Posted by Brian Monroe - firstname.lastname@example.org 08/25/2022
ACFCS Member Spotlight: For Sayari’s Jessica Abell, unasked question leads to quest to better uncover illicit finance by bridging divide between investigations, intelligence, rising data capacity vs. enduring corporate opacity
For Jessica Abell, the irony doesn’t escape her that her career thus far has been a quest to answer the question: are certain actions, transactions and reactions to geopolitical power dynamics by a given entity a threat to national security.
Abell is the Vice President of Solutions at Sayari, where she leads a team of financial crime investigators and public data experts.
She has more than a decade of experience investigating complex illicit financial networks in and out of government, with a focus on developing innovative methods to exploit open-source data, a perfect fit when she started Sayari nearly eight years ago.
Sayari is a technology company helping banks, corporates and governments better calculate and calibrate financial crime risks.
It does so through a suite of advanced graph analytics and a growing database of nearly two billion documents, just under one billion companies and risk profiles on some half a billion key leaders.
In her role, Abell sits at the intersection of investigations and intelligence, capturing and quantifying the risks of threat actors, including criminal syndicates, terror groups and opulent oligarchs.
Not easy task orders as these groups have become experts at exploiting persistent gaps in corporate opacity to shield and move sullied value.
They have done this even as historic data leaks like the Paradise and Pandora Papers have revealed fresh insight on the tricks and tactics by the guardians, gatekeepers and guides of shadow wealth.
The financial lubricators of oily oligarchs have in recent months taken center stage as sanctions targeting Russian powerbrokers and Putin cronies have soared in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine.
These designations, targeting individuals and industries, present both challenges and opportunities for public investigators and private data divinators – with more data available to find hidden connections, but also more pressure by authorities to uncover ties to newly blacklisted denizens.
But for someone who has cut her teeth on the sharpness of inquiries and depth and accuracy of answers, it is paradoxical that it all started for Abell with an unasked question.
Her first “job” in the field was an internship working on Iranian counter-threat finance issues.
“I landed that internship after emailing some subject-matter questions to a guest speaker who had spoken about sanctions compliance and enforcement in a class I was taking,” she said.
“I had to email him because I chickened out on asking my questions in person during the class,” Abell said.
Not surprisingly, some of her best advice to job seekers in a field devoted to revealing secrets and tracking the secretive: “Don’t be shy. Always reach out, always ask questions.”
Since then, Abell has more than found her voice, having to speak at some of the highest levels of government agencies on some of the most complex and high-profile challenges in the financial crime investigations sphere.
Prior to Sayari, she consulted for the interagency Counter ISIL Finance Cell and researched threat networks in support of U.S. government clients at the Institute for Defense Analyses.
She has briefed her work to senior leadership across the public and private sectors, including in the US intelligence community; combatant commands; Departments of Defense, Treasury, and State; and the National Security Council.
Abell has done this while staying true to herself, not adjusting for what may or may not be in other people’s heads, amplifying authority through authenticity.
One of the secrets to her success: just as ruthlessly scrutinizing herself and her actions as she does with analyzing data and screening outputs – a dynamic spanning back to grade school.
“My sixth-grade math teacher drilled into my head that, whenever you think you have the answer to a math problem, you need to stop and ask, ‘But does this answer make sense?’”
Such a stratagem is “shockingly helpful with algebra, shockingly helpful with real life,” Abell said.
“Before I commit to a decision – particularly if it is complicated, time-sensitive, or process-driven – I try to pause, take a step back, and ask whether that course of action actually makes sense. This has caught so many mistakes.”
She also knows the importance of humbleness and not taking yourself too seriously in a sector full of corporate titles and military ranks, egos and expectations of respect and decorum.
“Otherwise, I fall back on Dwight Schrute’s [a character on the hit show, ‘The Office’] best advice: ‘Don’t be an idiot. Whenever I’m about to do something, I think, ‘Would an idiot do that?’ And if they would, I do NOT do that thing.’”
Abell was kind enough to share some of her knowledge and skills in our latest ACFCS Member Spotlight:
What is one thing - industry-related or not - that you learned in the past month?
What is something about you that not many people know?
What do you do in your current role
What does your career trajectory in financial crime look like?
No idea! Right now, I’m focused on the challenges in front of me.
I can say that I will continue to follow my so-far-successful career strategy of saying yes to surprising opportunities, pursuing meaningful work with good people, and ensuring my professional life supports (and does not disadvantage) my family.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
What is the worst advice you have ever received?
What would you say are the most important attributes for someone in your position to succeed?
How has (compliance, investigations, etc.) changed and evolved during your career?
What do you see as the key financial crime challenges in your role or in the sector overall?
What motivated you to become a financial crime professional?
Is there anything that surprised you in your current role?
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
How did you get your first job in the field and what advice what you give other job seekers to land their first position in compliance?
For professionals with 5-10 years of experience, what advice would you give them to help advance to senior management roles?
See What Certified Financial Crime Specialists Are Saying
"The CFCS tests the skills necessary to fight financial crime. It's comprehensive. Passing it should be considered a mark of high achievement, distinguishing qualified experts in this growing specialty area."
KENNETH E. BARDEN
"It's a vigorous exam. Anyone passing it should have a great sense of achievement."
(CFCS, Official Superior
de Cumplimiento Cidel
Bank & Trust Inc. Nueva York)
"The exam tests one's ability to apply concepts in practical scenarios. Passing it can be a great asset for professionals in the converging disciplines of financial crime."
(CFCS, Royal Band of
"The Exam is far-reaching. I love that the questions are scenario based. I recommend it to anyone in the financial crime detection and prevention profession."
(CFCS, CAMS Lead Compliance
Trainer, FINRA, Member Regulation
Training, Washington, DC)
"This certification comes at a very ripe time. Professionals can no longer get away with having siloed knowledge. Compliance is all-encompassing and enterprise-driven."
CFCS, CAMS, CFE, CSAR
Director, Global Risk
& Investigation Practice
FTI Consulting, Los Angeles