New York, NY, March 2, 2010
After working as the executive assistant for the editor-in-chief of Mademoiselle magazine, Marcia Nelson studied for her business school entrance exam while nursing a baby. Now, she’s enjoying a fulfilling career in finance while her husband is a freelance writer and stay-at-home dad to their two children, one of whom has had a recurring brain tumor.
Would you describe the path that led you to a career in finance?
I have an eclectic background and I’ve gotten to where I am through happenstance, hard work, lots of luck, and just being in the right place at the right time.
I was an English major in college. I started my career as a high school English teacher in New York City. My boyfriend was coming to New York for graduate school and I was graduating from college and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I’d never even been on an airplane before, but I was excited about the opportunity to move to New York. I got a job as a nanny, moved to New York to work for a family, and six months later, I was engaged to that very same boy.
I taught high school for four years, and then realized that I didn’t love it enough to keep doing it. So I went to a job recruiter and said, “I’ve never worked in an office before, but I want to.” I grew up in an era where women were stay-at-home moms, elementary teachers, bank tellers or nurses. Those were the limited options. I didn’t know what a recruiter really was or what the business world was really like, but it seemed like a good place to start.
I ended up getting a job as the administrative and executive assistant to the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine. I got the job primarily because of two reasons: first, I could type. And second, the human resources director who interviewed me said, “You know, this is a very demanding position, this woman can be very tough.” They liked the fact that I was an English teacher, so I could write concise and grammatically correct letters. But I was warned that this editor was difficult to work with. And I said, “I managed a classroom of 30 high school students, how much harder can it be?”
I got the job. I had no office background and no finance background—none of that. But it turned out that I was very good at my job and I moved up in the company. I became the executive assistant to the president of the company.
The company I worked for (Gruner & Jahr) owned Parents Magazine and YM. It was a family-friendly place. They supported women having children and my husband and I were talking about having kids. The woman I worked for (the president of the company) brought her kids into the office with her, had a crib in her office and juggled motherhood with work. She was a great example of an executive woman who worked full-time and managed her children. When she moved from Gruner & Jahr to Condé Nast to be the editor-in-chief of Mademoiselle magazine, I moved with her as her executive assistant. I was totally the girl from The Devil Wears Prada! My boss wasn’t like that but a lot of people I knew seemed straight out of the movie!
I stayed with that job for about six years and I was able to have my daughter, Kate, at that time. It was great working with a supportive boss, and the all of the other people in the office loved having visits from my daughter.
At the same time, my husband was working as an editor for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the tax organization. My husband is extremely creative. While he was working for the tax organization, he was working on librettos, working with some composers… When our daughter was born in 1996, we debated which of us would stay home with her, how much a nanny would cost, daycare, etc. We went through all of that. And my husband finally said, “You know, I really want to be home. I don’t want to spend my time working on this very technical kind of writing when I really prefer being more creative.” And so we made the decision that he would be the stay-at-home parent and do his writing and I would continue to work. Part of that decision was based on the fact that I worked for this great woman who was very supportive of my taking time off for maternity leave. Everyday at lunch, my husband brought my daughter over to my office so that I could see my daughter and he could walk around and have some free time. My daughter became the office mascot – we even dressed her in white t-shirts and black jumpers, so she could fit in with the Conde Nast look.
In the first three years of her life, she knew how to say, “Mademoiselle” and “Mangia” because that’s the name of the place we ordered lunch from everyday!
Eventually, there were rumors of Mademoiselle’s closing. Through a series of contacts, I heard about a wealthy woman who was looking for an executive assistant in her family office. I went to work for her and it was so fascinating. I learned so much. But one of the main things I learned about was the role of family offices and melding investments with financial planning. In family offices, wealthy philanthropic people create businesses to manage their money.
I said to my husband, “I really love this. I love the financial planning community.” My husband and I had always been very cognizant of planning. We had a 10-year plan we had mapped out when we first got married: when we were going to have children, how much money we were going to save, when we were going to buy an apartment, and how much money we needed to save for college and retirement. And we accomplished all of that on our own. Our friends started coming to us for advice on their own planning. And I said to my husband, “I think I need to go back to school and get my MBA and really learn more about this whole financial planning thing works.”
That was a very tough decision. What did I know about finance? What did I know about math? I had a three-and-a-half-year old daughter and six-month-old son at home at this point, and I was working full time, and sleep-deprived all the time!
I signed up for a Kaplan course to study for the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) and I called a recruiter and said, “Okay, I need to go work for a finance firm because I’m going back to school for my MBA and I need to learn something the financial sector.” Serendipitously, I ended up working for the largest private equity firm in the world (the Carlyle Group) for three years.
My executive assistant background was very helpful, but also I was doing Excel spreadsheets and doing research on companies and learning about the S&P and Moody’s [financial intelligence indices]. All the stuff that comes into play with working for a firm like that. And it was fabulous. I learned about trading and all the compliance issues that come up in a big organization, and how to do financial research.
So I was doing that while I took my Kaplan courses and studied for my GMAT. Part of studying is taking the three-hour practice tests. Well, I didn’t have three hours alone in my apartment with the computer so I took the practice tests in the middle of the night when I would get up to nurse the baby, who was about six months old at this time. I’d feed him, put him back down and I knew I had roughly three to four hours before he’d wake up to eat again, so I would take the practice tests on my computer between feedings in the middle of the night.
I was sick the day I took the test, but I got a high score anyway. I called my husband and I said, “I’m smart enough to go to graduate school!” My husband’s response was, “We’re making the right decision. This is a good thing.”
I went to Fordham University here in New York, which was about two blocks from my apartment. When I started school my daughter was four-and-a-half and my son was eighteen months old. It took me four years of night school to complete my MBA..
I took two courses every semester. I figured out that I could take two classes on the same night. So I took a class from 6 to 8 p.m. and then 8 to 10 p.m. It was a long day. Each day, during my lunch hour, I would go over the library and study. Then I’d carve out three hours every weekend where I could study when the kids went to bed. Trust me, it was hard.
I would walk in the door from work and my husband would say, “Okay, the kids are yours” because he had work to do, too. It took me four years to get my degree. I didn’t see any non-Disney movies for about four years.
One summer during that period, in 2000, your daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Would you describe that time?
Yes. The summer before I started graduate school my daughter started getting sick. It was on and off for several months, and we didn’t know what was going on and so we made multiple trips to the pediatrician. My husband had lots of food allergies as a kid so at first we thought that was the problem. We documented everything she ate, then we factored in the summer heat and thought maybe she was just getting dehydrated. I mean, as a parent, you just go to everything you can to figure out what’s going on. She would complain of headaches and then they would go away and then she would start throwing up… And then it got more and more frequent to the point where she would wake up throw up three or five mornings in a row, and then be fine for a few days. It was hard to know what was going on.
I think it was on our third trip to the pediatrician that they referred us directly to a pediatric neurologist. She went in for an MRI in the morning and had emergency brain surgery that afternoon.
That was the worst day of my life because we were completely unprepared. The doctors said, “She has 24 to 48 hours to live.” As a parent you go through all this guilt, like, “Oh, should I’ve done something sooner?” or, “Did I do enough?” We are incredibly lucky to live in a city with so many resources, though. There were two neurosurgeons who specialize in pediatric neurosurgery at New York University and they had just completed a study of 700 children who had her type of tumor, so we ended up getting great care and she came through the surgery with flying colors. We learned later that it was a prenatal, non-malignant tumor, and it wasn’t genetic, and there was nothing I did during pregnancy to cause it, it was just one of those things that happens.
There were moments during that time that I thought we’d never get through this. About four or five days after her surgery, my daughter had been to the playroom and had found some dress up clothes and a princess crown. The crown barely fit over the padding and surgical skull cap on her head, but she insisted on wearing it, along with some dainty plastic princess shoes. She was all dressed up and wanted to see what she looked like in the mirror. I didn’t think I could bear it, but my husband and I finally wheeled her down the hall to a bathroom where she could see herself in the mirror. There she was, propped up in a wheelchair, with her puffy face and bruised eyes, the ill fitting crown, the plastic shoes, and the IV drip. She tilted her head back, shimmied her shoulders, and said, “I look fantastic.” My husband and I looked at each other and we just knew that whatever happened, we would all be fine. We might be different people when this was all over, but we’d not only survive, we’d thrive.
That was a rough time in our lives. In addition to the stress of working full time and going to school at night, I had to take my daughter for an MRI every three months. Because she was under six years old and couldn’t sit still in the machine for an hour she had to have full anesthesia every time. It would take a full day – we’d go for the anesthesia and MRI, then we’d have to wait for the drugs to wear off and then we’d meet with the neurosurgeon and the oncologist to review the scans. We knew that the kind of tumor she had doesn’t normally grow back if they can get most of it the first time, but we also knew that there was still a spot that was showing up on the scan that was questionable. The doctors thought that it was scar tissue, but they wanted to be sure.
Sure enough, two-and-a-half years later, the tumor had grown again, so she went back for follow up surgery. It was much more intense the second time around. After her surgery, my daughter couldn’t sit up and she couldn’t walk, but she could move the left side of her body. She had months of complications: high fevers, urinary tract infections, kidney infections and swelling in the back of her head because her body rejected the bone graft. It was just one thing after another. That summer she was in and out of the hospital five different times and the emergency room multiple times too. We spent the entire summer in the hospital with her.
I had to withdraw from the semester at school because I was in the midst of working full time, going to school and being with my daughter. I was living in the hospital. I’d sleep at the hospital, leave in the morning and go to work, and my husband would bring my son to the hospital during the day. We had a dear friend who would come to the hospital in the morning so I could take a shower. We had so many people who took care of us and took care of the kids, but it was really hard, especially on my son, who was four years old at the time. My sister took some vacation time and came to New York to help out for a couple of weeks, and many people came by the hospital with food and games. My daughter had a follow up surgery right before school started, and she insisted on wearing her hair in pigtails for the first day of third grade so everyone could see her stitches. We did not go anywhere that summer, and finally “celebrated” by going to Disney World over Thanksgiving, when things had settled down.
What is your daughter Kate’s prognosis now?
She has been having annual MRI’s for the last couple of years – we went from once a quarter, to once a year, which was great. She’s going to be 14 this year and it’s been 7 years since her last surgery, so we’re hoping that this is her last year.
She’s doing great. She has a slight tremor in her left hand but no other physical inabilities. We actually did a session with a family therapist at one point, as she made the transition from elementary school to middle school. I wanted to make sure she didn’t feel different or self-conscious because of her medical background. And it was fascinating. What came up in this conversation with the therapist was that we over compensate for her all the time and she doesn’t like it! In the middle of our therapy appointment, the therapist asked her question and my son answered for her. And I noticed it and said, “Oh, Kate, you must hate it when your brother does that.” And she said, “Well, actually mom, you and dad do it all the time, too!” Wow, that was a real eye opener. I mean, we had spent so many years watching and waiting… Is the tumor growing back? Is this the MRI scan that will show us she needs another surgery? How is she feeling today? Is anything going on? We saw what she went through and we just had it in our minds that we had to step in to protect her. But that appointment with the therapist gave her the confidence to say, “You know what, I can take care of myself.” It was a real lesson for all of us, and at that moment I knew that we’d all be fine. It was probably the best hour we’d spent as a family since her surgery.
When did you finish your MBA program?
I finished my MBA in 2005 and it was amazing to take my children to my graduation. They were so much a part of my journey. My daughter was 10 years old and my son was 7 years old when they watched me get my diploma. They really felt they were a part of it and they were.
Did you stay at the Carlyle Group after you finished business school?
No, before I was finished with school, I worked for a business management firm that specialized in financial planning, particularly for athletes and entertainers. I also worked as a financial adviser at UBS, a global financial services firm. I currently work at FMV, which is a valuations and financial advisory company. I’ve been here four years. I travel and I meet fabulous people and I even drag my kids along sometimes.
It is still, however, a constant challenge being the working parent and having my husband work at home and take care of the kids. He’s a fabulous dad… incredibly creative… and my kids are much more well-rounded, I think, for having him at home than they would be if I were the one at home.
But I still deal with the guilt. I’m on the road a lot. And I feel terribly guilty about that. I hate being on the road all the time. No, that’s not true…. I don’t hate being on the road. I hate that I feel guilty that I’m on the road. I sometimes think that a man wouldn’t feel guilty about working late and traveling, and a man would understand that my kids have a wonderful parent there with them all the time.
I like what I do. And that adds to my guilt because I feel guilty that I like what I do! But I will admit that I love it when I’m on the road, and I get a hotel room all to myself. It’s dark, and I’m not sleeping with one eye open to see who’s getting up to go to the bathroom and who’s getting a drink of water. My husband asks, “Why do you feel guilty?” I answer, “Because I do.”
Do you and your husband have any strategies for dividing up your work at home when you are home?
He does most of the housework and I do the laundry. That’s my contribution. I also plan the birthday parties and the vacations, which is fun for me. On the weekends I really try to devote my time to my family – I don’t bring home my laptop, and I lock up my Blackberry so I won’t check it all weekend – but it’s hard to get through all the errands so we can get to the fun stuff.
How do I do my visiting teaching when I’ve been gone all week at work? And who’s more important, my family or my church responsibilities? I have to ask myself those questions all the time. Right now I’m the Cub Scout Den Leader, so I get to meld my church responsibilities with time with my son, so I don’t feel like I have to be away from my family for another night.
Do you know anybody else in your situation who acted as a mentor to you?
In my early days I had a mentor, an LDS woman who went back to business school and works in the wealth management industry. When I started thinking about a career change, she told me this is a great industry for women who have families. She was the one who helped me decide I could go back to school with small children at home and she assured me that they would survive and they would be okay.
Do you think that this is something that works for your family particularly because of Glen’s line of work and personality?
Absolutely. In the early days, Glen (my husband) had a couple of very good friends who were also was stay-at-home dads. One was a freelance illustrator and the other one was finishing his PhD. They would get together and grab the babies on their backs and go to art galleries, museums, and support each other. So, having two other families who had a similar situation made it much easier for all of us. We were all living in small apartments, with the husbands in school or freelancing and the wives working full time outside of the home. We all had little children at home, so we were juggling work, little babies, and, quite frankly, doing it in a culture that says that this isn’t something you should do.
Did you feel supported by your families and your ward in your lifestyle choices?
Sometimes there’s a misunderstanding within our extended families of where the motivation comes from. I get comments like, “Don’t let Glen talk you into doing something you don’t want to do!” He doesn’t talk me into anything! We’re doing what we both want to do. I’ve also heard “You are the mother, you should be home with the children.” There was a lot of that pressure, especially early on. But we’re doing what’s right for us and what works for our family.
I wouldn’t have been happy staying at home, and I don’t think Glen would have been happy if he’d stayed on the career path he was on. Now, I’m envious because the kids are in school and Glen’s starting to have more time for himself and his own work. Trust me, I know how hard he works, and he juggles his responsibilities and the constant interruptions all day long. He is also really amazing with the kids. He has a lot more patience than I do to play Monopoly or Uno for the umpteenth time. And yes, he sometimes lets the kids win! But we’re realizing that it was a short period of his life and that, as the children have gotten older, he’s had more time during the day to do what he wants to do. Next year my son will be in middle school and my daughter will be in high school, so it’s not that much longer before they’ll both be out of the house. That will be bitter sweet for us, and we’ll have to adjust to a new chapter in our lives. I’m looking forward to it!
At A Glance
Location: New York, CY
Marital status: Married
Children: Two, ages 13 and 10
Occupation: Senior VP of Business Development
Schools Attended: Fordham University (MBA), Southern Utah State College (BA)
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “For All the Saints”
Current Church Calling: Cub Scout Den Leader
On the Web: www.fmv.com, www.mormonartistsgroup.com
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.