Bellaria Jimenez was just 7 years old when her family left Venezuela for North Bergen, a New Jersey township just across the Hudson River from New York.
Ms. Jimenez, who heads three MassMutual brokerage branches in New Jersey, remembers her parents planning a short-term stay, just long enough to study art in Manhattan.
But political and economic turmoil seized Venezuela following the family's departure in 1978, making a return to Caracas seem all but impossible. Ms. Jimenez, an only child, says watching her parents dealing with financial troubles as first-generation immigrants ultimately pushed her into the financial-advice industry.
"Just seeing the struggles my parents went through really fueled my passion for this industry," she said.
Today, Ms. Jimenez, 48, is president and owner of MassMutual Tri State. She oversees 135 full-time employee advisers split between three New Jersey offices, in Iselin, Paramus and Lawrenceville, as well as 50 independent brokers and 25 support staff members.
Ms. Jimenez, who lives in Cream Ridge, N.J., got her start at brokerage First Investors Corp. (now Foresters Financial Services Inc.) after graduating from college. Breaking into the business wasn't easy, she said.
"I was very young, very inexperienced, had no market," she said. "It took me some time before I could really get my business up and running."
Ms. Jimenez worked her way through various management positions at First Investors and then at MetLife Inc., eventually becoming a managing director overseeing 300 advisers across 10 locations in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania at MetLife.
"It's been the best thing that's happened because it allowed me to take all my years of experience and hard work and put it into something I own," she said. "I'm not baby-sitting someone else's work."
In high school, Ms. Jimenez worked part-time with her father, who did art design for various newspapers, including weekly Spanish-language newspaper El Especial. Her mother worked in factories and then sold real estate.
Both parents were skilled realist painters — her father was fascinated with people, while her mother's interests lay in landscapes. But the art bug didn't transfer to Ms. Jimenez.
"I can't even draw stick figures," she said. "I found another passion in the numbers area."
After graduating from high school, Ms. Jimenez worked for a year for an aluminum import-export business. She hadn't planned on going to college until her boss, the company's female owner and Ms. Jimenez's first mentor, convinced her otherwise.
"It was my first experience of seeing women in power," she said. "I realized women could have different roles. They could be in a position of giving orders and being the person in charge."
While at New Jersey City University, Ms. Jimenez went to class from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then worked an eight-hour shift at Newark Airport for Continental Airlines (now part of United Airlines) from 3 to 11 p.m. She continued full-time with the airline after college to make extra money while she tried to get her advisory business off the ground.
"I was passionate. I got so inspired," Ms. Jimenez said.
Originally an international business student, Ms. Jimenez became interested in switching to finance after driving her dad's "old beat-up Buick to school" every day. The car's radio only picked up two AM stations, one of which broadcast a financial talk-radio show featuring a man and woman discussing investments.
"I was constantly mesmerized listening to them," Ms. Jimenez said. "I knew this was the industry I wanted to be in."
Ms. Jimenez volunteers extensively, as a financial literacy teacher for young people and adults and as a member of Junior Achievement's Central New Jersey board. Her work on financial literacy led her to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange during financial literacy week in 2010. She's also worked to further women's interests, founding a New Jersey chapter of the group Women in Insurance & Financial Services.
Ms. Jimenez also co-authored a book, "The Team Game: How Your Business Can Dominate Year After Year" (Rocky Brook Media, 2019), as a way to help coach solo advisers on how to build financial-planning teams within an organization.
"Whenever I can give back, I do that. When I was in high school, I didn't have mentors or anyone to look up to," Ms. Jimenez said. "Maybe I'll have an impact on one person in the room. To me, that's a success."