Discipline, focus, perseverance — building a thriving advisory practice takes all that, and more. So does dancing with the likes of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and The Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Indeed, applying those very same qualities has helped former 15-year professional dancer Kristen Irby to make a striking career shift from dance to finance.
With National Financial Network in New York City, he serves a wide range of clients, including attorneys, luxury builders, an NFL coach, artists and stay-at-home moms managing family finances.
The engaging Irby, 41, who began as a child actor in his native Chicago, is part of a seven-member team managing about $20 million in client assets.
Three years an FA, he exited a successful dance career on international stages while still performing at a high level. A fractured leg requiring surgery a few years earlier prompted him to reassess his life and face facts: A dancer’s career lacks longevity.
That meant he needed to acquire a new profession. But little did Irby imagine his next career would be giving financial advice.
What sparked his interest in being an advisor was learning “the narrative behind numbers” and to look beyond them, he recalls. These lessons came while working as a junior analyst in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Management & Budget during his final semesters of New York University graduate school.
He had enrolled there — after leaving dance and studying for a year at the Fashion Institute of Technology — to acquire a brand-new skill set. In 2015, he received a master’s degree in performing arts administration.
The following year he joined National Financial Network, whose BD is Park Avenue Securities, a Guardian Life Insurance Company of America subsidiary.
Based in Lower Manhattan, Irby is available to his clients — average age 40 — seven days a week to help them with short-term money decisions as well as long-term planning critical to future financial health. Insurance is an important part of the mix.
Prospecting is key for Irby, who, at the start, approached his natural market of friends but has since expanded his reach to include networking as a member of the U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce and the Spain-U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and he is deeply involved in the African American community. Speaking at real estate agents’ continuing education courses also draws prospects.
In practical terms, an FA’s work is of course light-years away from that of professional dancer. Irby performed with companies including Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Parsons Dance and the Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco), and lived and danced in Japan and Italy. His resume also highlights a co-starring role in the feature film “Mr. Brown,” in which his partner was a former Bolshoi Ballet soloist.
Now a member of the Joyce Theater’s Young Leaders Circle, he sometimes takes clients to see Joyce dance performances as his guest.
Though the achiever is committed to his new career, Irby was happy to receive an invitation to dance at Philadanco’s 50th anniversary gala next year.
“I’ll always be a dancer at heart,” he says.
Here are excerpts from ThinkAdvisor’s recent phone interview with Irby:
THINKADVISOR: What was the biggest challenge in moving from dance to finance?
KRISTEN IRBY: I was really concerned that people wouldn’t take me seriously knowing that I danced professionally for so long. I thought that would work against me in acquiring the types of clients that would help me achieve the success I wanted. But it’s been the complete opposite.
When I tell [prospects] I’m a former dancer, they raise their eyebrows, get excited and want to start talking about dance. Some tell me about their own pursuits of an artistic endeavor when they were children. Then I ask, “Can we go back and talk about business now?” Some people will say, “Well, I’m already your client. We should go to a museum one day.”
Why did you become an FA?
When I was a young dancer, I thought I was a god — invincible — and that I would dance forever. But I broke my leg, had surgery and started to come to terms with my mortality, [acknowledging] that one day I was going to have to stop dancing. But I went through a lot of emotional struggles because I didn’t know how to do anything other than dance.
So you enrolled in an advertising and marketing program at the Fashion Institute of Technology and then were accepted to New York University’s performing arts administration program. What was the bridge to financial services?
At NYU, I was required to take a number of accounting and financial management courses — and I was surprised that I did very well.
While you were finishing your master’s, you were hired as a paid intern at the New York Mayor’s Office of Management & Budget. How was that experience?