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Career Conversations - Cindy Ivanac-Lillig

Be Open and Curious, and Other Career Advice from Women in Finance

Cindy Ivanac Lillig

By Cindy Ivanac-Lillig, Director of Media Relations, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

Take advice from Vanguard’s Assistant General Counsel Elaine Kim Benfield on how your “direct environment is key” to your ability to succeed. In speaking with her for this article, she stressed the importance of creating “mini-circles” in all aspects of life. Professionally, this means finding an immediate management and peer group that you can trust and collaborate with. If you don’t find it at first, stay adaptable and keep looking within or outside the company for this all-important ingredient.

Along with Benfield, I’m grateful for the time and wisdom of two other talented women interviewed for this article: Nahiomy Alvarez, senior manager at CBOE, and Ivana Ruffini, an independent financial market utilities consultant. All three interviewees are either immigrant or first-generation women. Two of them had career aspirations that were not at all related to finance when they were undergraduate students. But all three women have encountered work environments and sponsors they credit with reshaping their careers.

We covered many topics such as fitting in, the importance of being likeable, and caretaking challenges. I am sure this blog won’t do justice to our conversations, but perhaps the insights will start conversations for the readers and their own “mini-circles.”

When I asked about fitting in, Benfield and Alvarez responded almost immediately with “never” and I thought that was notable because they offered no way around this but just said it out loud. It’s a good reminder that we all can succeed even if we don’t feel like we fit in at first.

All three women emphatically agreed that being likeable is among the most important ingredients to success, if not the most important. Personally, I don’t know how to feel about this. Their advice was similar to the famous Maya Angelous quote: “People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The tricky part came as two of the women also agreed that the set of traits needed to be likeable differs for men and women. Specifically, the differences may lie in degrees of aggressiveness people perceive. We didn’t solve this riddle in our conversations, but it left me questioning whether or not we are socialized to require women to be likeable and agreeable above all else. Nonetheless, it is helpful advice to think about the trait of likeability at work.

Benfield and Ruffini also reflected on the important issue of caretaking, and how it has caused them to reprioritize their work at different stages. Benfield reflected on how women are faced with this more often than male colleagues. Ruffini applauded a female colleague that started her own firm to make her schedule/life work for her. This is clearly an issue that deserves more of our time and attention as an industry and as a society.

My favorite piece of advice was to be open and curious, a mindset each emphasized. All three shared stories about how their paths were not linear and how curiosity sparked opportunity. I also asked them about the role of luck, which Alvarez and Benfield agreed was part of success. Ruffini demurred on the idea of luck but reiterated the need to be open. “We miss opportunities because we aren’t always present to them. Be present in all the moments—small and large—and be fearless.”

Here are six additional pieces of wonderful, practical advice from these leaders in finance:

  • “Knowing the news is not enough; it is being able to summarize it… most deliverables are written.” (Ruffini)
  • “Read WSJ everyday… not just the items that are interesting to you.” (Ruffini)
  • “Embrace mistakes and feel no shame.” (Alvarez)
  • “All work done collaboratively is better.” (Alvarez)
  • “If you are not getting support you need, adapt quickly and find a different environment where you can thrive.” (Benfield)
  • “Being confident, likeable, and a team player is far more important in a person’s overall success than having any one technical skill.” (Benfield)

The industry has work to do, as does society, but the women in this industry are there to help you build your “mini-circles” and thrive. Go, be curious, and know that we wish you much success.


Cindy Ivanac-Lillig is director of media relations at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. She serves as a member of the Career Management Center Advisory Board at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart School of Business.

Posted April 22, 2024

Career Conversations is presented by the Stuart School of Business Career Management Center.

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