When Lauren Simmons stepped through the doors at 40 Wall Street, it didn't cross her mind that her first day as a stock trader was one that would go down in history. In fact, prior to a chance encounter with fate, the then 22-year-old had no intention of working for her new company, Rosenblatt Securities, or the New York Stock Exchange at all.
"I had no clear direction of what I wanted to do," says Simmons. "I didn't know anything about equity trading. It wasn't a passion of mine in the sense of I've been working my entire life to get to the New York Stock Exchange."
It was, however, an opportunity of a lifetime. So early that morning before the sun hit the sky, she slipped on her heels, painted her lips, and made her way to what has been deemed by some as the geographic center of American capitalism. For it was on Wall Street that Simmons would earn recognition for being the youngest female trader and the second African-American woman in 226 years to hold the title, and just the beginning for a woman who refuses to be confined by conventional career paths.
Journey to Wall Street
Photo Credit: Ida John
Life for Simmons is anything but normal. At 25 years old, she's traveling the world as a motivational speaker for women and youth, is the executive producer of a biopic coming out starring Kiersey Clemmons chronicling her journey to Wall Street, and in the upcoming year will be the host of her own financial TV show. Oh, and there's a book in the works, too.
"This is what I wanted to do, which was so much more rewarding than, you know, the life of being a trader," she says.
Just a few years ago, Simmons had her heart set on a career in architectural engineering with a focus on designing and building homes. When she didn't get into her desired program, she switched to genetics with a minor in statistics in hopes of becoming a genetic counselor. Inspired, in part, by the desire to help families like hers who have loved ones with disabilities, and also by her love of numbers. But after writing her senior thesis and realizing that there was a lack of technological advancement in the field, she decided that genetics was no longer a path she wanted to pursue. She did, however, know that without a doubt, she needed to be in New York. So in December 2016, just after graduating from Kennesaw State University, she hopped on a plane to the Big Apple without a job lined up.
Ironically, Simmons says she wasn't always a risk-taker, but growing up with a twin brother who didn't let his disability handicap his life inspired her to pursue the one she wanted. "He never looked at his disability as a disability; he always would say yes to everything," she says. "And I just felt for me like I'm an able-bodied person, I don't have a reason to say no or to not do anything. The biggest roadblock for everybody is themselves and setting these limiting beliefs, and he really showed me that there really is no such thing as that."
"The biggest roadblock for everybody is themselves and setting these limiting beliefs, and he really showed me that there really is no such thing as that."
In New York, Simmons hit the ground running, applying for a number of jobs, and using LinkedIn to set up in-person meetings with over 300 executives, senior HR managers, and CEOs she found on LinkedIn. A tactic, she says, helped to separate her from the thousands of applicants hitting the inboxes of HR reps for what would often be only one position. While her strategy helped her to get some face-time with decision-makers, it didn't get her the response that she was looking for. Many expressed doubt in her goal of switching career paths, shooting down her desire to shoot for the stars, which Simmons says is, in part, due to generational differences.
"I think for the older generation, everything needs to be linear, meaning if you want to get a degree in genetics, then you're going to get a job at a hospital or something very linear and direct," she says. "I think the millennial generation, and even Gen Z is like, it's OK to want to switch jobs. It's OK that you got a four-year degree in something and you want to do something completely different."
Despite the resounding no's, Simmons continued to fight for that one yes. "There was a reason why I had this gut feeling that I needed to be in New York," says Simmons. "I didn't know what it was and what that was going to look like, but I knew I would find that job and I knew that it was going to work out."
For nearly three months, she continued to hustle her resume to anyone who would take a meeting with her. Her resilience paid off when a gentleman who worked at a large financial firm connected her with a colleague in equity trading. But there was one catch— she had never worked in the financial industry before, let alone at the biggest hub for trading and investing.
"I tell people you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable in these spaces," says Simmons. "The biggest growth comes from putting yourself in a new environment. When I get answers like, 'Oh, but I'm not qualified' or 'I'm this or that,' I'm like, OK, so let that person tell you no. Don't stop yourself from doing it because you've already told yourself no before the opportunity even came your way."
"I tell people you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable in these spaces. The biggest growth comes from putting yourself in a new environment."
The next day, she would get her first introduction to the trading floor.
Youngest Woman on the Trading Floor
Photo Credit: Ida John
At 5:30 in the morning, Simmons would join her colleagues on the trading floor of Rosenblatt Securities to start a nearly 12-hour shift. As the only woman on the trading floor, she certainly was one you could not miss. "The first day I went around and literally was introduced to everybody, which is 250 men, and most of their names were John. They were like forget about our names, just guess and it most likely is John, which turned out to be very true."
The lack of diversity both in gender and skin color didn't escape her notice. Yet years of attending a predominantly white high school and working in male-dominated environments throughout college prepared her for this very moment. "There was a reason they said yes to me," she states with unshakeable confidence. "Your job does not care if you're tall, skinny, fat, blue, black, or orange; it cares that you do well in your job. And I just wanted to do really well in my position."
Life on Wall Street was a drastic change for the young college grad but in an exhilarating way. Her days would range from administration work in which she would arrive early to set up everyone's computers, attend meetings before the open and after the close of the stock market, and run around with her high heels echoing across the trading floor in an attempt to get the price of the opening stock for institutional clients like Google and Apple, whom she traded a notional value of $150 million a day. "I didn't go to school for finance, let alone the stock market or anything related to it, so I had a lot to learn within a short amount of time, but I loved it."
"I didn't go to school for finance, let alone the stock market or anything related to it, so I had a lot to learn within a short amount of time, but I loved it."
Unsurprisingly, the long hours both in and outside of work left little time for a social life. While she got along well with her male colleagues, there weren't often invitations extended to join the boys' club for after-hour drinks and the likes. Outside of the workplace, inclusivity was a foreign language. Still, Simmons credits having male mentors like Richard Rosenblatt for helping her navigate the financial terrain. And to this day, she has yet to be embraced by other women for mentorship, something she hopes will change with her generation.
Before she could officially claim the title of equity trader, however, she first had to pass a mandatory test for securities professionals that, at the time, boasted a low 20% passing rate.
"The men on the trading floor were making open bets on if I was going to pass," she says in an interview with Express. "Everyone thought I was going to fail. When I found out I passed, I didn't scream, I didn't get excited, I just opened the result's paper and closed it. And everyone was, like, 'Did you pass?' And I was like, 'I did.' And there was silence on the trading floor. You could only hear the machines whirring. Everyone was in shock. I rang the bell that day."
"Everyone thought I was going to fail. When I found out I passed, I didn't scream, I didn't get excited, I just opened the result's paper and closed it. And everyone was, like, 'Did you pass?' And I was like, 'I did.' And there was silence on the trading floor. You could only hear the machines whirring. Everyone was in shock. I rang the bell that day."
It would be another few months before she would learn that she not only passed the infamous exam but was only the second African American to do so. Nearly a year after starting on the trading floor, the media started to pick up that there was a new girl on the block breaking down barriers. Her story hit outlets like Forbes, Harper's Bazaar and CNBC, flashing images of the baby-faced beauty who was keeping up with The Johns.
Her newfound notoriety also opened her up to a world that she didn't previously consider. Soon she was picking up speaking engagements and encouraging more women and minorities to fearlessly pursue careers in finance, and inspiring her generation to strive towards financial freedom.
"I started getting exposure to the opportunities that I was given and realizing that my purpose was bigger than trying to make white men wealthy," she says. "I really wanted to see more people of color and women and younger people being able to infiltrate those spaces."
Beyond Wall Street
Photo Credit: Ida John
Back in the comfort of her childhood home where she's traded in the now silent streets of New York for the soft rustling of the wind through southern grass and trees, Simmons is educating me on which stocks are worth investing in given the current state of the market. Just a few days before, the Dow plummeted a shocking 3,000 points, an extreme loss that hasn't occurred since the Black Monday crash of 1987.
"The travel industry is going to be shot for the next 21 months because 93% of countries aren't allowed to travel," she says. "Once the travel ban is lifted, it's going to be a while before travel and airlines and cruises kind of bounced back. I believe that the market is going to reset to its bottom at least two more times."
That same day, Simmons posted on Instagram for the first time in three months offering her followers a chance to ask any questions, and ensuring them that "this will pass." She has since been regularly going live, using her platform to lessen fears about the stock market and offer financial advice, a foreshadow of what's to come with her financial talk show set to air in 2021. As the self-proclaimed "Suze Orman of her generation, for her generation," she hopes to bring a fresh perspective on the topic of personal finance, encouraging millennials and Gen Z to develop better spending habits with an emphasis on building generational wealth.
"I know people are eager and there are so many companies who are like invest now as early as you can," she says. "And while I think that is true to a certain degree, I definitely put an asterisk at the end of that sentence. Because if you have student loan debt, if you don't have anything in savings, and you haven't saved for retirement, why are you putting the extra cost that you should be really putting into yourself into the market?"
"70% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck," she continues. "Trying to build generational wealth is building up a budget and building up savings. Obviously getting to be able to buy a home at some point, but having revolving credit card debts is not actually preparing for your future and isn't going to create generational wealth, and preparing for your future is not stock market. You want to be thinking about your future, and that is always first and foremost. No credit card debt, student loan debt, you know, start to actually build out that wealth beyond your savings account— beyond your retirement account."
"Trying to build generational wealth is building up a budget and building up savings. Obviously getting to be able to buy a home at some point, but having revolving credit card debts is not actually preparing for your future and isn't going to create generational wealth, and preparing for your future is not stock market. You want to be thinking about your future, and that is always first and foremost. No credit card debt, student loan debt, you know, start to actually build out that wealth beyond your savings account— beyond your retirement account."
It's been a year-and-a-half since Simmons left Wall Street, a move that she says didn't come without criticism. In a recent interview, she shared that many thought her decision to leave the trading floor to be "foolish" and dismisses what she refers to as "dated mindsets" before declaring that no one should stay in the same job their whole life.
"I knew I wasn't going to stay on the trading floor but I knew that it would lead to opportunities bigger than what I would have even imagined," she says. "I was enjoying it, but I gave myself a limit. Two years and then I'm going to go on and do something else."
She credits her mother for instilling a fearlessness in her that's fueled the risks taken to pursue her dreams. She shares a story of the single-parent being in and out of the hospital with her twin brother, and ultimately quitting her job on the spot after an employer gave her an ultimatum of putting her job first or her kids. "She definitely taught me to be fearless and do things that are right for you, and have a passion and purpose. She's always told me don't ever give anyone the power to be able to control you. You have the power to do whatever you want to do and make sure that you take life as that."
"You have the power to do whatever you want to do and make sure that you take life as that."
With each leap of faith, Simmons continues to leave a legacy that will be spoken about for generations to come. Even if that road comes with a level of uncertainty. "There were a lot of periods where things weren't happening, and it's realizing that everything isn't going to happen instantaneously," she says. "I look back at my story as inspiration for me on a daily basis when things aren't going the right way, just realizing it's going to happen the way that it's supposed to happen. Even if that doesn't align with my time, you know?"
As the saying goes, well-behaved women seldom make history. And this story— her story— is one for the books and the big screen.
For more of Lauren, follow her on Instagram.
Featured image by Ida John; all images courtesy of Lauren Simmons