Derek Penn took a few detours on his path to Wall Street. Professional football, journalism, and scientific research were some of the stops that preceded his 30+ year career in finance. Named in Black Enterprise’s “75 Most Powerful Blacks on Wall Street,” Penn is a sought-after speaker on career opportunities for African-American students and young professionals. He spoke with Behind the Scenes about how his upbringing shaped his educational and career choices, how he found the right professional niche, and why he makes time to be a mentor.
What is your role at BNY Mellon?
I’m head of equity sales and trading with the capital markets division, which is part of the BNY Mellon Markets Group. I’ve been with the firm since 2006, most recently with Pershing LLC, which is a BNY Mellon subsidiary. When Pershing and BNY Mellon’s capital markets groups were merged in 2014, I was chosen to run the combined equity operation.
You grew up in Steeltown, U.S.A. How did your early experience shape you?
Yes, I’m from Youngstown, Ohio, a blue-collar town. My dad worked in the steel mills and then at the General Motors plant, with a short stop in insurance in between. My mom was a schoolteacher. My dad was dead-set on achievement, always emphasizing academics. His stories of growing up, dealing with racism, and having opportunities pass him by for reasons beyond his control had a big impact on me. He taught me never to lean on that experience, but overcome it and become unassailable. Education was the ticket out.
I primarily grew up on a side of town with very few blacks. Joining the Boy Scouts was my way of diving into the community, and some of the people I met there became my lifelong friends. I wanted to quit Boy Scouts at one point, but quitting wasn’t an option in our family, nor was it an option, thankfully, with my scoutmaster. My father wanted me around achievement-oriented kids, and as a result of the parental push and the troop support I became an Eagle Scout.
I was devoted to sports, and to some degree I still am. I played football, baseball, and basketball and ran track all the way through high school. I was fortunate to be a heavily recruited football player, and accepted a full scholarship to Duke University and became a four-year starter at linebacker. Today, season tickets to the major New York sports teams are my vice; it’s an expensive vice, but one I truly enjoy.
What were your plans as you began college, and how did you career develop?
The only professions I really knew about were those related to teaching, the legal world, and the medical world. I intended to become a doctor until the end of my sophomore year. I double-majored in chemistry and English, but got disenchanted with medicine as I watched my older brother go through podiatry school and age overnight. At the end of college, I had the opportunity to play professional football, and I gave it two shots, first with the National Football League and then with the Canadian Football League.
After football, I worked as a chemist for a company that was a contractor of the National Cancer Institute, analyzing potential anti-tumor agents. Then I worked as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill for the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, and I also did some technical freelance writing.
Football, lobbying, and writing are not the classic path to Wall Street. How did you wind up here?
I learned an awful lot in all these roles, but I also realized I had a major hole in my education. I needed some business expertise. Three and a half years after graduating, I went back to Duke for my MBA. I struggled at first because I was competing against economics and business majors who understood concepts I knew very little about – the world of Wall Street for example.
Some classmates told me they thought I had the competitive mentality and thick skin to succeed on Wall Street. But I was so far behind the curve that I didn’t land a Wall Street internship the summer after my first year in business school. So I took matters into my own hands. While working for a temp firm for the summer, I pounded the pavement, talking to local brokerage firms. I wormed my way into a Merrill Lynch office, where the manager in charge told me he couldn’t pay me much—basically, lunch—but he hired me on the spot. I worked that summer in the back office in an institutional/retail sales office. After a few weeks I was a sales assistant on the account executive’s floor, and I worked with a broker who handled the accounts of Sugar Ray Leonard, the boxer. I went back to Duke for my second year of B-school really set on going to Wall Street.
After earning my MBA, I was hired for Morgan Stanley’s first formal MBA training program in 1984. We had six months of training, and then I went to work as a trader on the equity block trading desk. After a successful eight-year tenure on the block desk, I was recruited by Merrill Lynch to manage trading of UK and European stocks on their New York desk. From there, I went to Lehman Brothers to manage their international and non-U.S. dollar denominated equities trading desk. My last stop before arriving at BNY Mellon was Fidelity, where I ran the equity capital markets sales and trading operation. In 2006, a former colleague at Fidelity recruited me to Pershing to manage their equity sales and trading efforts.
What did you learn in your career journey, and how does that affect the way you do your job?
I’ve always tried to fit my personality into a job rather than fit a job onto me. I know I’m not the typical corporate guy. I’m politely unfiltered. Sales and trading has a lot of the attributes of sports. It’s a meritocracy, and it’s about putting numbers on the board and consistently winning. I was also looking for a very dynamic environment, which would keep me stimulated. It’s the absolute right niche for my personality.
As a boss, I’m all about communication. There’s always an open door. If there’s anything on your mind, let’s talk about it. That’s because the workplace is a team – we’re collaborative. If I’ve got to get in the foxhole with you, I will. I’m the captain of a team that is built on respect, ethics, and mutual communication.
I try to draw on all the different lessons I learned along the way. My dad certainly inspired me to be determined and goal-oriented. Athletics taught me that when you get knocked down, you can get back up. If you lose one game, it doesn’t mean you’ll lose the next one. You only become a failure when you give up the fight or lose your drive to overcome.
Since 2006, the Fuqua School of Business at your alma mater, Duke University, has had an alumni award named after you, the May-Penn Award of Excellence. What does that mean to you?
I was deeply honored to be the first recipient along with Owen May, who received his MBA a year before me in 1983. We were recognized by our peers and the Fuqua administration for doing something that had been drilled into many of us, especially minorities, since childhood – giving back. The Black and Latino MBA Organization wanted to honor alumni who participate in annual events, are accessible to students while providing guidance and mentorship, and connect with faculty and administrators. Doing all those things is part of my DNA. These activities mesh perfectly with the values of diversity and inclusion that BNY Mellon desires to uphold.
I can’t ever forget that I entered the field of finance at a time when people of color had few clear paths open to them. I found my way into the meritocracy of the trading floor in part because I was raised to just keep going when confronted with obstacles. Not everyone was lucky enough to have my parents, and it gives me great satisfaction to be able to encourage and coach the next generation of African-American leaders in finance.