Alex Gialanella started his own internship program inside Morgan Stanley for minority teenagers, after being inspired by pro bono work as a junior employee.
As a twenty-something joining a global firm, Alex Gialanella couldn’t help but wonder if he would be able to make his mark in a place as big as Morgan Stanley. “We all want to have our voice heard, and when you start in a big firm it can seem daunting. I was never much of a self-promoter,” he explains. Working hard and being collegial got him to Vice President in Wealth Management Finance. But it was after participating in the Strategy Challenge, the firm’s pro bono program, that he discovered your voice can indeed be heard at Morgan Stanley, no matter your age and career level, if you’re passionate enough to use it.
His four-employee pro bono team was paired up during the 2013 Strategy Challenge with the nonprofit Futures & Options, which finds internships for minority, low-income juniors and seniors in New York City’s public high schools. Gialanella was hooked on day one. “These kids just blow you away,” he says. “They are incredibly motivated to break the cycle of poverty — one 16-year old I met from the Bronx had already done 30 college credits at City College by the end of his junior year.”
The problem, he discovered, was that in spite of their motivation to be the one that gets away, the teenagers have no idea how to make the move. “They literally don’t know where to start,” says Gialanella. “They mostly come from single parent homes and have no-one else in the family who’s made it through college or into this industry. They have absolutely no connections.”
After 10 weeks of pro bono work ended in June that year, Gialanella went back to work, walked into his manager’s office, and asked if he could bring three of the high schoolers to work with him. “There was Richard, who had done all the college credits, and a girl from Brooklyn who had been offered full rides to both Cornell and University of Chicago, but was seriously thinking of turning them down because she couldn't afford bus fare to visit her parents at break. There was also a 16 year-old girl who was the first in her family to be accepted into college, but her grandmother, who was raising her, had no means to help her.”
There was some trepidation at first. “We didn’t know what we would get them to do when they got here,” says Gialanella. “How would we manage them? Do we have the resources to make it a meaningful experience for them?” But his manager encouraged him to speak to Jeannine Ali, then COO of Wealth Management Finance, as well as Jeff Gelfand, the CFO of the wealth business. “So I went ahead and booked a meeting. I emailed Jeannine and Jeff, saying I’d really like 30 minutes of their time to tell them about Futures & Options. It took me a week or two to get onto their calendars, but when I did they were very gracious and supportive. They championed the concept and were critical in getting the program off the ground.”
After he got their buy-in, Gialanella worked with his colleagues in Finance to draw up an internship program, which included basic office skills training so the teenagers could get some work skills. Junior employees also offered to buddy with each teenager during their three month stay. In October, four months after the Challenge, the three high schoolers turned up at the firm’s headquarters at 1585 Broadway to start their paid internship. “They were fantastic. So good in fact, that we ended up extending their time here, to go through the whole school year,” says Gialanella.
Two of them are now doing well in college, and Richard has been hired as a fulltime Analyst working with Gialanella’s team in the Wealth Management Finance division. Gialanella's internship program has also taken on a life of its own. “It’s been like a snowball going downhill. Other parts of the firm heard about what we were doing and wanted to get involved, and now we have up to 15 kids a year doing internships across different businesses.”
Gialanella, now an Executive Director, serves as a CFO for businesses within Wealth Management, and heads Wealth Management Finance’s philanthropy and employee mobility committees. Today he describes himself as “adaptable, inventive and persistent.” Especially persistent. “If I believe something is right, I’ll push it relentlessly, believing others will see its merits when they understand my position. I won’t hesitate to reach out to someone I don’t know, to form a connection. I’m very self confident now, in that sense.”