top of page
  • Writer's picturehelen ristov

Breaking the Mold

I’d like to take a moment of your time and tell you my life journey, and some of the crossroads in my life which shaped who I am today.

From an early age, I knew that I didn’t nicely fit in with the norms of society. I was interested in subjects which many found to be strange for a girl like cars, computers, mathematics and physics.  I knew I was different, but I didn’t understand why. Luckily, my family was very supportive of me and encouraged me to pursue an education in those fields even though they were immigrants and couldn’t help me much. I had to learn on my own which leads to the first major lesson of my life:

Make peace with your situation

I could sit and write a laundry list of all the things I wish I had growing up, and how others might have had it better. We all aren’t born into the same privilege, and although opportunity isn’t equal, we can still make an impact if we focus on the right things. Our differences shape us, and they make the world more interesting. I didn’t understand that then, but I see it more clearly now.

I went on to study mathematics in graduate school and had interests in number theory and dynamical systems. It was also around this time that I discovered I liked computers more than mathematics. I accepted an intern position at a start-up building financial planning software and left the program early with a masters. Looking back, I have regrets about how I handled that situation, but it turned out to be the right choice for me. Which comes to the next lesson:

Follow your interests even when they change

Life hardly follows a nice linear path and is situational. I started out learning about mathematical methods and models, but I wanted to build computational engines which in a strange way later aligned up with my interest in cars. My journey was shaped by these foundational interests, alternating in importance and focus.

I then went on to take several different jobs in banking building quantitative models and applications around the time that the field of data science was emerging. This new field was somewhat the boot loader for the later expansive growth of machine learning. I just happen to be in a situation to pursue this path, and everything seemed to converge in place in a cosmic conjunction. 🙂

Back in the early 2000s Chicago had these “old school” proprietary trading firms composed of a conglomerate of desks. The parent organization would give traders a chance to build their own strategies and technology. I joined one of these desks. I believed we were standing at a unique period of history where advances to trading using machine learning could make substantial leaps. We put in several automated strategies which ran successfully for several years.  I wasn’t prepared for rapid success, and the storm that would follow. We were new, we were unheard of, and rumors were flying. Machine learning as well as trading was to be feared although none of these on their own were new fields, but the intersection was somewhat new and scary. I wasn’t prepared to deal with the backlash of being in an industry which many had a bad perception of. The world would once again try to define me although this time on another scale.

Ignore stereotypes

I found myself in a storm of stereotypes and contradictions. I was a female, in trading, running automated trading strategies, and working with machine learning. I made many mistakes combating some of the negative commentary. I wish I had learned earlier how to respond, not react and ignore the noise. It was with a heavy heart that we made the decision to shut the desk down to stem the tide under tumultuous circumstances.

I took some time to think about what to do next. My small world had crumbled. I think for most people the story would end here. I decided to continue and went to the west coast because what better place than the valley to pick up on the latest technology on machine learning and expand on what we built?

Reframe your thinking

The past cannot be changed, and many things in life are out of our control. We have a choice when we experience loss or setbacks to continue to improve, or let it stagnate us. I thought about giving up, but I made the choice to move forward. I thought about letting the world define me, but I decided to define myself. In that way I broke the mold. You will experience setbacks, stereotypes, and judgements that seem unfair, but I hope you too can break the mold, and work towards a brighter future.

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page