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Discovering how others succeeded

Paul A. McCraven has a high-ranking position at First Niagara Financial Group, as senior vice president of community development.

But behind every lofty title is a story. McCraven’s first job in high school was working at a parking lot. He wanted to be a basketball player but realized that his height was lacking. For a time, he was drawn to a career in the entertainment industry, before finding his way into finance after earning an MBA.

Looking back, McCraven’s sixth-grade teacher made an impression on him. “He believed in me and said, ‘Paul, you can do great things if you just focus and do well in school,’ and kind of sent me off to junior high school,” he said. “So I would say it started early, and that’s been very important.”

McCraven shared his background with about 30 Hutchinson-Central Technical High School students who came to the bank’s Larkinville headquarters Tuesday to learn about careers in finance. The idea was to expose the seniors to job opportunities beyond what they might see in a branch. Four other First Niagara employees joined McCraven on a panel.

The discussion was as much personal as professional. Prompted by questions from the students and moderator Jennifer J. Parker, the employees talked about opening their first bank accounts, their role models and whether they attended public or private schools. They explained how their career ambitions had shifted over time – from plans such as building Aston Martin cars or working as a flight attendant – as they discovered unexpected paths for themselves and adapted to life.

When Omar Torres was in graduate school, he dreamed of being a finance manager at an advertising firm. Instead, the Buffalo native applies his appreciation for numbers as a financial analyst for First Niagara.

“Ideas change,” Torres said. “As you grow not only in your education, you’ll also grow your career. You’ll be exposed to different things. Not that your dreams will necessarily change, but they will become more refined.”

The students visited First Niagara as part of the “Success Looks Like Me” role model program, organized by the Communities of Giving Legacy Initiative and sponsored by a First Niagara Foundation mentoring grant. The CGLI is a fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo. The role model program has previously connected students from low-income communities with other employers, including BlueCross BlueShield. Last fall, a group traveled to General Motors’ headquarters in Detroit to meet with high-ranking executives who are African-American.

The personal stories shared by businesspeople resonate with the students as they think about their own future, said Parker, chairwoman of Success Looks Like Me. “These students don’t need to know just what you do, but how you got there, and that they can do it, too.”

Royce Lobban, 17, said he had not considered a career in finance, but found the discussion eye-opening. “I found the panel was really diverse, and the backgrounds they came from, so they could speak to everyone in the room, whether you came from a little wealthier background or not,” Lobban said.

Computer programming is more his interest. “But coming from here, I can see how this connects sometimes with banking,” he said.

The students also toured the First Niagara branch in the Larkin at Exchange Building and had lunch with McCraven and other executives. He said he hoped the students would take away a broader view of banking.

“It’s not just the ATM machine,” he said. “There are people behind the bank, and careers they can pursue. There are opportunities out there.”