I left Ann Arbor for New York City at the beginning of 1982, planning to work for a few years before returning to graduate school to study American history. Twenty-four years later, I am still engaged in step one of my two step plan.
Armed with little more than my honors degree from the Program in American Culture and the very limited business experience I had gained as a board member of the student housing coops at Michigan, after several months of temporary jobs, I was hired into a training program at Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company, which was one of the largest banks in U.S. For the next nine months, surrounded by the recently minted MBAs and BBAs who I had managed to avoid during my four years in Ann Arbor, I learned accounting, finance, economics and credit analysis. When I completed the coursework, the bank assigned me to work with small businesses. Over the next twenty years, through positions at four major financial institutions in three different cities (New York, Boston, Chicago and again New York), I worked with businesses of all sizes from newly formed startups to large national companies (in one case, I helped a newly formed startup grow into a large national company). Along the way, I increasingly focused on media and telecommunications companies. I had the opportunity to raise and invest funds (both debt and equity) in both the private and public markets, and even got paid just for providing advice (hopefully good advice) to my clients. Three years ago, I left the large corporate world and, after taking some time off to be with my family, take guitar lessons, visit friends and do some volunteer work, I joined a small investment bank with seven partners (including me) and only one half-time employee, which has been a very welcome change from working for larger institutions.
Paralleling my professional career, I have had the good fortune to devote considerable time to several not-for-profit organizations. Most significantly, for the past fourteen years, I have served on the board of American Jewish World Service, a non-sectarian international development organization dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease in the developing world; I have been Chair of AJWS for the past four years as it has grown its annual revenue from $5 million to more than $25 million. Today, AJWS supports more than 200 grassroots partner organizations in 35 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America providing funds, technical assistance and skilled volunteers. We also have domestic education and advocacy programs focusing on the issue of poverty in the developing world. Leading AJWS through this period of incredible growth has been a challenging and deeply rewarding experience.
So what does any of this have to do with the Program in American Culture? When I arrived in New York in 1982, I had never even heard of investment banking and I had no tangible business skills. Thanks to my education in the Program in American Culture (and at the University of Michigan in general), I did have several important assets: the ability to think about complex problems using a variety of different approaches; a broad interest in learning as much as I could about almost any new topic; a passion for ideas, argument and research (who knew a senior honors thesis about an obscure journalist from the 1930s would be good preparation for underwriting high yield bonds); and the ability to write well. I quickly discovered most of the technical skills were easy to learn (calculating the internal rate of return on an investment is quite simple if you have a couple of years of high school algebra and someone explains the basic concept to you – it became even easier after the introduction of Microsoft Excel). Far more difficult to develop are the ability to analyze problems, ask probing questions, speak with clients about a broad range of topics, argue a position convincingly, and communicate clearly; the Program in American Culture (particularly Alan Wald, John King and David Papke) helped me develop these critical skills.
I currently live in New York City with my wife (Sarah Allen, a painter and an alumna of the University of Michigan’s History Department) and son (Jacob). I would welcome a chance to reconnect to my classmates from the Program in American Culture (I can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org). Perhaps we can discuss how I can start working on step two of my long range plan.