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

The Skinny:

  • 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.  
  • She is the Vice President of Solutions at Sayari, where she leads a team of financial crime investigators and public data experts. Sayari is a technology company helping banks, corporates and governments better calculate and calibrate financial crime risks.
  • 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 on the complexities of international sanctions regimes. The eventual answer would set her on a path informing the U.S. government’s top military and intelligence agencies of some of the world’s worst threats. 

By Brian Monroe
bmonroe@acfcs.org
August 25, 2022 

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?

I have learned a lot about Russian oligarchs recently.

As our customers and partners have turned their attention to sanctions on Russia, I’ve had the opportunity to dive deeper into the typologies of those illicit networks and the data available to help untangle them.

They tend to be complicated, so it’s been very interesting. One specific thing: Luxembourg is a favorite spot for shell companies.

What is something about you that not many people know?

My favorite pastime is stand-up paddle boarding.

Water, activity, sun, quiet – what’s not to love? I lived for years in Florida and California, which are ideal paddle-boarding spots.

I still go when I can here in Virginia, but it’s just not the same.

What do you do in your current role

As Sayari’s Vice President of Solutions, I lead our technical and subject matter experts across three functions: Solution Consulting, Training and Investigations, and Technical Services.

Sayari provides instant global visibility on commercial networks and complex corporate structures.

The Solutions team works closely with customers to help them fully leverage that visibility, so global investigations become not only faster, but far more effective.

I oversee these activities, providing strategic guidance and directly advising our most complex customer engagements. I spend a lot of time thinking about creative ways that public data can uncover everything from money laundering to sanctions evasion to tax fraud.

I also participate in our public Master Class webinar series, where we teach many of these methodologies.

I have been with Sayari since its founding almost eight years ago and have had numerous roles over the years. This is the most exciting.

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?

Way back in the day, 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?”

Shockingly helpful with algebra, shockingly helpful with real life. 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.

Otherwise, I fall back on Dwight Schrute’s 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.”

What is the worst advice you have ever received?

When I was very new in my career, an older professional woman I admired told me I’d have more success if I played down my youth and femininity, particularly in how I dressed.

I understand why she said it, but I don’t agree.

My experience has shown the opposite. So much of professional success comes down to confidence, and you can’t be confident (or memorable) if you aren’t being yourself.

What would you say are the most important attributes for someone in your position to succeed?

Brilliance in the basics, as my Marine Corps officer husband likes to say. How well you do the small things directly impacts how well you do the big things.

Attention to detail is critical.

Also humility. The financial crime space is changing so rapidly – the nature of the threats, criminal and high-risk typologies, data availability, compliance and investigations technology – everything.

You need to stay humble, remember that you don’t (can’t!) know everything, and look for what you can learn from others.

How has (compliance, investigations, etc.) changed and evolved during your career?

The proliferation of data has fundamentally changed how investigations are conducted.

It’s been particularly interesting to see the understanding and appreciation for public data grow over the past decade.

We have very different conversations with customers now than when Sayari started eight years ago – less explanation of what public data is and why it matters, more discussion of how to leverage it for specific investigative workflows.

What do you see as the key financial crime challenges in your role or in the sector overall?

Fighting financial crime requires transparency into corporate ownership and control, but that transparency remains elusive.

Beneficial ownership registers are few and far between.

Many jurisdictions – including notoriously many offshores – don’t publicly disclose who owns what. Even corporate registries that are open can’t be freely accessed and have search barriers that prevent you from looking at the data the way you need to.

And criminals take advantage of all of this.

We can’t afford to wait for governments to expand access to corporate data, so our challenge becomes: how do we employ technology to better leverage the data we do have and gain the insights we need today? 

What motivated you to become a financial crime professional?

I didn’t actively pursue a career combating financial crime.

Initially, I was motivated by a desire for national service and an interest in public data. In my early career, I saw first-hand how much public data was available and how poorly (at that time) it was understood or utilized.

I started pursuing opportunities to unite open source and proprietary/classified datasets. This naturally led to the financial crime space, because public data – particularly corporate records – are particularly helpful against those problem sets.

Is there anything that surprised you in your current role?

I am constantly surprised in my role! That is one of the joys of working at a growing company with smart people in a rapidly evolving space. 

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I love working with Sayari’s Solutions team. 

As experienced investigators, they understand the power of public data to transform global investigations and the fight against financial crime, and they’re driven to share that knowledge.

They bring curiosity, creativity, and a wealth of expertise.

Their energy is contagious, and it’s rewarding to see them channel that energy toward enabling more effective and efficient global investigations for our customers.

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?

My 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. I had to email him because I chickened out on asking my questions in person during the class.

So my advice: don’t be shy. Always reach out, always ask questions.

For professionals with 5-10 years of experience, what advice would you give them to help advance to senior management roles?

Always say yes to interesting opportunities, especially if they are surprising or outside your comfort zone.

Invest in relationships with your coworkers. They will give you real feedback, advocate for you, and provide specific and helpful advice.

If you have a specific career goal in mind, approach it like any other task.

Look at that next-level role you want, identify any skills or experience you don’t have, and think creatively about how to get them.