Last Monday, I was fortunate enough to receive the Tech-X Emerging Leader Award from my alma mater, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). It was a tremendous honor, and a truly special evening.
When I think about the experience, the more I find that the event symbolized the convergence of the two worlds of finance and technology. On one hand, I started as a student at IIT two decades ago, a decision that brought me into the ever-growing Chicago technology industry. On the other, the event was held at a closed trading floor at the Chicago Board of Trade, an important symbol for the industry in which I’ve spent most of my career, capital markets. (It was also not lost on me that I was being honored alongside legendary former CME chairman Jack Sandner.) These two worlds have converged not only for me, but they are converging on a much broader scale as well. As finance and technology increasingly combine into FinTech, schools like IIT will play an important role in helping to shape the industry.
First, and perhaps most obviously, I think of the skills that will be needed to support and develop new technologies. In my experience, IIT is special with its deep engineering roots. It produces so many strong engineers, and the technical skills I learned there have been invaluable to me in my career.
But it’s not just about the technical skills — you have to complement those skills with the soft skills needed to compete in the real world. I was fortunate that, while I was there, IIT started its Leadership Academy, which I was able to join. I was exposed to industry leaders and the opportunity to take a leadership role on campus.
This experience has shaped my career, particularly when I was at OptionsCity. I co-founded OptionsCity in 2006, just a few years after graduating from IIT. Over the next decade, I used the technical and leadership skills I had learned to grow the startup into a global leader with three offices on two continents. About two years ago, the company was acquired by Vela Trading Systems, resulting in a successful exit for OptionsCity shareholders.
I wouldn’t have been able to achieve this success though without the team I had and the connections I have made. In this way, the networks that students can build at IIT and in Chicago are vital. For me, my two OptionsCity co-founders were also IIT alums. However, the network also went beyond my classmates. Jack Sandner himself has had a part in my success, doing things that may have been small acts for him (like making introductions) but were huge for me. Bruce Fisher, who directed the aforementioned IIT Leadership Academy, continued to be a mentor to me long after I graduated. At a high level, through IIT I learned that making connections with good people is just as important to success as your skillset.
Finally, and this may be the most intangible takeaway, but my experience at IIT instilled an appreciation for learning that has been vitally important and will continue to be important as the FinTech industry evolves. IIT helped me to understand that it’s important to continue to learn all your life, and apply what you learn as you grow. You not only need to learn the skills to tackle problems, but you need to learn the best ways to think and the best ways to approach those problems.
This philosophy of learning has been extremely important to me, especially in the past few years. After selling OptionsCity in 2017, I decided to do something that, while it still maintains a link to capital markets, is completely different. I’m now CEO of Predata, a predictive analytics startup that assesses geopolitical risk by utilizing machine learning technology. It has been a new adventure, and a very exciting one, particularly as my colleagues at Predata all share the same appreciation for lifelong learning and skill development.
So as we look to (and, yes, try to anticipate) the future at Predata, I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on my past this week. I’m forever grateful for everything I learned at IIT, and as the fintech industry grows more and more complex, I’m proud to support schools like IIT that are preparing students with the skills they need to be successful.