2011.

CHANNELING GRIEF

When my dad passed, I was only 13 years old. He was my best friend and hero, and I had no idea how to handle such a profound loss. So I did what I always do to take my mind off of things: I worked. To cope and channel my grief, I committed myself to becoming a doctor one day, a better doctor than the ones that he had had.

For eight straight years, that's all I focused on. My desire to “avenge his death” fueled my fire, and I let that fire consume me. My grief-turned-motivation propelled me to the top of my high school class, got me into Yale, and propped me up in that fleeting moment freshman year when I felt intellectually inadequate amongst my peers.

For the first three and a half years of college, grief was all the motivation I needed. But it suddenly ceased to be enough at the start of my senior spring semester. I had to take the MCAT exam before I could apply to medical school, but I couldn't even bring myself to register for it. I didn’t understand why, after working my ass off for the last eight years, I couldn't find the mental or emotional strength to complete that last major step. What had happened to me? Who had I become?

THE DREAM

I struggled in silence with this identity crisis for a while. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had failed. I started attending church to pray for guidance, even though I’m not very religious. I read my horoscope daily, begging the cosmos to send me a sign. I even had hushed conversations with the small teal and gold urn that holds a portion of my father’s remains.

One drafty February night, as I laid awake in bed holding that urn, I closed my eyes and asked him to help me navigate the choppy, uncharted waters I had suddenly found myself in. And that night, he answered.

In dreamland, my family and I were gathered in the kitchen of our old house to celebrate what would have been my dad’s 45th birthday. While everyone was reminiscing about birthdays past, I heard a faint knock at the door. I moved to the mud room and there he was, walking in. Not the gray, bloated, holding-on-for-dear-life version of him from most recent memory, but the young, healthy, rebel-without-a-cause version I only remembered from old photos. His signature blonde hair was shoulder length and wavy. He was rocking black boots, faded Levi jeans, a black leather belt with Harley Davidson belt buckle, a tight black Sturgis bike rally t-shirt, and a soft, ethereal glow.

“Dad?” I choked. “You’re here!”

“I am,” he chuckled. “But only for a moment.”

“But we're all here celebrating your birthday! Come in. Everyone will be so excited to see you.”

“I can’t, honey. It doesn't work like that. I don't have much time.”

“What do you mean?” I sobbed in confusion.

“Tara Nicole,” he said sternly. “You don't need to live your life for me anymore. I want you to pursue your own passion, whatever that may be. It’s okay to let me go.”

And just like that, he was gone. I woke up, still clutching his urn. My eyes were wet with tears, and I was in utter disbelief at what I had just seen. It was and still is to this day the most pure, beautiful, and eerily realistic thing I've ever witnessed. And as hokey as it sounds, I knew I had to trust it.

CHANGING COURSE

The following morning, I scoured the Yale jobs platform for inspiration. Unsurprisingly, there didn't appear to be anything for a pre-med Spanish major who no longer wanted to go to medical school. There were loads of open positions in the finance industry, though.

To be honest, I didn't understand most of the job descriptions. Money had always been a huge pain point for my family, so up until then, I had avoided trying to learn about it. But I knew that the longer I avoided it, the more likely I was to suffer the same financially unstable fate. That was it, then; I was going to learn about money, not medicine.

I edited my resume and wrote cover letters to firms whose functions I was, truthfully, entirely unfamiliar with. But I didn't let that deter me. Understanding the world of money so that I could create a solid financial foundation for myself and my future family was my new personal mission.

I pitched myself as a clean slate, a blank canvas of sorts, to a variety of asset managers, fixed income funds, boutique banks, and even Yale’s own endowment office. I admit, my financial illiteracy embarrassed me in a couple of early interviews, but I knew that my purpose and drive would eventually resonate with someone. And one day, it did.

APRIL 8, 2011

In late March, roughly two months before graduation, a friend emailed about a small hedge fund in NYC that was looking for a junior analyst. I had no idea what a hedge fund was at the time, but the job posting said they would consider candidates regardless of background, so I figured it was worth a shot. After an intro call with one of the co-founders, they invited me to interview in person at their office the following Friday. So, on the morning of April 8, 2011, I hopped on the Metro North line bound for NYC.

During the two-hour train ride, I studied up on hedge funds and how the stock market had performed recently. I memorized whatever little facts I could find online about the company and its founders. When I finally arrived at the office, I gave my dad’s urn (tucked in my purse for good luck) one final squeeze before buzzing in for my interview.  

Our conversation went so well that they offered me the job on the spot. Trust me, I couldn't believe it either. I left the brownstone beaming from ear to ear, walked half a block over to Central Park, sat on a bench, and called my mom. I relayed every possible detail about what had just happened, told her about the dream I had two months before, and reminded her what day it was.

At first, she was speechless. Then she said “I’m so proud of you, Rara, and he would be too.”

REBIRTH

I sat in silence on that bench for a while. It was a crisp spring day in Manhattan, and as the soft breeze blew through my hair, I couldn't help but marvel at this crazy beautiful experience we call life. Somehow I, a simple, fatherless, midwestern country girl with absolutely no financial experience had just been offered a highly desirable job on Wall Street. I was being handed the metaphorical key to a world that I could have never before dreamed of being a part of.

In that moment, April 8th became less about what should have been, and more about what could be. My former identity as “the girl whose dad died” faded away, and my new identity as a fearless female investment professional took its place.

April 8th isn't just my late father’s birthday anymore; no, now it’s also the birth date of what I hope will be a long, incredibly successful investment career.

So happy birthday, Dad. And happy birthday to the new me too.

 
 

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Tara Falcone, CFP®, Founder of ReisUP | Facebook: ReisUP | Twitter: @reisupllc | Instagram: @reisupllc