My destiny was supposed to be a piano playing prodigy who got straight A’s (and A+’s in Math and Science). I would become a brain surgeon who would do research that cured cancer. This is what it meant to be the only child of a doctor who volunteered for a parachute troop in the Vietnam War and a spicy beauty queen who was engaged to a famous war hero still listed as MIA. “Perfect” was the only way to be.
What actually happened was I quickly learned what was “perfect” for me. I challenged myself to always remain true to my strengths and happiness, which came down to, simply put, helping people. I hid from my piano teacher (literally), withdrew from my science courses and set out on my new path. While this path has evolved over time, one thing has always remained my guiding light – information.
With the help of two key people, I gained the courage to tell my parents I was dropping out of pre-med and setting a new course. The first was a manager at IBM, where I spent my summers interning. One day, he pulled me into his office and quite frankly told me that he thought I should consider law school – he saw me in a position of influence. A couple of months later, my English professor told me the same thing.
Ultimately, I would heed their advice, and somehow land in a place I would later realize was my ultimate dream job. On September 4, 2001, at age 24, I started working at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office (DANY).
One week later, the events of my life rapidly converged with the events of the world. There I was, in an office that exposed me to the deepest, dirtiest, darkest secrets of people all over Manhattan, while simultaneously trying to make sense of one of the most tragic events of our lifetime.
For the rest of my time at DANY (which was essentially my entire time at DANY) the one thing I sought was clarity. Clarity leads to answers, truth, and ultimately, progress. I was so obsessed with finding this clarity I earned the nickname “Leave-No-Stone-Unturned” Nguyen. I learned to ask all of the questions that would give me a clear picture of what happened. The more details, the better.
I asked questions that didn’t necessarily have answers. Looking back on it, this is how I knew I was successful at getting all possible information from of a source, be it a person or a piece of physical evidence. I was trying to break everything down into its most basic and simple form and then put it all back together from a different points of view. If a witness told me they were “standing on the corner,” I would need to know which corner, how long they were there, what direction they were facing, what they were looking at during various times, where they were going, why they were there, if they noticed the traffic light, the walk sign light, or how many people were on the corner... the list goes on. I needed to be able to re-enact that exact experience for myself so I could determine if there was anything I was missing.
I continued to ask questions, painting pictures and playing movies of crimes every day for different audiences - for judges in hearings, juries in trials, grand jurors and defense attorneys in plea bargaining negotiations. Like many other passionate young public servants, I wanted to focus on prosecuting sex crimes and homicides - the super high profile cases. I wanted to get the street-level bad guys off the streets.
And then it hit me. It wasn’t the street-level guys who needed my attention. Many ambitious and gifted prosecutors were on those cases. Far fewer were focused on the bad guys you couldn’t immediately see. The ones hidden behind numbers, computers, plastic cards and the fact that society didn’t yet view seemingly non-violent financial crimes as something requiring serious punishment.
For me, the quest to chase down digital and financial fingerprints became a challenge. It was a code I wanted to break, presenting questions I wanted to answer.
A new frontier.
In a world that was becoming more connected by the second, money was rapidly emerging as the new weapon of choice for many criminals. Just because there might not have been immediate blood shed didn’t mean no one ever got hurt. Think Madoff. Think drug cartels. Think human parts trafficking. Think modern-day slavery. All funded through various means of money laundering.
When the opportunity came for me to take my knowledge and experience to a large financial institution, I was extremely hesitant. I felt like leaving the public sector was taking me farther away from the front lines. It soon became clear, however, that this move would actually put me closer to the crime, presenting the opportunity to detect the flow of money movement earlier. I would have a whole new world of data at my disposal. The bad guys would be in my sight.
In January of 2008, I joined American Express to help build out the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU). Under the guidance of two of my closest mentors, I began to learn everything I know today about the industry and how to navigate the sometimes rocky terrain of combating financial crimes. They taught me how to fight for good in an environment that can all too often be consumed by evil.
Over the course of the next few years we built a team of gladiators, and together, we created process, organization, and tools. We fought for access to information, which allowed us to grow from five to over 300 strong. It also allowed us to establish strong relationships that kept us up to date on new developments in the company and in law enforcement. It allowed us to add value to areas of the business. Most importantly, it allowed us to keep the company as safe as possible.
After building a strong foundation of people and process, our team at Amex was given the very large task of re-envisioning our technology. It was with this mandate that I was first introduced to Enigma. We were presented with a chance to finally create a new machine, implementing all of the “wish list” items we’d been keeping over time. It was an opportunity to change the way we work – for the better. After putting together a dedicated SWAT team, speaking to more vendors and professionals than we ever had in my eight years at the company, whiteboarding day in and day out and working through detailed financing, we designed our dream machine. Despite its relatively small size, it was clear Enigma was the perfect partner with which to build this machine.
Through this process, I also gained clarity on where my career would go next.
Data is my new clarity.
It is clear to me that AML and Compliance professionals share my passion - we all want to protect and serve our financial system so that we can minimize and, one day, prevent bad outcomes. So many people have great ideas, solutions, and a way to move forward, but so few people have the time to truly dedicate to translate them into action.
My clarity at this moment is to move this mission forward. To continue asking questions and searching for answers. This time, with my weapon of choice - technology.
Now, after nearly a decade of building, fine-tuning, adjusting and collaborating with so many people in the industry, I’m taking my mission to the next level as Vice President of Compliance and Financial Crimes Solutions at Enigma. Harnessing the power of data and technology, we’re developing solutions that fit the problem, not finding the problem to fit the solution.
Technology is only as good as the thought and purpose behind it. Along with my colleagues at Enigma, I’m focused on the one thing that helps us find truth - data. Data is our bedrock. Our lens through which we see the world. We need to be responsible with how we handle it – how it’s gathered, managed, operationalized, enriched, and used. If we are good to it, we can do good with it. Ask questions. Get answers. Make decisions. Be better stewards. Help people.
Angel is Vice President of Compliance and Financial Crimes Solutions at Enigma.