As a kid, Maleni Palacios had a long list of questions that no one could answer for her.
“I started asking myself, ‘Why are some countries rich? Why are some of them “poor”? What is this notion of a country and a nation-state? Why do people have different lines of work? Who chooses that for them?’” remembers the associate consultant.
Now, several years later, Maleni works at Capco, where she makes a living out of questioning the world, particularly what the future of financial services will look like. She’s learned that some of the best answers to the hardest questions come when you work towards them together.
We sat down with Maleni to talk about her journey into financial consulting, how she found a sense of community through Women@Capco and Latinx@Capco, two of the firm’s affinity groups, and what she’s most looking forward to next.
Chasing Tangible Change
Maleni grew up in Atlanta, but regularly spent time in Mexico, her ancestral home. She credits the experience of traveling between two cultures as what inspired her to start questioning the world.
“My dad and uncles were constantly talking about the world and globalization, like the implications of NAFTA on trade and migration,” she said. “I was an only child for a long time, in this environment of adults, and found it very intriguing. That’s where my insatiable curiosity was cultivated.”
For this reason, when she moved to New York City to study at Barnard, Maleni was drawn to economics. “A lot of the theories we know about were made by people a long time ago,” she says. “Adam Smith was not here at the turn of the 21st century.”
She also liked how interdisciplinary and direct economics was, especially compared to behavioral and philosophical fields like anthropology and art, which interested her but didn’t seem to come with immediate tangible change for societies. “A lot of what I'm passionate about or a lot of what inspires me is changing people's lives on a daily basis,” she says. “Economic policy directly affects people’s day-to-day lives, and to me, that’s valuable.”
Maleni studied the 2008 financial crisis in college, and wanted to be able to work towards improving the financial system so that things like that didn’t happen again. “I wanted to understand how institutions were regulating themselves, how they use their freedom,” she says. “I liked that at Capco I’d have some specialization, but work with different banks at different scales in different engagements. That was really compelling to me, and why I came here.”
Learning in Community
In her first weeks at Capco, Maleni and her fellow colleagues gave a presentation on demographic shifts as a driver for change poised to impact the financial services industry—and now, just over a year later, she’s used the initial research to publish an official Capco whitepaper titled “Unbanked & Underserved: Latinx Demographic Changes & Creating Financial Inclusion.”
“You can run with your ideas at Capco, and they’ll help you accomplish them,” says Maleni, who adds that she’s enjoying pursuing some of her academic interests at work and positioning herself as a thought leader.
As she networked and collaborated with colleagues at the firm in order to publish the paper, she was reminded of the kinds of discussions she’d been able to have in college, and the community spaces where she felt comfortable having them.
Maleni knew she wanted to continue to find opportunities for those kinds of conversations at Capco, so she joined Women@Capco where she leads Table Talks, a Women@Capco initiative that convenes the women of Capco and allies to discuss intersectional gender-based issues in a corporate environment. She also helped found Latinx@Capco, where she serves as Community Outreach Lead, when interest around it swelled earlier this year.
In both groups, Maleni enjoys getting to know people who share her identities in a space where they can support each other.
“You can talk about best practices that got you where you are: ‘How did you do that, who did you talk to, how did that happen?’” says Maleni. “You get a lot of connectivity, and a support group that can help you through when times are difficult.”
“As someone who’s Latinx, a woman of color, a first gen college student—all of these labels I hold mean that certain environments and institutions were not made for people like me,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important to convene people that look like you when you're at these institutions so that you can visualize a future that includes you.”
Building Impact Together
Maleni says she loves that despite being relatively early in her career, she’s been able to leverage her writing and her community involvement to forge relationships with senior leaders and push herself. That’s been especially true thanks to remote work, she notes, which has let her connect with Capco coworkers all around the country.
When she thinks about what’s next, she knows she wants to keep chasing answers alongside her community:
“I think about where we can have the most impact. Sometimes it’s well-defined and small, like our 20, 30 Latinx@Capco members. Maybe you’re impacting a client at a big Tier-I global bank,” she says. “As people, we get sucked into this idea of ‘we have to be changing the world.’ But sometimes that takes time. Defining where and how you can have the most impact is critical.”
So Jene Kim isn’t afraid of change.
Some of the shifts she’s made in her life have been major ones: English major to Wall Streeter. New York to Hong Kong. Banking to consulting.
Others have been more gradual, like the pre-COVID nights that saw So Jene picking up a microphone at a work karaoke event and, with the help of Sia’s “Chandelier” or Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” turning from a financial services professional to a bonafide rockstar for a few minutes.
“I didn’t say I was a good singer!” clarifies So Jene. “I just love singing. And given the formal nature of your relationship with someone in a workplace, it can change quite dramatically for the better after having some laughs and being silly together at karaoke.”
Over her career, So Jene has embraced changes both big and small, even when they came with big risks. We sat down with the Capco partner and risk management professional to hear more about her career story, including what it’s been like to be a free thinker in a very regulated industry, and what advice she has for other people considering a change—particularly one that sees them going from industry to consulting.
So Jene moved to the U.S. from South Korea when she was four years old. Growing up with strict parents, she knew early on that she wanted to build her personal and financial independence.
That’s how she ended up working at Morgan Stanley.
A big reader, she studied English at college, but knew a $18,000-a-year publishing salary wasn’t going to last long in New York. Her college job in the career development office gave her access to the starting salaries of students who got offers in finance, and she decided she needed one of them. A recruiting season later, she had an offer from the bank in hand.
So Jene’s can-do attitude, honed from years of helping out at her mother’s dry cleaner and running a construction import business with her dad, served her well when she started her career in financial services. No job was too small for her to learn from.
Until an acquisition happened and So Jene found herself working for Chase Manhattan Bank.
Her approach to problem-solving wasn’t as welcomed there, remembers So Jene, who tells the story of a time that a senior person on her team asked her to look over a currency out of balance report.
“She said, ‘I got you your own pack of colored pencils. You can use the different colors to mark the different currencies,’” says So Jene, who immediately balked and offered to put the information in a database, write some queries, and create an automated way to review the report both then and in the future.
A meeting with her manager and her manager’s manager later, and So Jene had one thing clear: “They moved at a certain pace, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get the heck out of here,’” she says.
So once again, So Jene prioritized her independent viewpoint and left that role. She tried project management in silicon valley briefly, but realized she was a New Yorker at heart, and eventually went back to Morgan Stanley for a different job, this time as a project manager on a global team working to build and implement new processes and technology.
Her success on that team set her up to be a strong candidate for an internal transfer to work in derivative operations in Hong Kong, which lined up with So Jene and her husband’s desire to try something new.
They loved the experience, but So Jene struggled with having to be on call almost 24 hours a day, between the local and home office, and when she got pregnant, she did what was right for her and her family and left that job.
Making a Sustainable Change
But all roads—at least back then, and at least for So Jene—led back to Morgan Stanley, because after a year-long sabbatical, she took a job offer that once again came from her old employer, this time in operational risk.
“My values were quite different that time, though,” says So Jene. “It was like I had been in a long relationship and broken up with the organization once and I had different priorities going back into it. Because even though I had married young and my husband was always there, my number one priority for so long had been Morgan Stanley. And that’s so backwards, because I was never Morgan Stanley’s number-one priority. I wasn’t even a 1000th priority.”
When she realized that she was falling back into old habits and wasn’t going to be recognized for her contributions in a way that was acceptable to her, So Jene decided to leave, this time for good, and launched her own consulting business.
She started working with Capco, who she’d used as her primary consultants on the industry side, and realized that there was a lot of opportunity there—and maybe even a full-time role.
After six months, Capco asked her to join as a partner, and So Jene felt like she’d found a job where she could make the most of her experience but also maintain her independence and priorities in life. So she took it.
“The transition into consulting worked for me because I was able to say [to the client], ‘I truly understand the position that you’re in. I know what it feels like when your job is on the line,’” reflects So Jene, on a key element of her successful move.
“I enjoy this role so much more than my previous one,” she says. “It’s the flexibility that comes with it. I wouldn’t say I’m working less, but it allows me to work smarter.”
She found that her industry skill set served her well in consulting, especially when it came to having that client empathy and deep subject matter expertise. She had to come up to speed on commercial propositions, selling services, and the unique communication principles of making proposal decks, but a few months of practice got her there, and now So Jene is ready to encourage other longtime financial services folks to follow her example and consider a career in consulting.
4 Tips for Transitioning from Industry to Consulting
- Be entrepreneurial. “If you don’t have entrepreneurial interest or spirit, you’re just not going to make it,” says So Jene of the different motivations in consulting. “It has nothing to do with being dedicated or being smart. There are times when you don’t have something that you have to do, and you are expected to make the most of that time to get sales or improve a relationship with a client.”
- Develop your networks. This is especially true within a consultancy, says So Jene. “You want to build your brand so that you have an opportunity to work on other things and with other people,” she adds.
- Pursue what interests you. Self-learning goes a long way, explains So Jene, giving the example of a group of Capco employees who were interested in the legalization of marijuana and who looked into the business opportunities that came with changing cannabis laws. “Having that kind of curiosity, being focused on self-learning, and then being able to bring that back to the organization is just terrific,” says So Jene.
- At the end of the day, think about the change with a risk management framework. “If you're looking for a change or you want something, and you're a little bit apprehensive about it, evaluate it like a risk manager,” says So Jene. “What kind of risk are you dealing with, how do you measure that risk, and what controls are in place to help you succeed? Also, get some outside perspective.”