FIA: Diversity Unlocks Innovation

A Q&A with Patomak Global Partners Senior Director Jamila Piracci is part of FIA’s ongoing commitment to highlight the importance of diversity and inclusion in the industry.

Q: What drew you to the derivatives industry?

JP: I was an attorney at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York right out of law school, and during a team meeting I heard about a dispute that involved credit derivatives, which I found incredibly interesting. I asked the speaker about it and she asked if I wanted to work on a study about the use of derivatives in financial institutions that the Fed’s legal and supervision groups were developing. I read documents day and night and it became clear that this would be a great area of specialization. My career went from working on that study, to moving to the private sector. I worked on energy matters and structured derivatives deals while in private practice, developed documentation templates with the industry while at ISDA, and finally implemented the OTC derivatives regulatory structure under Dodd-Frank at NFA. From the time when I started out in 2001, I have been able to participate in significant segments of the arc of OTC derivatives history.

Q: Who have been your role models and the most influential people in your career?

JP: A multitude of people have supported me in my career; in fact, several actively invested in me. At the New York Fed, there were Joyce Hansen, former deputy general counsel; Michael Nelson, who was my mentor; and Diane Virzera-Butler, who gave me the opportunity to work on the study I mentioned. There were also Tom Heftler and Sherri Venokur from my days at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, a law firm in New York.  More recently, Dan Roth and Dan Driscoll recruited me to NFA for the most transformational opportunity of my career, and De’Ana Dow of Capitol Counsel encouraged me throughout.

All of these people demonstrated what my parents always taught me – that there is no limit to what you can do in terms of using your intellect. They all saw more in me than I even saw in myself, engaged fully and transparently with me, and helped me to grow.

How have things changed in terms of diversity and inclusion since you started working?

JP: During law school there was a lot of talk about how it was hard to get a foot in the door as a black lawyer. I certainly did not grow up with the impression that there were no problems of discrimination or inclusion in the world. My siblings and I knew that we might face hurdles, but my parents taught us that the sky was the limit and that there was nothing that we could not achieve. I found it hard to hear people saying that I might somehow be limited because of my race.

A head of a law firm once said to me that clients were a big issue when I asked him why he did not have black lawyers working there. The firm would assign attorneys, including black attorneys, and the clients would seek out the white lawyers on the team and decline to work with the black lawyers as lead attorneys on their matters. This meant they could not generate enough hours and clients to make it to the partnership level.

Q: What do you see as the biggest barriers to Black and ethnic minority professionals growing into leadership roles?

JP: Doubt is a huge barrier. If you doubt yourself, no matter why, it is hard to make progress. I think it is important not to think of yourself in one dimension. I am not only a black woman. I am also a Christian. I am an art song and opera singer. I am a well-trained lawyer. I am a strategist. I am a problem solver. I am a mother, and I am a wife. There is much more to me than my race and I live my life that way.

The other barrier we have to inclusion, whether it is race or other personal attribute, is that humans seek comfort in categorization. It is innate in us for self-preservation, but to progress as a society we must manage those instincts, especially when we are in leadership roles.

Our decisions should be less about whether we are comfortable in knowing people or their relatives, or whether we share a lot in common, but more about drawing out the yield of any person’s talent. I believe each of us has a personal responsibility to make sure that when we are making decisions, we are mindful to resist the urge to do what is comfortable. It is not just because this is the right thing to do, although that should be reason enough, but because the more we hear from different perspectives and bring in new ideas, the more successful and innovative we will be.

Real and substantive change is hard and requires that we do not take the easy path of checking a box on a diversity survey or making pronouncements to signal our supposed virtues. When we create teams, we must identify the best talent, regardless of race, that will challenge each person to be his or her best. Finally, we must give all team members true access to the social and other informal avenues necessary to develop a network.

Q: Tell us one thing you hope for future generations.

JP: Our country’s founders did a great job in identifying the principles that would stand the test of time, and we should pursue those ideals and get better at applying them. My pre-teenage children and their peers, for example, do not understand why we adults are stuck in conversations about race, because they do not possess the premise that people can be categorized along a single dimension. For them, their social and school lives are driven by childhood versions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, including the tension and responsibility required to keep those rights.  They are as equally drawn to other cultures as they are proud of our culture and history as Americans. What I hope is that future generations will end the use of grievances as a weapon to divide people and instead capitalize on the human ability to connect on the path toward our more perfect union.

The original article can be found here.