Position: Chief operating officer of Impaq International, a research, evaluation and technical assistance firm based in Columbia.
Avi Benus started on the floor of the American Stock Exchange, trading options during the tech boom. He later became an analyst at JPMorgan where he was ranked by Institutional Investor magazine as one of the top analysts in telecommunications and technology. After a subsequent stint at Goldman Sachs and a return to JP Morgan, he decided to leave Wall Street and work for a research firm that his parents started in 2001. After heading up several divisions in the company, he is now leading its operations.
What were your professional aspirations as a youth?
My dad used to say, when you’re a kid you don’t even know what the job is that will exist 10, 2o years down the road. You can think about being a doctor, banker, baseball player, but there’s such a vast world. Your job is to make sure you have the abilities to take advantage of where your life leads you. I went to college not knowing what I wanted to do. I knew how to work hard. I knew I wanted to build something, but I wasn’t sure what that was.
What was one of the best skills you learned from trading on the floor of the American Stock Exchange?
It taught me to be a quick thinker. You need to think on you feet, literally. You need to have conviction in your ideas. Once you make a trade, there’s no turning back. You can’t waffle.
You went from Wall Street to working at your parents’ company. How different was the pace and how did you adjust?
Government contracting is a different beast than what I was used to. It took a year to understand a new way of thinking in managing relationships where you have one main customer. I was used to the yelling and fast pace, and I was nervous that my personality wouldn’t mesh well with my parents’ company. But I was pleasantly surprised that the pace was faster and more exciting than I anticipated. My parents instilled this entrepreneurial spirit in the company. There are always new projects and new deadlines.
How have you grown as a leader since your early days?
I’m always looking for the next challenge. I try to instill that in the people who work with and for me, as well. I encourage them to not be afraid to go out and hire someone who is as smart or smarter, so they can take your job and you can look for that next challenge.
In the hiring process, how do you understand if someone is a good fit?
I’ve done a lot of interviewing and hiring. In my interviews I like to ask questions that I know they don’t know the answer to — things that are not tied to their own profession. I want to see how they handle it. Do they get uncomfortable, defensive and squirm? Or do they say, “I don’t know and I’ll do some research and get back to you.” I think that tells you a lot because in your job, you’re going to invariably be faced with things that you’re not going to know how to do. To keep levelheaded and go figure it out is what separates the people I want to work with.
What are the red flags?
I look for people who have a broad set of skills. Someone who is interested in just one thing and not branching out is limiting. The world constantly changes. If you don’t have that hunger for knowledge, challenges and new things, you’re not going to be so interesting to work with.
Any turning points in your career?
I have four children, 10, 8, 5 and 2. My eight-year-old has severe autism. He doesn’t communicate well at all. It’s been a challenge for the whole family, but it’s taught me a lot of patience, compassion and understanding. While my whole life has been pushing forward and thinking about the next opportunity and how it will help further my career, having a son with these special needs has slowed me down in terms of making me stop and appreciate the small things. He makes me patient and compassionate because he needs an advocate and help. It takes a decent amount of focus from both me and my wife to provide that. He’s helped round me out.
— Interview with Vanessa Small