Did you know that you don’t need a finance degree to launch a career at the country’s most important economic institution? Mary Daly, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, joined Jules Terpak for an intimate fireside chat about what it's like to be an industry trailblazer.
During their conversation, Daly shared real insights for Handshake users about what it means to bring your full, unreserved self to work in an industry known for being buttoned-up, what it takes to find your passions, and honest advice on how to navigate your career in an uncertain economy.
Read the recap and watch the full conversation below:
First, how did you start out your career?
Mary: I’ve had a really interesting path toward getting to where I am. I didn’t come from an upbringing where college was ever discussed, and I dropped out of high school when I was fifteen to help support my family. My initial career goal was to become a bus driver, but then I met a woman named Betsy—still a good friend—who told me I’d need at least a GED to achieve this. I took the GED and did well, and Betsy suggested I attend a 4-year school. This idea was foreign and terrifying to me, but Betsy helped me with my application and even paid for my first semester.
In college, my world opened. I eventually earned my bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD in a blend of philosophy, economics, and psychology. All of these subjects helped me realize a huge thing: economics is all about people. If you don’t understand people—how they think and feel about things, and what their existential risks are—you’re not going to be a great policy maker.
What was your first job or internship, and how did it lead you to your current role?
Mary: After college, I went right into a graduate/PhD program, because I was doing well in economics. I then realized that I had never questioned whether I actually wanted to be on this track. I stopped, got a master’s degree instead, and then got a job in the most unlikely place possible: a theater in Chicago, where I did prop design, prop dressing, and accounting. I did it for a year because I loved the arts, but I ultimately realized it wasn’t my destiny.
I then got my PhD at Maxwell School of Public Policy at Syracuse University. After that, I worked in a poverty center at Northwestern and did a variety of things before choosing to pursue a job at the SF Fed. It was an unlikely yet interesting option, because it would allow me to do public engagement, economics, and research that directly affected the American people.
Taking unlikely jobs over the course of my career has totally been worth it. Some people told me I’d never make anything of myself, but I’ve learned that you can make whatever you want out of your career by following things that seem right to you. Ultimately, this builds the logic of how it will all play out.
Can you tell us more about the Federal Reserve System?
Mary: The Federal Reserve System was founded in 1913. Back then, all we had was a state-based banking system with different currencies across the country, which didn’t work well as our society became more connected. The Federal Reserve was then created to make a safe and sound payment system and financial system and to ensure a healthy and sustainable economy. The Federal Reserve now has 12 banks and one board of governors in Washington, DC. It employs over 20,000 people across the nation in a wide variety of roles.
How is a career at the SF Fed different from a traditional Wall Street or banking career?
Mary: Many of the skills you think about when pursuing a Wall Street career are the same skills that we need here. We’re big on tech—everything from app development to CBDC (central bank digital currency).
Working here is also great for people who are interested in supervising financial institutions. These people think about a bank’s health and assess how it will respond under stress. We also have economists who work on managing monetary policy.
Of our 2,000 employees across our four San Francisco locations, many come from up and down the spectrum of skills, degrees, and interests (including finance, economics, auditing, finance, human resources, and communications). If you want to do economics in research, then a PhD is required, but we often hire new undergraduates as research assistants, which often leads to the bank examiner track.
Can you elaborate on tech in the finance sector?
Mary: Most of what we do in the financial system is now tech. All payment platforms are digital. We’re about to launch FedNow, a real-time gross settlements and instant payments system. One of the biggest groups at the SF Fed is IT services—they handle everything from local desktop delivery to applications that run the country’s payment and banking/supervision systems. Tech isn’t foreign to us. It’s a huge part of what we do.
What type of qualities do you look for in someone interested in working at the SF Fed?
Mary: Our work is very mission driven, as are most of the people who work here, because everything we do supports Americans and countless global citizens. When I ask people why they came to work at the SF Fed, they always say 1) because of the mission and 2) because of the culture—which is people-first, evidence-based, and unreserved. The best-idea-wins, no matter your age or experience. Employees here don’t just climb a vertical ladder; they have the chance to build a portfolio of skills across the organization. We don’t want anyone to get stuck on a career track they can’t get off of.
Are there any resources you’d recommend for today’s first-generation college students?
Mary: Converse with other people, especially ones who are older than you and do different things. Yes, reaching out takes courage, because you don’t even know these people, and how do you actually meet them? Back when I first met Janet Yellen, the current treasury secretary (who is now a good friend), I told her I didn’t want to bother her. She said, “Know this: no one doesn’t like to talk about themselves.”
These days, there’s no reason to wait for a job interview when you can just reach out to somebody, ask if they’re willing to share how they’ve achieved what they’ve achieved, and see if they’re willing to give you an informational interview. This is especially helpful when you can’t look to immediate family or groups to find out how things work. I still reach out cold to people all the time if I’m making a tough decision or need help with a problem I’m trying to solve.
You’ve talked about the SF Fed having an unreserved culture. Can you elaborate?
Mary: We always strive to create psychological safety at the SF Fed. This gives employees the ability to be themselves, bring their best ideas, and not be afraid to raise their hands or question authority and group views. To feel safe doing all this, you have to be authentic. If you’re constantly thinking you have to “fit in,” it’ll suck up all your bandwidth and never give you the courage to speak up.
And we really do need people to be willing to question: “Why do we do it this way? Why don’t we do it that way?” It’s great for us—and our people—to have this type of safe space, because we can all feel relaxed. Authenticity doesn’t mean you’re constantly thinking about yourself and not caring about the actual work; it just means you’re able to be yourself in a way where you can work without sacrificing who you are.
Any advice for job seekers today who want to find an employer culture that aligns with their values?
Mary: First, go and ask yourself: “What are the 3 most important things in a job for me?” I often hear younger people answer, “Pay, job title, and position.” But this isn’t actually culture. So, really think about what is important in a culture for you. Collaboration? Free form thinking? Hierarchy? Working with older people?
When you go into an interview, use your instincts to gauge how an organization aligns with these values. Also read up on the company you’re interviewing with—you can learn a lot from what a company says about itself, and you’ll be able to see red flags if the people who interview you don’t reflect what you’ve read or don’t seem happy. If people are talking naturally and seem energetic and engaged, that’s great!
While your cultural fit yearnings will change over time, always keep a few north stars. My big one is that I need people who are collaborative, because I’m a team oriented person. I also want a culture of kindness where people have each other’s backs.
What are some of your favorite interview questions?
Mary: One thing I always ask is: “What makes you excited to get up and come to work in the morning?” This helps me understand a candidate and what excites them. I’ve definitely had candidates who aren’t a fit for a particular position based on their answers, but then I’ve moved them into other roles where they’ll be a better fit.
If you could share one thing with students who are concerned with the economy, what would it be?
Mary: The world today is not the world tomorrow. It’s so easy to think that the state we’re living in is the future state of things. But the world is always evolving. What’s challenging right now will be easier later, and you can still make progress toward your goals even when times are challenging. When the world gets to where you need it to be, you always want to be ready.
With being a CEO, you have a busy life. How do you manage it all?
Mary: With intention. Seriously. I’ve been with my wife for 32 years, and I prioritize that. I also want to prioritize my community. I also have a big job. Prioritization really does matter, so each year, I ask myself: “What are the three most important things in each of those three roles that I want to accomplish?” You have to be good about letting things go that aren’t on that list. Your life will be a full fabric, and if you don’t prioritize or are too scattered, the colors won’t shine as bright as they can over the things you truly care about.
Do you have advice for young people trying to find their passions?
Mary: Stop listening to other people. Let yourself go and experience things! Don’t necessarily use other people as your sounding board. Look more at what really is out there, and expand your horizons by trying new things. Let yourself be okay with having a journey that might be slower than other people’s. Yes, we’re humans, and we get caught up in comparisons. But if you get caught up in comparing yourself with others, you might not discover your own path or what really moves you. You’ll learn the most about yourself by trying things and deciding if you like them.
Any last advice for new graduates?
Mary: Yes, one big thing! I know it’s somewhat frightening when you’re coming out of college in a disrupted economy, but you’re all resilient. You went through college during a global pandemic. What generation is better to tackle the current state of things? This resilience is a superpower, and you’ve all gained it.