By Andrew Cohen
A month after Jelena McWilliams ’02 arrived in California as an exchange student from the former Yugoslavia, war broke out in her native country. A few months after her Pan Am flight to San Francisco, the iconic airline went bankrupt.
She went to her host family in Stockton with just $500, attended senior year of high school more than 6,000 miles from home, and struggled to fit in.
But knowing McWilliams, as Berkeley Law students learned during her April 4 lunchtime talk presented by the school’s Federalist Society chapter, is knowing that self-doubt is no match for her relentless drive and belief in the American dream. Now chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the agency responsible for overseeing the U.S. banking sector and deposit insurance, McWilliams shared a remarkable career journey.
“I tell my 17-year-old daughter, ‘You have the privilege of being born in the greatest country in the world,’” she says. “I’ve been to 60-something countries. As someone not born here, I came to the United States for the first time believing for better or worse that this really was the land of opportunity. I’ve always carried that with me.”
When it came time to apply to college, she was down to her last $50. “The Berkeley application cost $40 and the Stanford application was $60,” McWilliams recalled.
She attended UC Berkeley, driving more than 80 miles each way from Stockton because she could not afford to live near campus. She sold knives door to door and used cars in a dilapidated downtown, while also working the night shift at Blockbuster to make ends meet, buying a $1 box of white rice each day and loading it with soy sauce. “I probably have MSG running through my veins,” she joked.
McWilliams graduated from UC Berkeley with highest honors in 1999. While it was a tough decision between law school and business school, she noted, “You can be a lawyer and do business work, but you can’t be a business person and do law. That’s called malpractice.” At graduation, she received her Berkeley Law diploma while carrying her 7-month-old daughter, and soon set out on a swerving ride.
Unpredictable path to prominence
McWiliams worked at Morrison & Foerster’s Palo Alto office as a summer associate, and had a full-time offer. But after 9/11 and its impact on the economy, firms were withdrawing offers to a fair number of incoming first-year associates. With a child and student loan payments, her heart sank when the managing partner called.
“I was at Target buying diapers,” she said. “He asked what I thought about being reassigned to another office to do labor and employment work. I said, ‘I want so badly to do mergers and acquisitions work in your corporate group but if you have absolutely no other choice, I will do labor and employment. He said, ‘Okay, we’ll keep you in the corporate group.’” And so her legal career—and its hard-working tone—began.
McWilliams took every project she could, worked long hours, and was soon enlisted to help on major corporate deals. In her third year at the firm, she went to a conference in Washington, D.C.
“I’d always had a political bug and I was in awe of D.C. and national politics,” she said. “I walked to the Lincoln Memorial, looked out across the reflecting pool, saw the Congressional dome in the distance, and said to myself, ‘This is my town, I’ve got to be here.’”
In the midst of a divorce, McWilliams brought her parents, daughter, cat, and 12 suitcases to D.C. She had just bought a house in Silicon Valley seven months earlier, but her sense of destiny proved too strong to budge.
Hired by Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells), McWilliams worked tirelessly and said she saw 22 sunrises from the office in June 2006. Doing the same type of work she had done in Silicon Valley, however, McWilliams perused the usajobs.gov website one night in 2007.
A week later, she took a job—and a 47-percent pay cut—to work for the Federal Reserve on consumer protection in banking issues.
McWilliams quickly navigated a steep learning curve as the 2008 financial “Armageddon was coming.” Still wanting to scratch that political itch, she convinced her boss in 2010 to assign her to a detail with Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, an optimal match for her moderate Republican sensibilities.
In 2011, McWilliams was on the Senate floor as the Senate failed to approve an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling, which led to subsequent credit rating downgrade for the United States. In a packed chamber, with the clock approaching midnight, McWilliams told Snowe it was her birthday—and the 20th anniversary of her arrival in the U.S.
“I said, ‘If someone had told me 20 years ago I’d be on the Senate floor on a night like this, I would say they’re crazy but that there’s no place I would rather be,’” McWilliams said. “Senator Snowe smiled and said, ‘I can think of a million places I’d rather be.’”
After Snowe announced her retirement in 2012, a chance encounter in the Capitol building elevator led to McWilliams’s job on the Senate Banking Committee, where she served for five years.
McWilliams cited “pure luck and pure timing” for becoming chief legal officer at Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati, the nation’s 12th largest bank, in 2017. She half-heartedly agreed to interview for the deputy general counsel position, but in the few days between accepting the interview and flying out, the general counsel position became available. The bank offered her the top job instead.
“I never planned to become a general counsel, but my willingness to go into uncertain waters paid off,” she said. “I led a legal department of 100 lawyers and professional staff that was in complete disarray.”
Nominated by President Trump to run the FDIC after the initial nominee withdrew for family reasons, McWilliams was overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate last year. She showed up to work with 256 brownies she’d baked the night before.
“I promised to do a nationwide listening tour because it’s crucial that we bring the regulators to the country and not expect everyone to come to DC to convey their grievances,” McWilliams said. “I’m looking to reduce our regulatory burdens, and you can’t move an agency where you want without winning the hearts and minds of your colleagues. I make sure I’m accessible, and I’m grateful for this opportunity.”
In closing, McWilliams offered advice to those looking to enter public service. “When you graduate from law school, take that job at a law firm, and use it as an opportunity to learn how to be a good lawyer and pay off your student debt,” she said. “Live within your means so that you can figure out what it is that you’re passionate about, and if it’s public service, go do it.”