Entrepreneurship in finance, media, and tech
In his own words, Lex Sokolin is an entrepreneur passionate about the intersection of financial services, new media, and technology. Before entering the JD/MBA Program at Columbia, he worked in investment management at Lehman Brothers and Barclays. As a JD/MBA student, Lex founded roboadvisor NestEgg Wealth, which was subsequently acquired by AdvisorEngine. In 2016, InvestmentNews named Lex among its 40 Under 40, and ThinkAdvisor included him in its Investment Advisor 25 list, dubbing him the “fintech futurist.”
Lex is currently a partner at Autonomous, a specialized research firm serving investors in financial companies, and focuses on leveraging digital innovations to help investors make better decisions.
What attracted you to the JD/MBA Program?
There are two separate answers to this question. The first is a story about how I had been crafting my experience and where I wanted to go. The financial, political, and legal worlds had been intellectually compelling to me from an early age. I went to Hunter College High School in Manhattan and was part of the Federal Reserve Challenge (an economics team), a Washington seminar (a policy team), and a constitutional law class that we at the school were lucky to have. When I arrived at Amherst College, I chose economics and legal thought as my majors, with a bit of time spent in political science. There must be some wiring in my brain to look for quantitative social disciplines that create frameworks around human activity.
I was curious about the skills needed to run large financial services institutions and thought that the legal skill set, when combined with a deep understanding of how finance works, can allow one to become a great CEO, private equity investor, or even an entrepreneur. I had seen people with exactly such an education in very powerful roles on Wall Street. And of course, Columbia is at the heart of this world, both on the legal side and in financial services. It is the university most plugged into the heart of New York City, opening doors to institutions of every kind and size for its students and alumni.
The second story, one that usually remains unsaid, is that of prestige. Well performing students all over the world spend years motivated by grades and brands. I was no exception, and thought that the Columbia brand was a great signal to the world about how capable I could be.
How has your JD/MBA degree helped you through your career?
My degree has been immensely helpful from a practical point of view. Merely having four years in an academic setting created a space for me to innovate while leveraging the broader community at Columbia for help and support. Several Columbia professors were the advisors at my start-up, NestEgg, and students from the Business School and Law School were either cofounders or meaningful contributors.
In terms of the legal skill set, as an early stage founder, I was constantly touching legal documents—our incorporation, fundraising documents, governance documents, technology licensing agreements, and more. When the company was acquired, I had the pleasure of performing legal cleanup as well. While law school does not fully make you a lawyer, it definitely gives you the tools to get scrappy. And once my startup did have legal counsel, I had the ability to ask the right questions.
Regulatory knowledge is also highly useful in the digital wealth world. Whether you are in banking or payments or investment management, you are handling people’s money. That is an awesome responsibility, and one that is quite difficult to navigate. Our firm was at one point a registered investment advisor and regulated by the Securities Exchange Commission, which meant that we were responsible for annual regulatory filings. Furthermore, since we were bringing an automated approach into a highly human-driven area, there was necessary interpretation of regulations to decide what the firm should or should not be doing.
I feel the need to defend the legal part of my education because the usefulness of the MBA is much more obvious. At the Business School, I particularly benefited from a focus in corporate valuation and theoretical investment management. As a roboadvisor, or at the very least a software platform that provides such capability to others, knowing what asset classes are and how they fit into allocations is table stakes. You can’t sell an investment product if you don't know how it’s made!
What aspects of your profession do you find most rewarding, and why?
My current position at Autonomous has been a ton of fun, coming after an intense period of time in an operating role dedicated to wealth management. Autonomous interfaces with institutional investors and large financial incumbents, which are quite hard to access as an early stage company. I enjoy the ability to have conversations with smart people across the industry, but have also stayed grounded in the early stage ecosystem, because I believe this drives the innovation curve across the real economy.
In my role as partner, I look at edge technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, roboadvice, neobanks, insurtech, and others that are shaking up finance. And a research perspective allows me to take the time and find real answers. If I know the world is going to change in a particular way in 5–10 years, how can I carve a path from that future back to today? There is a real satisfaction in being able to work out the answers, even for yourself, in a way that is rigorous and defensible.
And having that conversation with others navigating the world can be very rewarding—especially as your audience grows. More recently, I focused on public speaking, the elements of persuasion, and growth-hacking as places for improvement. The world is increasingly being structured around attention, not products. Even if your product is good or your machine works, it only matters if people know about it and feel compelled to participate in it with you. So storytelling is an incredibly important part of my work.
What advice would you give to current and aspiring JD/MBA students?
First of all, remember that you may be ready to do your own work much earlier than you think. Want to be in private equity? Buy some websites in niche verticals with your friends. Interested in hedge funds? Crypto assets are volatile, liquid, and on 24/7. Want to run a company? Start one right now. Taking all of your learning and structuring and pointing it at a business problem is very powerful. And practical experience will only make your story stronger to employers. Remember that optimizing around a recruiting process and success in the open market are quite different.
And second, go where people do not yet know the answers. It will give you a chance to write the constitutions and build the visions.