Sitting in a course called Portfolio Management, the New Jersey native said he just “knew what I wanted to do,” so he asked the professor how to get started. The brazen suggestion worked, and Brett, who first enrolled at Fordham in 1977, left college to begin his finance career.
“I started on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and I worked there for two years,” he said. “Then, I got a job at Morgan Stanley [as an equity derivative sales trader], and that’s when my career path took hold more clearly.”
Now Brett, who describes his life in three phases—learning, earning, and returning—is retired. After two decades on Wall Street, during which he finally completed the Fordham business degree he began pursuing in the late ’70s, Brett is focusing on service. He’s heavily involved with the Equus Effect, a Connecticut-based nonprofit that uses equine therapy to help military veterans and others better respond to and recover from stress and trauma.
Knowing he wanted to work in business but unsure which sector of the industry was for him, Brett decided to major in accounting at Fordham. But after taking two accounting courses, he said he remembers thinking, “Oh my God, I don’t want anything to do with this!” He changed his major to finance, and it ended up being just what he was looking for. But deciding on a major wasn’t his only challenge as a student.
“College was tough for me,” he said. “I had to work a lot of jobs and I was working late at night—some of these jobs waiting tables—while I went to school. It was hard to really balance my life.” At one point, Brett was even commuting to campus by bus from Bergen County, New Jersey.
Brett was just three courses shy of graduating when he decided to jumpstart his career. He didn’t return to Fordham to complete his degree until the mid-‘90s, when he said he realized it was “kind of silly not to” finish. “I wanted the degree. Nobody on Wall Street cared whether I had a degree or not, but I wanted to do it just for my own benefit.”
He finished in 1995 and took part in the University’s 150th commencement ceremony, which featured Mary Robinson, then president of Ireland, as the keynote speaker.
“It was one of those beautiful days out on Edwards Parade, and here I was 30-something and I was hanging out with a bunch of 20-somethings getting my degree,” Brett said. “It was a big deal; I was really glad I did that.”
In 1984, Brett began working at Morgan Stanley, where he started to feel that he might want to do something more than what he did working on the trading floor.
“I had a sense that maybe I could have a more structured and prolonged career,” he said. “The floor was kind of nutty. I had become a broker and then a trader, and then I learned about stock options and that was the thing that really helped me through the rest of my career.”
Brett stayed at Morgan Stanley until 1993, when he made a lateral move to Paine Webber, another investment bank. In 1995, he went to work at UBS, where he served as a managing director until he retired in 2005.
As Brett’s Wall Street career came to an end, he began trying to find his next path, which he said has ended up being “not any one singular thing, but a bunch of things mostly involved in service.” Today, he serves on the boards of several organizations, including Sharon Audubon Center, which manages three nature sanctuaries in northwest Connecticut, and the Little Guild, an animal rescue in Cornwall, Connecticut. Brett also serves as a hospice volunteer and a volunteer artist mentor for high school students, and he is a certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor.
He also found his way back to Fordham, this time as an alumnus. “Fordham just creeped into the picture in the last few years—not in any big way, just a means of staying in touch,” he said. “I sign up for some webinars and [events]that they have at the Gabelli School. They have these really interesting speakers and lectures and things like that on a range of topics.”
Amid it all is his work with the Equus Effect, where his current position is best described as jack-of-all-trades.
The Equus Effect’s four-session curriculum is designed to help veterans better address life’s challenges through purposeful engagement with horses. Working together in a peer-to-peer format, facilitators teach veterans the principles of horsemanship, which can then be applied to help them “gain the trust, respect, and willingness to collaborate” with the people they live and work with in their daily lives, according to the organization’s website. “We believe that If veterans can learn to use emotions the way horses do—as information to help them stay alive, set healthy boundaries, support one another in times of need—there would be no need to stay stuck in the stories we often tell about what we might have done differently in the past or what may or may not happen in the future.”
Brett has been involved with the Equus Effect since its inception. His partner, Jane Strong, co-founded the organization and serves as its lead facilitator and executive director. He said she came up with the idea after reading a statistic about the number of veterans who die by suicide on any given day.
“I helped her get not-for-profit status and round up some people for a board, and then I was their very first board president,” Brett said. “Like a lot of things like this, it starts out as a mom-and-pop kind of thing, and then it developed into what it is now. She’s made great progress.”
Since then, he’s served as a de facto consultant, helping to fundraise and foster new connections in a way “that’s very involved but in a quieter way.” He also occasionally fills in as a part-time instructor.
“I would say, at this point, my life is all about being civic-minded. My community really matters to me.”