“I Want To Connect Financial Empowerment With Making Healthy Decisions” With Jess Liberi

“For any leader — not just a woman — my advice would be to build a team of people who are good at what they do and are super motivated and driven. I’d take these qualities over specific domain expertise any day. I want people who want to win, who want to succeed, and who will do what it takes to get the job done. It’s also important to note that for these individuals to succeed, you have to give them room to grow. Provide them an environment that permits risk-taking and let them know it’s ok to fail but that they need to take what they learn and apply it to the next project. Great things will come from teams that can do this.”

I had the pleasure to interview Jess Liberi, Head of Product for eMoney Advisor. Jess was raised by a single mother, and is now mother to 3 of her own children — all while leading at her company. She joined eMoney from SEI Investments, bringing 15 years of diversified experience in financial services, including product management and development sales, and relationship management. She’s helped grow her office from 250 to 600 in just 4 years.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

It wasn’t the path I initially planned. I entered college as a pre-med major, wanting to be a neurosurgeon for two reasons:

1.) I loved math and science.

2.) Two of my grandparents had brain issues ranging from depression to brain cancer. I wanted to be able to use the things I learned to help the people I loved.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), when I started organic chemistry, I called it quits and switched to a neuroscience major, which incorporates psychology and philosophy. Concerned that I wouldn’t find a job after school, I changed my major once again to economics and finance. I landed an internship with a financial advisor and then, after graduating, I got a job processing trades in the back office of SEI Investments. A few years later, I moved up into a sales role in the SEI Advisor Network; then had stints in Relationship Management and finally Product.

As I was progressing in my career in financial services, I often wondered if I was actually helping people; however, it became clear that people desperately needed financial advice and retirement planning, especially the average person who grew up like I did. My mother — a single, working mother — was always worried about retirement. She felt like she was never going to have enough. She died before retiring without a will, but her worries are always top of mind.

I want to help people like her to make financial decisions that provide peace of mind for them and their families. I’m thrilled that I have found a career in finance that allows me do this through technology.

This passion led me to join eMoney in 2014 as a business analyst. Soon after I joined, eMoney was acquired by Fidelity Investments, and a lot of things shifted and we grew rapidly. As a result, I identified a product management gap and was encouraged by leadership to draft a business case to build out the product management organization. After doing so, our leadership team believed in my vision and empowered me to build the team as the new VP of product management. We grew from 10 people to 36 in just two years and I was appointed Head of Product Management in January 2018. All of this was possible because I was willing to take a risk and approach others with a new idea. Fortunately, they believed in me along the way and empowered me to do this job well before I had the title.

Each day, I am motivated to deliver the products that will help our advisors better serve their clients — like the single mom who is worried about retirement.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leadership with your company?

I can’t think of an exact story, but eMoney’s leadership team is the perfect blend of “get it done” and “don’t take things so seriously.” It’s great to be a part of such an extraordinary team.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The thing that sets our company apart from others is the culture. I know many would say this, but at eMoney the motto “work hard, play hard” means something. I’ve never been surrounded by so many motivated and passionate people; it’s actually astonishing. It’s a very entrepreneurial environment. Many of the things we do today, or are testing for the future, came from our own employees who saw opportunities to try something different. At the same time, we always carve out time for fun. At our last company picnic, several members of the leadership team volunteered for the dunk tank — a lot of us got soaked. We’ve had kickball tournaments, axe throwing outings, happy hours and more. As companies grow, it’s hard to keep these things going, but eMoney has done a good job of investing in our culture and highlighting the importance of having fun at work to keep employees engaged and motivated.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

I am always working on interesting projects, but what’s most exciting right now is that they are coming from all areas of our company! We are in the process of rolling out a new practice management program and a more simplified financial planning solution. As a company we continuously focus on data security and stability. We are also revisiting the formats we use for trainings to help firms and advisors with technology adoption. eMoney is dabbling into the voice enabled realm of conversational user interfaces and looking for opportunities to leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to help make advisors more efficient and help clients make better financial choices more easily.

What advice would you give to other woman in leadership to help their employees to thrive?

For any leader — not just a woman — my advice would be to build a team of people who are good at what they do and are super motivated and driven. I’d take these qualities over specific domain expertise any day. I want people who want to win, who want to succeed, and who will do what it takes to get the job done. It’s also important to note that for these individuals to succeed, you have to give them room to grow. Provide them an environment that permits risk-taking and let them know it’s ok to fail but that they need to take what they learn and apply it to the next project. Great things will come from teams that can do this. Also, don’t take for granted how much personal relationships matter. Our employees are people who have lives outside of the office. Show interest in their lives and make time for casual conversation. It’s so easy for us to focus on the job at hand that we forget the value of the personal stories and experiences.

For women leaders, believe in yourself! Too often we doubt ourselves and may not share our opinions as readily as others sitting around the table. You earned your seat there — don’t forget that. You’ve got a lot to offer and your voice is wanted and needed to evolve your company and even your industry. People will mirror your feelings, so project confidence and your team will follow suit.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mom has always been my biggest inspiration. As a single mother, she showed me so much while growing up, especially what it meant to be a working parent who is present in her kids’ lives. She always listened and encouraged me to do anything I wanted to do. Nothing was off limits. She believed in me and gave me courage to go after things I may have felt were out of reach. At the same time, she kept me grounded and made sure I knew what was important in life. As a single mother with two daughters, somehow, she always made it work and never complained. She would give anything for my sister and me, and she did so selflessly and genuinely. She always had time for us, even if it meant working all night to get her work done after talking with us for hours. She taught me that success has so many different shapes and sizes and to not let someone else define what success should look like for me.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have so much more work to do here, but mentoring other women helps me bring goodness to the world in some way. If I can use my connections to help others make connections then I feel like I’ve done my job. Helping women who want to make a move but are hesitant because they are confused or scared of what is ahead is also a way that I try to share my success. The moment I realized my story and experiences inspired people, I was truly humbled, but I also realized I had a much bigger job to do.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

a. You don’t have to choose between family and work— you can have both. The trick is figuring out how best to weave the two together. You may not make it to every event, you may have to leave work early to pick up a sick kid or miss an important meeting, but it’s ok. Get in your groove. Be ok with unplanned surprises and know what you have to do to stay on track, even if it seems unconventional.

b. It’s ok to not know all the answers. Saying I don’t know is uncomfortable — however, it’s unrealistic to know everything all the time and serve as the functional leader on all projects. You can’t be the expert for everything, especially as the pace of innovation increases daily and companies grow, shift and evolve. But it’s ok, that’s why you hire talented people.

c. Hire people who are smarter than you. Don’t be afraid to give away your “Legos.” I read an article years ago that compared leaders gripping projects to children who were afraid to share their Legos. Hire smart, motivated people who have some different skills than you do, and let them help you. There will always be more for you to do.

d. You’ll never get everything done. There is only so much time in a day. Prioritize your projects, figure out what you can delegate, and spend your time working on the most valuable projects.

e. Don’t compare yourself to others. There’s always someone that seems like they’re more successful — whether it’s a parent who seems to have more time to volunteer at school, a colleague who got promoted, or even the person running faster than you on the next treadmill. We all make decisions that create separate and unique paths. Be proud of the ones you have made, and if you’re not proud, don’t be afraid to make a change. Life is too short trying to live up to someone else’s expectations.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Connecting financial empowerment with making healthy decisions. Everyone, regardless of their level of wealth, has financial decisions to make. Finances affect aspects of our lives — even the food we eat. I grew up working in restaurants from the age of 10, working at my dad’s restaurant until I was 25 and working on weekends for extra money. If you think about the eating habits of underprivileged families, many of them don’t have time to cook and don’t have money to buy fresh, seasonal ingredients. Parents are running from one job to the next and are just trying to make ends meet. I’d love to focus not only on finances but also on how we can help make healthy eating more attainable in these communities. Whether in school cafeterias or affordable to-go/cook at home meals, this is an area where so much could be done to improve the overall health of these individuals. And so many of these decisions are based on financial implications.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

“Don’t worry about a thing, cause every little thing is gonna be alright.” We grew up listening to Bob Marley and this has become a bit of a family motto. Whenever things went wrong, we could turn on this song and not worry for a moment. When my mom passed away suddenly, this got us through some of those dark days. When we hear it still, we know my mom is shining down on us.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)

I’d love to talk with Sheryl Sandberg for a number of reasons. Yes, we’re both in technology, but I would be interested to get her perspective on some of the recent challenges that Facebook has faced. I’m more interested in talking to her about resilience and perseverance — as a women, as a mother, as a widow. She has had no shortage of challenges thrown at her, yet she still finds ways to come out stronger on the other side of them.

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