Rice University ECE graduates have been known to make significant contributions in a variety of fields, redefining the limits of what it means to be an electrical or computer engineer. We invite you to get to know our community and read about fellow Owls who share the Rice experience and can offer a viewpoint into the multitude of career options one can pursue “beyond the hedges,” be it industry, academia, non-profit or startups.
Name: Jim Finnigan ‘06
Company: Social Finance (SoFi.com)
Hometown: Chicago, IL
Rice College: Lovett
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in a suburb of Chicago and always hated the cold weather, so when choosing colleges, I looked at schools with top-notch engineering programs in warm climates. I have family in Texas and loved Rice’s residential college system after visiting. I couldn’t be happier with my choice.
How did you choose ECE?
During high school I was always interested in engineering. The summer before matriculating I went to a camp that explored all the different fields of engineering – ECE fascinated me and I knew I wanted to pursue it – learning about it was fun and didn’t seem like “school”. I was also always interested in the business side of things, so going into Rice I immediately majored in both electrical engineering and managerial studies (BA).
Where were your internships?
I worked at a small electronics manufacturing company in Chicago for two internships (one after my senior year, before starting at Rice). I was initially put on an assembly line building circuit boards, but they realized I was skilled enough to manage more interesting projects such as inventory management and putting in new computer systems. The next two summers I worked at National Instruments – I got that internship with the help of the Center for Career Development and campus computing.
What was your career path after graduating?
I had a roommate during an internship who interviewed for consulting positions. He explained what consulting was and I became interested in it. During my senior year I applied with some consulting companies and ended up accepting an offer. Consulting was very broad, but exciting – traveling all over the world, and learning about new industries and business concepts, thinking about high-level problems, etc. I focused on high-tech companies, the Ciscos and Microsofts of the world, so I was still in the computing technology field, just a different aspect of it.
Why did you leave consulting?
Consulting was a ton of fun and an amazing learning experience - I had the opportunity to work in a number of different business functions, meet tons of people, experience different companies first-hand, travel the world, etc. The experience also helped me grow professionally and personally in many ways.
I’d never trade the experience and would recommend it to anyone, but the industry and high-travel lifestyle wasn’t for me long-term. There were many presentations and advice, but as a consultant we rarely saw the final outcome or were responsible for the final results of our work. After a few years I decided to go back to school and earned my MBA from Stanford, focusing on entrepreneurship and startups where I could have more immediate impact. I focused on those areas with the intent of starting or working at a smaller company where things are more hands on and you can see your impact.
Ultimately, at Stanford a few classmates and I founded a company called SoFi. We focused our free-time and classes around it second year and decided to pursue if full-time after graduating.
Tell me about your company, SoFi (Social Finance).
The goal of SoFi (Social Finance) is to bring the community back into finance to provide a better experience for investors and borrowers. Most of finance today is conducted through large banks where’s these little accountability, transparency or personal connection. In the community banks of old, if you took out a loan, it was funded from your neighbors’ deposits. This aspect added a level of trust and transparency that’s missing today. We sought to bring back these aspects and their positive benefits back into finance.
As students surrounded by classmates with mountains of student debt, we started out by providing alumni-funded student loans for students at their respective universities. By bringing transparency and connection, we were able to offer students a competitive loan rate and alumni a great investment. We subsequently improved the student loan experience by building unique benefits such as employment assistance. Unlike a traditional finance company, our career services team will help unemployed borrowers find jobs!
SoFi is a financial services company but engineering is an important aspect of our business. We’ve built out our own systems from the ground up with the latest technology. This has allowed us to offer a superior financial experience compared to legacy institutions and allows us to move fast and adapt quicker than normal finance companies.
Since we founded SoFi 2011, we’ve expanded rapidly and are now helping students from thousands of schools to refinance their student loans. We’ve also launched mortgages and personal loans; we look forward to expanding our offerings into other aspects of finances as well where we can create compelling products for investors and borrowers alike.
What has been most rewarding about your career?
It’s interesting looking at my career because I’ve worked in three vastly different areas.
For my college internships I worked as an engineer and was rewarded by the thrill of seeing something you work on turn into a real life product that people actually use.
The most rewarding aspect of being a consultant was getting the variety of learning experiences that I did in such a short period of time. I was able to work at a new company every few months, encounter different company cultures, work in different areas of business, etc. It was a lightning fast way to gain experience and was almost like a three years crash course in the real business world.
And finally, the most rewarding aspect of stating business from the ground up thing is seeing your work have direct impact on the business and its customers. With a new business there’s nothing to build off so you have to get things done no one else will. It’s really rewarding to see all your hard work result in a successful business with happy customers who are thankful for the service you provide.
What is an example of a tough decision you’ve had to make?
There have been a few – one of the toughest was during my senior year when I had to decide whether I should try out this crazy consulting job or whether I should I should pursue a more traditional engineering role. It was a big decision coming out of school because they were very different paths. Another tough decision was going to graduate school - that took my life in a whole different direction as well: I had to quit my job, move across the county, make an entire new set of friends, etc. And yet again, while in graduate school I had the decision of going back to consulting where I had a significant raise waiting and tuition reimbursement, or taking a leap of faith and starting a financial services startup with (at the time) no money, no funding, no lending license, etc. Overall though I’d say I took the choice that was less “safe” and further out of my comfort zone, and I’m really glad I did.
What aspects of Rice helped you to determine what field you wanted to work in?
I am so glad I had the opportunity to do both electrical engineering and managerial studies. Taking some of the managerial studies classes gave me exposure to topics that wouldn’t be covered as part of a standard engineering curriculum – communications, finance, economics and other topics which probably opened up the door to consulting and my career since then.
What would you say to students who are considering a dual major?
I’d definitely recommend a dual major. It was more work, but I got a lot out of it. At a minimum, don’t just focus on your major and try to take more classes in other areas to get a feel for different fields. I think it’s good to expand your horizons and learn from a variety of areas.
That said, I’d highly recommend that anyone should pursue engineering as their primary major. Although it was a great deal of work, I really enjoyed what I learned and know the ECE program helped me develop a core set of skills that have helped me succeed. Majoring in ECE helped me hone my problem solving, critical thinking, analytical and teamwork skills. Although I don’t use some of the discrete engineering skills in my day-to-day work, I know my ECE training was invaluable. It provides a great groundwork that will help students be successful at whatever they pursue later in life.
What are some favorite Rice memories?
Steam tunneling during O-week. If you don’t know about them, there are tunnels under the entire campus that carry steam and connect the buildings with piping. I remember during O-week, leaders would sneak groups into the tunnels – entering near Fondren and popping out on the north side of campus. All of O-week was amazing.
I lived at Lovett all four years and really enjoyed being part of the community. One of the best parts of Rice is the college system. Aside from the fun aspects, I really valued the opportunity to live with and get better connected with older students. Two of my roommates my sophomore year were seniors, so they were pursuing their first jobs and shared first-hand advice that year and going forward once they had graduated and I was still in school.
Who has been the most influential in your development?
A number of my managers at past jobs have become amazing mentors. We keep in touch often and they have been great sending boards for career-related decisions I’ve had to make.
What advice would you give to Rice students?
I would say to try as many and varied internships or other work experiences as you can – the hands-on experience will be extremely helpful to figure out what you want to do long-term. Take those three risk-free months to try something new and learn what you want to do next. If you have an interest in something different than you did last summer, definitely try it. Even if you want to stay in the same field don’t work at the same company every year – work a different company to broaden your experience.
Also, talk to as many alumni as you can to learn about different areas or companies you might be interested in, whether it’s different facets of engineering or anything else. Take advantage of being a student – it’s the ultimate calling card and opens the door to other alumni or anyone else. For example, while at Stanford I was at a lunch presentation on venture capital. It turns out that the McMurtry who was speaking is the one McMurtry College at Rice was named for! I was able to speak with him a few times about his career and really appreciated all the advice and insights he had.
Even for people who are on the fence about doing engineering long-term, the education in engineering at Rice is tremendous and unparalleled. It will help prepare you and your mind for whatever career you end up having in the future.
We welcome suggestions of alumni to profile. Please email name, class year and a brief introduction to the individual to Jennifer Hunteror call her at (713) 348-4212.