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A conversation with Crystal Thompkins, Head of Philanthropic Solutions at BNY Mellon Wealth Management.

Crystals profile card

Crystal’s Journey: Working to Make the World a Better Place

What made you consider a career in the financial industry?


Upon entering college, I initially considered pre-law as a major but ultimately enrolled at Winston-Salem State University as an accounting major. Because I’ve always found comfort in the absolute nature that comes with math, I had a change of heart. When you’re making a legal argument, there’s an element of ambiguity and varying opinions, but with math, you can’t dispute 2+2 is 4. I was attracted to the fact that there would be a definitive answer to what I was searching for. However, I had to figure out what area of mathematics I wanted to pursue; was it going to be academia or something else? I decided on accounting because I’ve always had this desire to demystify finance, coming from a family where we didn’t have a lot of money. I wanted to learn about it, with the idea I would create a better life for myself through financial literacy.


When I graduated, I did actuarial work for pensions. I eventually joined an investment firm, where I worked on the trading desk for big pension plans doing reconciliation work. Getting into financial services was a natural progression of having an accounting degree and an interest in finance.


How did you come to join BNY Mellon?


I joined U.S. Trust as a tax analyst and quickly took on new responsibilities as I pivoted to relationship management and eventually began my first managerial role in its planned giving business. Mellon then acquired that division of U.S. Trust and that commenced my journey at BNY Mellon.


It was the first time I was able to interact directly with clients. Prior to the acquisition, my work was primarily behind-the-scenes and operational. But after, whether it be over the phone or in person, I was able to interact with clients on a more personal level. That experience was instrumental in helping me realize I had the ability to take highly technical concepts and make them relatable to real people. It taught me how to develop my listening and communication skills, which became a critical element in the trajectory of my career, and I was able to build skills that would come to define the work I do.


What do you love most about working in philanthropic solutions?


There are a few things I love about it. It’s gratifying to know that I help make people’s lives better. Not only do I help nonprofits manage risks and grow assets, but I help them develop their practices, which allows them to better support their missions. If I can help one donor make a good decision and achieve their philanthropic goal, that’s important and it gives me a sense of satisfaction.


I also enjoy talking to people and finding out what matters most to them. Whether they’re an individual donor or a nonprofit, it’s the conversation and the problem-solving aspect that gets me out of bed every morning. While I originally got into this line of work somewhat by chance, it ultimately became an extension of what I’m most passionate about: helping people do good and figuring out what’s most important to them.


How has the industry changed since you started?


Quite a lot has changed, but one thing I’ve noticed is there are more women in leadership positions. There’s always been a notable representation of women in support roles, but that has changed over time with more gender diversity toward the top, although there is room for further improvement. There’s also been a shift in terms of building relationships with clients and having that be an earmark of excellence, as opposed to solely transactional relationships. Financial services firms have begun to realize transactions are easily replicable, but relationships are not. I think the ability to establish authentic relationships with clients is a defining competitive advantage.


Was there a woman who was a mentor throughout your journey?


Women in this industry tend to be very supportive of each other. While I wouldn’t necessarily categorize them as mentors, I have a network of industry peers who are women, who I can call at any point in time for support. I’ve relied on both personal and professional relationships throughout my career.


My grandmother, who I would consider a personal mentor, gave me important advice when I was young. She taught me that everybody has something worth saying. It’s on us to provide them with the time and place to tell the story. She explained, “If you be quiet long enough, they’ll tell you what you want to know.” That’s been so powerful with clients and has allowed me to get to the heart of what’s important. It’s also been helpful to me as a manager, allowing me to understand how to help people excel in ways that are comfortable for them.


Are there any other skills that are invaluable to your current role?


I think it’s important to be able to take technical concepts and make them relatable. When I set out to demystify finance, it helped me have better conversations with others. My actuarial background, focused on quantifiable aspects of risks, along with my people skills has helped me tremendously in my career. Some people can do the technical bit and aren’t as proficient in personal conversation, but I think success in this industry comes from a delicate balance of both.


What advice do you have for young women considering a similar career path?


Consider every opportunity whether it’s in your plan or not. Who would have thought actuarial experience would lead to me becoming head of philanthropic solutions? Sometimes what you may think is not part of the plan is what gets you to where you need to be. Whereas being dismissive could make you miss out on opportunities to learn new skills and access valuable connections. Experience is a great teacher and being open to different experiences can help in ways which may not be obvious from a distance.

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The information in this paper is as of January 2022 and is based on sources believed to be reliable but content accuracy is not guaranteed. 


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