Our guest this week is Maria Kristic. Maria has a BA, MBA, and JD in finance and shares how she built a successful career in corporate finance as a totally blind person.
We also discuss how every dollar counts when building your savings.
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Male Announcer: Welcome to the Penny Forward podcast. Penny Forward is a community of people who are blind, their families, and friends who share an interest in financial independence. Visit
to learn more about who we are, and what we do. Join us now, as we get to know people like us, who are working toward their own success. Here is your host, Chris Peterson.
Chris: My guest today is Maria Kristic. Maria has several degrees in finance, including a BA, an MBA, and a JD, which is a law degree. She's originally from Bosnia. She came here when she was just turning 5. And she was the first totally blind student in her K through 12 school in the little town where she grew up. And we'll hear a lot more about her from her. Maria, thanks for being here.
Maria: Thanks so much for having me, Chris. It's great to be here.
Chris: So. You have a very interesting background, being kind of an immigrant, although I imagine you don't remember very much about your life in Bosnia at this point, but what was it like to be growing up in essentially a foreign country, as a blind girl?
Maria: Definitely my memories are a bit scattered because, as you pointed out in your intro, I was quite young. I think, from what my mom has told me, she was very adamant that I be able to do things, you know, run around and play and such as all the other kids would. There were definitely some people who were quite protective around me, and she's become a bit more protective, I think because of the war and the circumstances that were there, but definitely some of my earliest memories were war time, having to go into a basement at night in case the house was bombed, and hearing sirens outside and the like. So, I didn't start any kind of schooling until I came to the US, but as far as I know, with the exception of any stress caused by the war and such, I had a decently typical childhood. But after I came to US, I had a mainstreamed education. I had a teacher for the visually impaired, who is low vision herself, and we still keep in touch, and she was absolutely a great inspiration and roll model for me. And also I had a brailleist who produced a lot of my hard copy material, and so, especially these two women, but also certainly the teachers at my school really helped to make sure that I had a good, well-rounded education. And so, I think, based on what I've heard from others, I think that I have been quite fortunate in a lot of ways. Yes, I was the first blind student, but I received education in all of the subjects that everyone else did, and did receive supplemental education in certain blindness skills from my TVI, and certainly felt prepared to move on to life after the end of high school when I reached that point. And being the first blind student definitely ensured that I had very good problem solving, and research, and self-advocacy skills, which have served me well.
Chris: There are a lot of teachers of the visually impaired who are themselves blind or low vision. And some of us were fortunate enough to have one, others were not. Since you had one, how do you think being around another blind person growing up impacted your trajectory in life?
Maria: It absolutely had a positive impact. There were adults around me, for instance certain members of the vocational rehabilitation system, and certain other teachers, and even a special education administrator, who had doubts as to whether I could do certain things, and whether I should do certain things. They'd say, "Oh, don't take that class as well. Calculus and statistics, that might be too much for you." Or, you know, "Maybe you should think about something else as a career." Or whatever it was. And having served as a counterpoint to other things that I was hearing, and it enabled me to start discerning. "How much weight should I give to this person's opinion vs. this other person's opinion?" And "if my TVI, for instance, said that something could be done, I'm gonna give her more weight because she has the lived experience. And even if she doesn't, just the fact that she persevered through her own obstacles in college and such, you know, that served as motivation to me that I can do things. And that no matter what, she made it through, and I can make it through as well. My parents didn't immigrate here with my brother and I for me to not give it my best shot." And obviously they believed that I could accomplish something, and they chose to immigrate here and stay here so that I could have a better education than anything I would have ever had in Bosnia." So I think that having that TVI who was blind just really helped to kind of reenforce my motivation. And even if she wasn't very familiar with, you know, a piece of technology, you know, it was very much like, "she made it even without XYZ piece of technology. So look how much easier my life is and such. She learned what she needed to learn, in some cases on her own, I can do the same." So just absolutely having that role model I think really helped me persevere in cases where I might not have because certain other people were discouraging.
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Chris: Did you have any other blind role models growing up? And who were they?
Maria: You know, I didn't particularly. I had met a couple of blind people my age at a picnic for ... I guess it was billed as a parents of blind children event, but they also ... a lot of them brought their children. (Chuckle.) So, I met a couple of other blind friends, but really, I didn't have particularly. And I knew I was starting from high school, I guess you could say virtually, I had some role models. I joined some mailing lists and such focused on technology, and so I did meet some people that way, and I was able to ask some questions, daily living things, you know, "how do you know when the water's boiling nonvisually?" and such. So, you know, virtually, the internet absolutely helped me in that regard. Even that continued I guess through to college was when I really, in my undergrad, met some other blind people, from whom I had got to ask questions, for instance, about the guide dog lifestyle, and to experience what it's like to spend time with dogs when they're not working and such. But I guess I would just very much say that more the internet was really what was helpful to me in terms of blindness technology and such, until I ... I mean I became involved with the American Council of the Blind in 2016 after I graduated from my graduate program. So that, really in the past five years, is really when I've had the most exposure to blind people that I've ever had.
Chris: Wow, that's amazing. Were you learning English at this time also?
Maria: Yes. So when I came, I did not speak English. But of course, being five at the time and such, it's very much easier to pick up, kids at that age are sponges. (Chuckle.) And also the fact that, you know, no one other than my parents and a couple of people that we have met who spoke the language, who spoke Croatian, you know, other than that, everyone basically spoke English. So there's nothing like language emersion to force you to learn it very quickly. (Chuckle.) Because you have no other choice. So I think I did pick up a good amount of English fairly quickly. The spelling was definitely harder for me, because English is not spelled phonetically at all. But thankfully I got there with help from teachers, and of course, now, you know, spell check and such, I'm a pretty good speller now because I've been very determined, ... (Chuckle.) To spell things correctly, and be able to speak and write, as much as I can, like a native speaker and such.
Chris: I am a terrible speller, and thank God for spell check.
Maria: Absolutely. (Laugh.)
Chris: Because that caused a lot of anxiety growing up. So at what point did you start thinking about a career, and how did that then turn into a career in finance?
Maria: Sure. I actually did not think I was initially going to have a finance career. I was initially thinking to study computer science. I had enjoyed learning about assistive technology, and started out in terms of my own self-exploration really with the braille note line from Humanware and had kind of learned how you could program some of the databases that it used a bit to extend its capabilities and such, and it piqued my interest. And I thought I was gonna study computer science. Which I did end up doing actually, for five semesters of my undergrad. However, I had enjoyed economics as a high school subject. I think I really liked how applicable I could see it being in terms of helping to explain every-day situations that I was hearing about in the news, and just how economics and finance touches so many aspects of life. But I had thought I was gonna study computer science, and then various factors convalesced. Lack of accessibility of the development environment that was being used, and the fact that some professors weren't willing to let me use something else, and the fact that I was writing programs that were involving having a mouse move images and things that I couldn't test, and I just started feeling like, "Maybe this isn't quite the avenue that I am meant to contribute to and make a difference to." And so, second semester of junior year, I decided, like I said, I had enjoyed economics and I decided to switch, and switched my major to economics, and then I kind of thought from there, "What am I gonna do with this from here?" And initially I thought about perhaps pursuing a PHD in economics, I had started researching programs, and then I thought, "Well on the other side, I could use it in a more applied fashion, and apply to say an MBA program with a finance degree." And I think I was definitely impacted by the Great Recession. My undergrad was in 2011 is when I completed that, and so we took an economics seminar on contemporary issue, and of course it talked a lot about what caused the financial crisis of 2007 to 2009, and compliance efforts and such that have sprung up since, and I kind of had this interest in compliance. And I thought, "Okay, I'll perhaps apply to this MBA program in finance, we'll see how this goes." And then I actually, when I went to guide dog school, and I went to Leader Dogs for the Blind, which is where my guide dog Lacey is from, I went there a week after graduating from college. And a couple of board members from Leader happened to be there for an extended period of time during my class, because their board meeting got rescheduled and they lived farther away, so they didn't want to travel back and forth. And so I got to talk with them a fair amount, and one of them was a corporate lawyer. And he said to me, "You know, the finance combination with the MBA and also having a law degree with business law focus could be a really powerful combination in all sorts of fields. Even if you don't end up wanting to practice law." And I kind of said "Okay," and, you know, didn't initially give it much thought. And then when I got home, I really did start to look into it. And I saw how a lot of the courses could complement each other. And I thought, "Why not? I like to learn new things, and this would provide me with a value add, and enable me to look at things from different perspectives, the legal and the business, and so I decided to go for it, and research programs, and I applied, and I started my JD and MBA. It was a four-year program in 2012, and it's a four-year because certain classes, if you structure it in a certain way, again, because they compliment each other, you're able to count them toward both degrees. And so in grad school, I definitely gravitated more toward the business side of finance and wanted to apply the legal side to the business context rather than as an attorney. And so I had some internships. I began initially, one summer, there was an opportunity to participate in ... they called it a "finance academy," and it was working with a banker on an applied project, and so I took that opportunity. And then, later on, I applied through my school's career portal for internships, and I got a couple of those. One was with an investment banking firm, and one was with an industrial development agency which provided various tax incentives to help with community economic development. The way I got my current job was through one of my professors on the law side. It was a class on the legal aspects of raising money in terms of start-ups, raising capitol. And he liked my work, and out of the blue one day, he asked if I was interested in economic development, and I said "yes, and in fact I've had this internship that is focused on this theme." And he happened to be inn the board of the ... place ... where I'm working. And he sent my resume, and one thing led to another with various interviews with senior management, and they had this need for post issuance compliance for tax exempt debt. And they felt with my background, that I would be suitable, and so I have been working there since 2017, and I work with the CFO, and definitely do lots of interesting things besides that. I've been able to help led a couple of teams when we were doing some process improvement, and I do some contract reviews because of my legal background as well, and they even roped me in when they found out that I'd studied some computer science when they were doing some web site development. And of course, there were accessibility guidelines that they have to follow as part of the state, but they also wanted to make sure it really _was usable and accessible, and "Hey, we have a screen reader user." So, I was even able to assist with that. So it's really been a great experience so far.
Female Announcer: We'll continue our interview in a moment, but first, ...
Chris: Many people I talk to about personal finance are fans of a talk show host named Dave Ramsey. Dave Ramsey has written a number of books, and also produces a radio talk show and podcast about personal finance. And one of his mottos is that every dollar counts. And he's absolutely right. You may think that spending an extra 5 dollars on a cup of coffee, or eating out one extra time a month, isn't going to hurt your finances, and it probably won't. You'll get paid again. You'll probably have enough money to get by. But every dollar does count when it comes to savings. And savings can build up naturally and organically over time, by doing things as simple as putting away your spare change in a bowl at night. I used to do this, and when I went to cash in my bowl of spare change, and we're talking a big old Tupperware salad bowl kind of a thing here, I had over a hundred dollars there. And it took around a year to fill up that bowl. Now if I can put away a hundred dollars a year in spare change, what could I do with every extra dollar going into savings? Or even just some extra dollars going into savings? Over time, if you put it away and forget about it, you could be surprised how much wealth you could build for yourself. And that can help you to weather hard times, take advantage of rare opportunities, and more powerfully support the causes that you deeply care about.
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Chris: So to summarize, you got out of college with your BA, and then you went to grad school, and did your NBA and your JD at the same time. Right?
Chris: And were you working at all either during that time or between grad school and your undergrad?
Maria: No. So yes there was a year between my undergrad and my grad school, and no, I did not work in that in between time, and during my grad school, my work was those internships. So I was not doing any kind of full-time work. I did have, in terms of work experience, during my undergrad, not specifically finance related, but I had done some work with the disability student office in terms of helping them to streamline some of their processes, and advising on how they could best assist students, especially in terms of producing mathematical related content in alternative formats and such. So I did have those student experiences as work experiences initially, which carried me through to the internships, and then on to the full time.
Chris: Some of my guests, when I talk to them about their lives and careers, have a very detailed plan, and for others, it kind of just all falls together based on who they meet, or what opportunities get put in front of them. What category do you think you fall into?
Maria: I think I would fall more into that second category. It wasn't that I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I didn't want to completely close the door on certain opportunities either. I did have a vague idea in terms of when I was doing my interviews for full time. I interviewed with certain banks for financial analyst positions. I did know broadly I wanted to focus more on, say, the corporate finance side vs. the investing side, and perhaps a compliance roll, and I had maybe imagined myself more in initially the private sector. Not for any really compelling reason, but more just because that's where I saw a lot of people going after they graduated from my program. But again, I didn't want to be so specific that I was closing a door on certain opportunities. And so, when this opportunity came my way from this professor, I mean I'd never heard of this organization before. And I had never considered working for state government, although we as a public authority can function a bit more like a private company, because we're not directly part of the state. We're sort of more of a component and we make our own money, so I guess it's the best of both worlds. Private company, public mission. But I guess you could say it definitely just did fall into place. There was always something with other interviews that I had done. Either I wouldn't be called for a second, or something didn't agree with me. And so when this fell into place, right place at the right time, it just really seemed like it was meant to happen. I mean it would be a good fit.
Chris: We all have run into accessibility challenges with school, with work, with life in general. What were some of those challenges for you, and how did you keep going and push through them?
Maria: Yeah. Definitely there were challenges. I can think of a most recent one. A program that we've used that was you could say mainframe program, can you believe, and the interface that everyone typically uses to access it is just completely, it is so inaccessible that a screen reader can't even tell that it's on the screen. Much less indicate any controls in any way. And something like that, I was actually able to delegate the actual retrieval of information from that system to someone else. And I was then able to, when I received the information, do what I needed to do with it. I have had other instances where, you know, image-based PDF'S for instance, which I've converted, using optical character recognition, converted those to text. I have had, you know, especially in terms of my college and graduate experience, you know, certain graphical information that I've needed to speak with a professor to have described to me, and that might mean, depending on complexity, meeting with them afterward to have the description provided. And so, I would definitely just say I think the take-away is to be creative and resourceful. Because you have, you might need some help, but you definitely have the strength and the motivation within you to take the next steps to solve accessibility challenges. It might not be in the way that is initially imagined, and you know, now-a-days, I've used Aira as well. And I have used Aira at work sometimes when I've needed to access ... I actually had to access something that was handwritten once, and so I used Aira. So, you know, the ways that such challenges might be resolved evolves, but I think with me, kind of seeing it as a challenge, meaning something that I can somehow surmount rather than as an obstacle, I think has really been the key in being able to overcome it in some way, shape or form. And I've been lucky. I've heard of some people needing to pay for scripting and such of products, and just, in terms of what I've needed to use so far, I haven't really had to do that. But I think having the attitude of it, and also just learning what I could about my screen reader, and my assistive technology, because I am kind of a good amount self-taught. Just the combination of those two things, being willing to learn and having a bit of an attitude of kind of adventure about it, are what helped me to persevere and to succeed.
Chris: I think a lot of people get stuck on the idea of needing to ask for help. And if they feel like they're gonna need to ask for help and they can't do it independently, then they can't do it at all. What is your response to that?
Maria: You know, it's definitely something that I've struggled with as well. I think we do have this pressure, especially being a minority, low incidence population, we have to prove, you see the employment statistics and such. We have to prove that we're able to do everything, and we have to work harder, and all of that, and, you know, I've struggled with that too. "I just want to get it done. I want to get it done myself." And I think just having to kind of be able to step back and sort of observe a little bit more objectively in saying my feelings, and saying, "Okay, I'm feeling this way." But then, kind of thinking it through. Like, "I'm not the only one who needs help in this situation; everyone needs help in a certain situation. You know, maybe I need some help with getting a ride somewhere or having someone read me this document. Well, that person might be really awful at using computers or something, and they might need my help with that." You know, really just kind of stepping back and realizing that we're all interdependent has definitely helped me with that. It's definitely a work in progress, right? But I think even something like Aira has been liberating for me. I kind of feel like, "Okay, I'm paying these people, this isn't someone's obligation that they maybe are doing out of guilt or what have you." You know. "This is a bit of an, if you will, sort of like an assistant relationship." So that's helped with that, but I think even just, if I'm asking a co-worker, or a friend or something, I just kind of have to sometimes remind myself, like, "Don't think about it so much. Just do it, and get the help, and move on with what needs to be done, accomplish what you need to accomplish, and something will somehow come up and present itself where I will be able to do something for that other person as well." And just to kind of remind myself, I'm not any less worthy of a person since I've now asked for help.
Chris: I love that answer.
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Chris: Is there anything that's coming up next for Maria that you want to share with the audience?
Maria: Yeah, I definitely see myself continuing to work in where I am now, at my current job. I do like it quite a bit. And my volunteering with the American Council of the Blind, we'll kind of see where that goes. I've been treasurer of certain special interest affiliates, and it always kind of seems like new opportunities or different opportunities come my way with that over time, and so I'll be interested to see where that goes, but I guess for a closing, I want to say, you know, anyone can do this. Anyone can be successful if you have the right attitude, and also the right company around you. So I'd definitely suggest for people to take a look at people around them, or form a network of people who they aspire to be like, and spend time around them, and also to really believe in themselves. I know it's hard, there are people around us who think, "Oh my gosh you're blind, how do you use the phone? And how do you get dressed? And I couldn't imagine living if I was blind," and such. But, you know, we have to reclaim our own narrative, find people who uplift us, and really have that belief in ourselves, because we can do it. Maybe we're doing it in a different way, but you know what, we can. And our blindness is an opportunity. It's an opportunity to have a specific journey, it's an opportunity to become more resourceful, to, I would say, even look inward and have some awareness that they might not be able to as easily and such. It gives us an opportunity to provide a different perspective to people around us. I kind of like the term "different ability," yes there's the disabling aspect of society, but it really is giving us an ability in different ways, and so I think I want to continue the way I am now, and see where life takes me, and Anyone who's feeling discouraged out there, I would definitely just say that sometimes you never know how things will turn up, but you know, kind of keep at it, one step at a time, and things will fall into place in the way that they are meant to. And I think there's just no better time to be blind with all the technology and such out there. And I hope that my humble story serves as inspiration to someone, or at least even just some kind of a pick-me-up, that here's one person that has made it, and encourages people to try and work toward fulfilling their own goals and aspirations.
Chris: Is there anything I should have asked you that I didn't think to ask you before we go?
Maria: I don't think so. I think we've pretty well covered it.
Chris: I think we have too. Maria, thanks for being here. It's been a real pleasure. I wish you the best of luck, and I'm sure that you will be an inspiration to somebody, and I appreciate it very, very much.
Maria: Well thank you, Chris. Thanks for having me. It's been fun.
Male Announcer: We hope you've enjoyed this week's episode of the Penny Forward podcast. Penny Forward is a community of people who are blind, their families and friends, who share an interest in financial independence. Visit
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