What I want to be when I grow up often surprises people

I hear judgment in people’s voices, but I know I can be a force for good. 

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

I’m a high school senior, and as graduation approaches, people are always asking, “Dashawn, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Those who know me expect me to say something along the lines of a psychologist or a corporate wellness director. After all, I helped my Newark high school start a wellness council and class, and I’m always looking for ways to make our community more empathetic and equitable. So people often give me a surprised look when I say “investment portfolio manager.”

My family taught me at an early age the importance of saving and budgeting; I did chores around the house, and in exchange, they put $2 in my piggy bank. Back then, money mainly meant that I could buy my own candy.

I became interested in finance for real when I was 9 and saw a television depiction of a chaotic Wall Street trading floor. I was a quiet kid back then but seeing the actors run around shouting different finance terms awakened something in me. I started running around my house shouting “Dow index” and “Bloomberg” without knowing what those words meant.

Wanting to know more about Wall Street, I begged my mom to take me to the library, where I checked out books like “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.” That book, while controversial, highlights the importance of financial education and shows how decisions can impact a person’s ability to build wealth. It got me thinking about building my own wealth. I realized that there was a world in which I could travel, help support struggling family members, and still have enough to buy all the Pepsi and Nutty Bars I wanted.

Until then, I honed my skills with Roblox’s Trading Simulator. It allowed me to buy, sell, and trade digital items with other players. At first, I couldn’t get anyone to buy my inventory, but with some practice, I was turning a profit — an imaginary one, but it was a start.

By high school, I was done with Roblox but still convinced that I wanted to go into finance. The summer before my senior year, I secured an internship on the fixed-income team at the investment firm BlackRock. On my first day, I worried that the traders would be arrogant, as they are sometimes depicted in the movies. I worried about making a mistake. I wondered: Do I really deserve to be here? I’m only 17. But as I was shown around the Manhattan trading floor, like the one I’d been dreaming about since I was 9, and met some key executives, my nerves subsided.

Here’s what a typical day at my internship looked like: I’m sitting at a desk, staring at the three different computer monitors perched there. On the center monitor, there’s an investment committee meeting going on; I’m feverishly taking down notes while trying to remember some of the “Wall Street lingo,” like BPS, which is pronounced like “bips” and refers to as one-hundredth of a percentage point. The computer screen on the left tracks the stock market down to the millisecond, and the one on the right flashes the firm’s security protocols as I enter the investment firm’s database.

At first, it felt hard to keep up with so much information coming in, but after asking my manager a plethora of questions, I began to think of it as a mystery, and here I was trying to guess whether certain stocks would go up or down.

I started running around my house shouting ‘Dow index’ and ‘Bloomberg’ without knowing what those words meant. 

That summer, my manager tasked me with monitoring trades, conducting research on companies in the S&P 500, looking at how Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts impact stock ratings, and monitoring social media for political trends that could impact the market. I learned about client relations and accountability, and I honed my problem-solving skills.

I’m confident in my career choice, but telling people about it can be awkward. When they hear “investment portfolio manager,” I hear subtle disapproval in their response. They have seen onscreen (and stereotypical) depictions of Wall Street bankers, too.

But I know that finance can be a force for good — and that I can be a force for good in the world of finance, which is currently a white-dominated field. As a Black man and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I know that I have a role to play in helping under-resourced communities access financial information and capital that can help them build wealth.

I dream of creating affinity groups in my future workplace, where employees of color and LGBTQ+ employees could meet regularly to support each other and strengthen our sense of belonging. We could also work together to promote diversity in our workplace.

Outside of work, I imagine starting a nonprofit that teaches financial literacy to middle and high school students. I want other kids to have financial information that makes them feel informed and empowered. I want them to learn how to budget, use cash-flow spreadsheets, and even save for retirement. You’re never too young.

Dashawn Sheffield is a senior at North Star Academy Washington Park High School. He aims to educate students and faculty on the symptoms of mental health issues, and promote school-based mental health support. Dashawn will attend Lafayette College in the fall.