By Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)
“People chase money or what sounds like a good job. They should be focusing on what their genius is,” said Melody Rollins, an executive vice president and client services account manager in PIMCO’s New York office.
Rollins, a native Northern Californian, went to Georgetown University with the intention to enter the Foreign Service upon graduation. She quickly realized that “to be an ambassador, I’d have to work for 30 years in the civil service all over the world. I wouldn’t really have a personal life, and I would never get to be an ambassador: they are all political contributors and celebrities.”
Following a near-failing grade in economics—“I did horribly in micro in my first semester”—she spent a lot of time in that professor’s office, attempting to understand the principles of economics and raise her grade. That same professor was clearly impressed, recommending that Rollins pursue an economics major, which put her on the road to Wall Street.
She explained, “I pursued an internship on Wall Street because a friend told me they make 500 a week [which I needed for tuition].” She spent that summer at Salomon Brothers in telecom and media investment banking. In 1992, she entered the industry, joining the firm as an analyst in the debt capital markets group, focusing on the big telecom debt capital markets issues at the time.
It was a big change for Rollins. “[With a mother who was a teacher and a father in the military] I’d never had anyone around me who had been in the private sector, let alone Wall Street. I didn’t have expectations for what the environment should be like; still, I was really surprised at how male dominated and chauvinistic the culture was. It was extreme.” Rollins says she was able to laugh off most of the pervasive hazing rituals and practical jokes, and credits her upbringing. “I had a brother who was always picking on me so I was pretty tough and OK with myself and not easily intimidated by men.”
Two years later, one of her bosses and some people from Merrill Lynch were hired away to build Deutsche Bank’s North American capital markets presence. Her boss asked her to come along. Rollins found the environment tougher than she expected. “The Bank had hired a bunch of MDs and gave them huge signing and retention bonuses. I got promoted to associate but it was a difficult place to work because of all the politics and in-fighting.” Still, Rollins says, she learned the importance of understanding individual motivations. “I learned not to get caught up in internal politics or others’ perceptions. I had a lot of bosses and how I responded to each of them impacted my success there. I was trying to make everybody happy at my own expense. They all thought they had been brought over to run the business.”
The Value of Communications
She stayed for a couple of years before returning to school at MIT’s Sloan School of Management to study of financial engineering. “I had been doing a lot of reading—Against the Gods and other similar books—and decided I wanted to do something more quantitative and look at risk as an important component of investment.” And, although she was, in her own words “never the best at the intense numbers thing,” she felt that her substantial market experience gave her an advantage over her math-oriented classmates.
As the school didn’t have any active leads for internships in the investment management industry, Rollins reached out to her alumni in pursuit of an internship. An MIT alum who was in the upper ranks at BlackRock sponsored her six week internship during her winter break from Sloan. Her work on the risk management and portfolio management teams “helped me to really learn the buy side,” Rollins explained.
“The time at school and interning allowed me to really focus on my competitive advantage. I felt like I was good at understanding really complex things and explaining them to other people—communicating with clients and taking in a lot of information and then making decisions,” she added.
Upon graduation from the Sloan School in 2001, Rollins joined PIMCO’s Newport Beach office as an account manager. “My only problem at that point was that I didn’t think I wanted to live in Newport Beach. But they were thinking about opening the New York office and I knew that I could eventually go there.” She moved to PIMCO’s New York office two years later, and now, seven years later, continues to play a key role in helping to establish PIMCO’s presence on the East Coast. “It has been fun for me and a good role for me professionally.”
On Work/Life Balance and Career Advice
With a high-powered career, a 21-month-old son and a private life filled with philanthropic activities including acting as chair of the Board of Trustees of Harlem’s Future Leaders Institute Charter School, finding the right work life/private life fit can sometimes be challenging. “Someone said to me once that ‘It is not a balance, it is a dance. Some days one gets more, the other gets less. You’ve just got to try to stay with the rhythm and follow the beat.’” Rollins continued, “To me, it is always about the tension between making the right decisions and making sure I don’t get the critical ones wrong. Luckily,” said Rollins, “my husband contributes a lot of time at home. Also he doesn’t have to travel for his job, which is very helpful. And, my mother-in-law is our nanny, so I’ve never had to worry about my son or the care that has been provided to him when I’m not with him.”
“Someone once asked me what winning looks like for me,” said Rollins. “A lot of people get caught up in what they think they are supposed to do or how they think they are supposed to win instead of defining that for themselves. When I went to business school, everybody wanted to skip school and go right into a dot com because it was during the internet bubble years when you could become a millionaire in two years. The opportunity was a hard one for me to pass up, but I was really interested in financial engineering so I decided to go to school. That was winning, for me. And it turned out to be a great decision.”
Rollins added, “Winning for me now is being a good mom, an excellent professional and feeling rewarded by the work. So, if I don’t get a raise or promotion, that’s not going to change me because getting the promotion or raise is not, in the big picture, the only definition of winning for me. So, understanding who you are and having the courage to change things that are not consistent with who you are is extremely important.”
“I believe in finding your competitive advantage or your genius,” said Rollins. “Most people can function at an adequate level in any job but you have to find the intersection of your passion for that function and your ability to do it better, more efficiently or with more innovation than others.”
Her advice to women entering the industry is to focus on learning and preparing “at an intense level.” She explained: “Knowledge and preparation —not politics—creates the foundation for opportunity. You also need to understand the message you are sending about yourself. You want to create a reputation as someone who is passionate, interested and engaged in the subject matter. Someone with integrity”
Rollins said, “I came to the realization not too long ago that it’s not all about working hard. It is about working efficiently and making sure that other people hear about your work. I know what I know and I know what I do but I need other people need to know what I know and know what I do.” She continued, “Until about five years ago, it was about making sure I knew what I needed to know and what I needed to do. But once I did that for a while, I realized that the breadth and depth of what I was doing was likely only being partially perceived, which was a disservice to me and to the firm.”
For those already in the industry, Rollins believes they must learn to toot their own horns. “Once you have the foundation, you need to believe that no one knows more than you. You need to step out there and be part of the conversation and action. Promote your brand. That’s something a lot of women don’t do. Know your strengths. Push that forward and don’t be shy. And, in the event of setbacks, understand what happened and the consequences, pick yourself up, and move forward.”
Her life philosophy—“Be the change you want to see”—is displayed on her office desk as a reminder. “I’ve never been one to just go along with the status quo at work or at home. If I find myself criticizing or complaining, then I realize there needs to be a change—and I need to do it.”