A Goldman Sachs Veteran Looks Back at Her Career
Touro Alum, Vivian Schneck-Last, Shares Her Success in the Business World, and Navigating it as an Orthodox Jew
After graduating from a Bais Yaakov high school in Brooklyn in the late 1970s, Vivian Schneck-Last signed up for an aptitude test offered by Equitable Life Insurance. While the era of personal computing was still years away, companies were adopting the then-new computer mainframe technology and desperately needed programmers. “They assumed they could give an aptitude test and anyone who had the right aptitude they could train,” remembered Schneck-Last.
Schneck-Last, normally an astute and excellent student, missed an important test criterion: it was only open to college graduates, not high school graduates. “I was young, foolish, and fearless and I ended up being very fortunate,” laughed Schneck-Last who aced the test and was offered a position as a junior developer at the insurance company.
It was a culture shock. “It was eye-opening to be working with very smart people who were culturally different—and being the only Jewish person in my group,” said Schneck-Last, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors who had until then spent all of her life in the frum community. “I was the only Orthodox person in my class through the training, so it created a dynamic where I had to be aware and protect what needed to be protected and be observant in an environment that I wasn’t accustomed to.”
All My Life I Was Chaya… And Then All of a Sudden, I Was Vivian
“It was quite an adjustment,” continued Schneck-Last. “All my life I was Chaya and all of a sudden, I was referred to as Vivian. The whole environment was completely different.”
In an effort to get her college degree while she worked, Schneck-Last signed up for classes at Touro College. The school quickly became a stabilizing influence for her. “For me, going to Touro was like going back home,” said Schneck-Last. “It gave me a break from that completely secularized environment and a bridge back to my roots… I didn’t need to devote any brainpower to how I was going to navigate the Jewish calendar and college requirements. I didn’t have to explain myself to my fellow students in class why I’m not going out with them to a social gathering that’s not kosher or not-Orthodox friendly. Touro was a very warm, supportive environment, and that was particularly important to me because otherwise the whole rest of my day was not spent in a place like that.”
Touro was like going back home.
In addition to the culture shock, Schneck-Last also experienced the challenges common to many frum people entering the workforce in the 1980s. “My boss would interrogate me as to why I had to leave two hours before Shabbos began—I tried to explain that if there’s a breakdown on the subway, I can make up the work, but I can’t make up missing Shabbos,” she explained.
After a year and a half in her position, with tension rising between her boss and her religious commitments, Schneck-Last left the company for Paine Webber, an investment and stock brokerage firm. There, she found a supportive project manager who visited her desk every Friday afternoon to ensure she left on time for the Sabbath. While Schneck-Last liked the collaborative aspects of the work-culture, the company wasn’t a perfect fit for her, and she eventually grew bored and left to work for the New York Stock Exchange.
At the NYSE, Schneck’s career focus transitioned from programming to data and data design optimization. “I quickly realized that I connected with data management.”
The Right Person for 90 Percent of the Time
From the New York Stock Exchange, Schneck-Last made her way to Goldman Sachs, the nation’s premier banking and investment firm. During her interview, when she told her future boss about her religious accommodations, her boss responded: “I’d rather have the right person for 90 percent of the time, than the wrong person 100 percent of the time.”
At Goldman Sachs, Schneck-Last quickly hit her stride and proved she was the right person.
“The culture of Goldman Sachs was great for me because it was the closest thing to a meritocracy that I had experienced. I had a super smart and supportive manager. Goldman was great at identifying people with capabilities and sucking it out of them,” she laughed. “I was given a lot of responsibilities quickly and I really enjoyed what I was doing.”
Her timing was fortuitous as well. Goldman Sachs was expanding at a rapid clip, and she worked as part of the team that transitioned the firm’s systems and data from an IBM mainframe to three-tiered architecture and, finally, to cloud infrastructure. “Goldman was one of the best places to be because they had the resources to spend on technology and recognized the competitive advantages of it,” said Schneck-Last. “They made it a priority to invest in technology.”
Goldman Fellow and Rise to Managing Director
Schneck-Last’s work was recognized, and she was ultimately responsible for all of the firm’s data infrastructure. Schneck-Last also became a Goldman Doty Fellow, a prestigious fellowship given to two employees per year. As part of the fellowship, Goldman Sachs sent Schneck-Last to Columbia Business School for an MBA.
“They give you a scholarship to business school and you go on Goldman time, but you still have to put in a full workweek,” said Schneck-Last. She recalled ripping out the pages of her business school textbooks and stapling them together so she could carry them and read them on the train to her classes.
Schneck-Last eventually rose to the position of managing director at the firm. One of her proudest accomplishments during her thirty years at the firm was helping synchronize all of the firm’s reference data to a single master source. This enabled the firm to instantly access all their data about a particular client or counter-party across the full range of positions and exposures. “Now the process is pretty standard, but at the time it was really strategic,” she said. “There wasn’t this issue of reconciliation of one part of the firm not understanding the other. It was fundamental for us to understand the exposure the firm or a client had to a currency or a sector. We were able to identify the weakness in the housing market and reduce the firm’s exposure and not suffer the same way other firms did in 2008.”
Touro gave me the opportunity to gain a solid undergraduate education without having to compromise my religious values.
As an example of the benefits of centralized data, she cites the meeting US Treasury Secretary Hank Poulson had with the head of banks in 2008 when Bear Sterns collapsed. Schneck-Last said that when the banks were asked about their exposure to Bear Sterns, the other major banks needed several days to gather the relevant info. Goldman Sach’s Chairman Lloyd Blankfein had the answer within the hour.
“This foundational investment in technology was used many times before that infamous weekend,” said Schneck-Last. “From an internal risk management perspective, knowing your exposure on an entity level gives you information to decide how much you really want to be exposed. The firm could run daily analysis to report exposure in almost every area.”
Schneck-Last capped off her thirtieth year with Goldman Sachs and retired in 2015. She currently advises and invests in emerging technology companies in fintech, data science and cyber spaces. She is also a strategic consultant and an executive coach and serves on the boards of several companies. “I thought I was a natural insomniac,” joked Schneck-Last about the long hours she put in during her time at Goldman. “It turns out I can sleep for seven hours straight.”
Schneck-Last is still grateful for her time at Touro.
“Touro gave me the opportunity to gain a solid undergraduate education without having to compromise my religious values,” she said. “I felt supported which was so important given that I was already in the secular world where very often I didn’t feel very supported.”
Three Tips to Succeed in the Corporate World While Keeping Your Values Intact
Given Vivian Schneck-Last’s success in the corporate world and her unflinching commitment to her religious principles, we asked Schneck-Last for some tips for orthodox Jews on navigating the secular world.
Pick Your Employer, Choose Your Employment Opportunity.
“If you know the company you’re going to work for is not supportive of your religiosity, don’t expect them to change,” explained Schneck-Last. “Whether they should or should not have to change, isn’t material. One person is not going to change a large company so it’s not necessarily worth the effort since there are many more options that are comfortable and supportive. I was upfront with Goldman Sachs before they made me an offer and I made it very clear that my religious observance was non-negotiable—and I made it clear that non-negotiable meant without exception. Legally, you’re not required to tell a company about your religious obligations during the interview process, but I think it’s an important factor for certain jobs. Not being upfront can be construed as being dishonest or misleading, and I don’t think anyone wants to work for a company that wouldn’t hire them if the company knew they were shomer Shabbos. A company that doesn’t respect your religious belief, whether it’s because of a company cultural factor or availability, is clearly not a job in which you’re going to flourish and be successful.”
Think About Your Coworkers and Teammates and Carry Your Weight
“While the company might be legally required to give you off for Shabbos and Yomim Tovim, your coworkers and teammates are picking up the slack. You have to demonstrate that you’re making up the time. Offer to cover their holidays or work late. I worked every Christmas and every legal holiday at Goldman Sachs. I volunteered to cover the day before Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving, and the day after Christmas when a lot of people want to take off. I came in because my team covered for me, and I wanted to covered for them. It’s very important to carry your own weight regardless of whether your company is legally required to give you off or not.”
Know Your Boundaries and Priorities
“It’s not up to your company to manage your priorities. Whatever your priorities are —whether you’re an avid musician, shomer Shabbos, or you have elder care or child responsibilities—it’s not your company’s job to set those boundaries for you. You have to set them.”