B-School Insider Interview: Alumnus, Columbia Business School, Class of 2018

Periodically, mbaMission interviews business school students and alumni to gain insight into their experience attending top MBA programs. After earning a degree in economics and international relations from an Ivy League institution, this Columbia Business School alumnus spent several years with an investment bank in Asia. He then switched to private equity for a few years before moving to the States to pursue his MBA. (February 2019)

mbaMission: What led you to choose Columbia for your MBA?

Columbia Business School Alumnus: One factor is certainly New York. The school’s finance program, especially the Value Investing Program. I think those were the primary points: being in New York, finance focus, and really, it was the value investing principles that I was attracted to. Everything is a derivative of that. Going a little deeper, being in New York, I thought I would have a lot of access to different firms. I was in finance before, so I was very curious about working in finance in New York. Even if I didn’t get the opportunity to work here full time, at least I’d get a good sense of what it’s like in New York. Directly or indirectly, I knew this was probably the best place to do it. Secondly, in terms of the finance-focused curriculum, I liked the fact that they were not as stringent on the core requirements. I’ve heard certain schools are much more firm on core requirements. I was coming in with a good background in accounting and finance, so I did not want to spend any of my time going over the basics and wanted to really focus on what I was interested in learning, and that was definitely the case here. That was attractive.

Columbia Business School was touted as the birthplace of value investing, legendary investors like Warren Buffet, and even before that, his mentor Benjamin Graham. After that, there was Bruce Greenwald, who’s also a very well-recognized figure. And other notable alumni like Leon Cooperman, Mario Gabelli, Louis Bacon, Todd Combs. On the private equity side, there’s Henry Kravis at KKR, Lionel Pincus of Warburg Pincus, Robert Smith of Vista Equity Partners. I just knew that that was the direction I wanted to head into with finance investing, and this was, to me, a perfect fit.

mbaMission: Do you feel like the school met your expectations?

CBSA: My short answer is yes. I currently work at a hedge fund as an analyst, and my goal was to transition over to public equities from private equities, so I achieved that. The reason I was able to achieve that is, first of all, I was able to do more school-year internships. This was during my spring semester. I got my feet wet in public equities in a research role. Building on that, I was able to lead into a summer internship, and with that on my resume, I could apply more and hear more from public equities in that same role. Overall, I was able to build an experience because the school-year internship was an available option.

Ultimately, at the firm I work for, the portfolio manager is an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, who I met while I was his teaching assistant. I knew that Columbia has a lot of these adjunct professors who come and teach, and I took full advantage of that. So overall, I was able to transition into a public equities role. I think I was trained well to make that transition through the course work. Columbia gave me the opportunity to build that relationship, which I think would have been more difficult to do if I was outside of New York.

mbaMission: So you’d say you got from it what you were wanting to get?

CBSA: I think this is probably true for many other programs, too, which is you get out of it what you put into it and what you want to get out of it. I think I was on more of the heavy side of the workload, because I really pushed myself. I graduated with well above the 60 credits required to graduate, on top of doing internships and designing an independent study with a senior analyst at a prominent hedge fund in the city, who also was a graduate of Columbia Business School. I thought, for two years, I’m going to make the best out of it. Really, you choose two out of three, which is academics, work, and social life. I didn’t focus as much on the social bit; I focused on the other two, partly because I’m older, in the student population. I’m now 35, and I got there when I was 32 or 33, so I had a little different mentality coming in.

I was at a point where I didn’t really need to go to business school, but the fact that I did, I put a lot of things behind me, and I just wanted to make the best of it. If I was going to do it, I was going to really commit to focusing on the work—the schoolwork and the outside work. So I got everything I wanted to get out of the two years here. Having said that, I had a lot of friends who were done with recruiting for the internship, got their offer, and their two years became a paid vacation. That was good for them. That’s what they needed, and that’s what they wanted. In the end, they got exactly what they came for. Columbia could tolerate that.

On the other side, for people who were in the Value Investment Program, there were 40 of us—very driven, very passionate. I think there, you have 40 people who are really pushing themselves hard. So that was a unique experience. It does get competitive, I would say, but in a friendly way, pushing each other hard by bringing their A game to class every day. There’s a lot of energy; a lot of these students are living and dying these whole value investing principles. And there’s a lot of commonality between those of us who really embrace it, and we formed a very strong bond among the 40 students who were doing that program.

And I definitely stay in touch with them. And with the alumni, too, who went through the same program as us a couple years back. They appreciate it. They loved to come back and talk to us about how it was back in their day and how that experience has carried them in their careers. So it feels like if I meet a Columbia alumnus and say, “Hey, we’re both alumni of the same school,” I wouldn’t feel as deep of a connection, as opposed to saying, “Hey, I graduated from the Value Investing Program five years ago.”

I’m maybe putting it up way too much. It’s not like a frat society kind of thing, it’s not like a family thing, nobody outside of Columbia, or outside of the program, even, really understands it. This was a living hell for many of us for the last year, as second years. I was pulling all-nighters, on average two times per week, during my fall semester of second year. But people who have gone through it appreciate it and love to share their memories of it.

mbaMission: Sure. Did you have contact with anyone from the program when you were an applicant?

CBSA: There was an alumnus, class of 2009 or 2010. He worked in Hong Kong. He was a senior analyst at a very prominent hedge fund. So I met him, and I thought he was a great guy. He basically went through everything that I finally did. He said it was one of the best experiences he’d done. He was a career switcher, and he said that wouldn’t have happened without this sort of training. So I got a sense that this was where I wanted to be before coming to New York, before coming to Columbia. If I had not gotten into Columbia, I probably would not have done an MBA program at all.

mbaMission: If you didn’t need an MBA, what inspired you to get one?

CBSA: Three things. One, I wanted to explore what it’s like to work in public equities. That could be accomplished by moving directly, but secondly, I wanted to work in the U.S. I am not a citizen, and I did not see a path for me to go to New York, apart from an MBA. Because there’s the visa complication. And you know, if I’m not exposed to it, I’ll just never get the chance. The last thing was more personal. I was happy at my job. I was at a private equity firm, and I had been promoted to a post-MBA role. It was actually then, and it was very ironic, that I was thinking, “Oh, now I’m going to be doing this for the next seven to ten years. Do I really want to be here?”

While I was happy with the promotion, it just got me thinking. Do I really want to be doing this for a good part of my career, in the beginning? I had gotten married about a year before, and she was also working in finance. And both of us just said to each other, “Look, we barely spend time with each other.” I was traveling constantly, probably half my time I was spending on the road. So I needed to stop, take a break, and we’d try to spend more time together in New York. Less stress. She was a trader, a real high-intensity job. And we were kind of at a point where, you know what, let’s just step back, enjoy our lives a little bit. And considering the goals I had in mind, I thought an MBA would be the best choice.

mbaMission: How was her experience as the partner of a Columbia student?

CBSA: She was very accepting. She kind of had to stop her career in between. We always thought, okay, we can pick it up again after two years. But we had our baby in those two years, and that kind of derailed her going back to work for now. The school’s been very supportive with my wife, my better half. Obviously, there’s a big community of husbands and wives. There are a lot of events for them to attend, and the school’s very open about them joining us in class if they wish to, and attending events. Overall, it was very good for her. If there is a city your better half wishes to live in and explore while you get your MBA, New York is easily one of top three cities out there in the world. Expensive but worth the experience.

mbaMission: That’s great. Do you feel your experience was different from other students’ because you were an international student?

CBSA: International students, in the classroom, there is no difference. I think Columbia has one of the more international communities, not just in the MBA program, but overall, the whole school itself. It’s recruiting that’s tough, especially when you’re interviewing for smaller shops. If it’s a consulting, banking, or any other traditional OCR [on-campus recruiting] firm, they tend to be large enough that for them, sponsorship has never been a barrier, and they can move employees elsewhere if a U.S. visa does not work out.

As an international, I think it’s a common experience. I was targeting smaller investment firms, ones that don’t tend to have international offices. But one disadvantage is that Columbia has no concentration for your MBA. At some other schools, which I learned late, you can select different concentrations for your MBA, and certain ones qualify as a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] degree. That means three years of OPT [Optional Practical Training] as opposed to one. And that’s 3x the number of times you can apply for the H-1B visa. That gives employers more comfort, because if you miss the first one, you have the next two years to follow up. Hopefully, within those three years, you’ll get your H-1B. I don’t know all the schools that offer something similar, but that’s a huge advantage for international students. And that doesn’t apply to Columbia. Whoever now asks me, if they’re non-U.S. citizens, I tell them about this, that they’ve got to consider that.

mbaMission: I see. How would you characterize your Columbia classmates?

CBSA: Very friendly, very inclusive. Highly energetic and cooperative. I think I have only good things to say about my fellow students. Just in general, I didn’t come across anyone who was snobby, not a team player, or any of that. I think the school puts a huge emphasis on inclusiveness, whether that’s ethnicity, sexuality, however you’re different. I think the school does a great job of communicating with the student body on inclusiveness. The first week orientation is very energetic, very different. They almost forcefully create a very light, party-like, high-energy environment that almost forces students to be friendly to each other. I felt like it was a bit too much, but I think the school was really trying to make sure students feel like they’re at a good place and having a good time.

Having said all that, I don’t want to sound too condescending, but I thought the quality of some students lacked. I guess it was just, they came, they got the job or internship they wanted, they got the cool time out of it, but some students just didn’t really care. I was used to working in an investment banking, private equity environment, and when you work around that, they’re fierce; they’re very competitive. It was shocking to me that some people lacked the drive to really push themselves. I know your focus might be different and whatnot, but I expected more from some of the students I interacted with. When I talk to people at different MBA programs, for example, these people just sound like they’re more focused. Very driven, very passionate, very reward oriented, type A kinds of people. That’s not what I felt at Columbia. So there is a trade-off. Very inclusive, very open, but less competitive, less driven.

mbaMission: Interesting. Were there any particular professors or classes you had that you were really glad you took?

CBSA: It’s unfortunate that it was my year who had the last class with him, but Bruce Greenwald is a character. He’s a forceful character. He’s brilliant on his own. You do not want to challenge him—he’ll wave his cane at you. “Millennials don’t know anything. Good luck in your life, you miserable idiot.” That kind of directness. At certain points, you’re like, “Oh my God, he’s so not politically correct!” He’s such a stubborn, angry old man, but you have to respect his brilliance. That class was brilliant, if you were not the student he was picking on. And if he was picking on you, it was because you were not prepared for his class. It’s a fascinating learning experience. I have the highest respect for him. His presence at school drew in the biggest names in value investing. During my two years at Columbia, I got to see Seth Klarman, Li Lu, Mario Gabelli, and Todd Combs come to Bruce’s class as guest lecturers. Not for a big conference, but for a class—and they are not even based out of New York City. That’s a true reflection of the level of respect these top fund managers have for Bruce.

Joel Greenblatt is another one. He’s a legendary investor when it comes to special situation investing. It’s mind-blowing that he actually teaches a whole semester. That’s part of what drives a lot of students to apply to the Value Investment Program, these professors. Joel Greenblatt’s class is reserved only for students in the Value Investment Program. At other schools, you’re lucky to catch him at one of the big lectures that he’ll come give for an hour. Here, he’s grading your papers, giving you direct feedback, open office hours. One of his students within our batch actually got seed money from him to run his own investment fund after graduating. This kind of thing is unheard of from a school. Like Bruce, he brought in legendary fund managers to meet with students, including Howard Marks and Richard Pzena.

I should note, both Bruce and Joel are no longer teaching at Columbia Business School. But there is a deep bench of quality professors at Columbia, so applicants should not feel discouraged. For example, Michael Mauboussin’s “Security Analysis” class is a must. He is currently the director of research at BlueMountain Capital Management, and before that, head of Global Financial Strategies at Credit Suisse and chief investment strategist at Legg Mason. His writing is a must-read, his class is one of the toughest to get into.

Another class was with Efrem Kamen. He’s a PM [portfolio manager] and an adjunct professor. Great class, he teaches what he does for living, which is investing in innovative companies within the health care industry. He was an open book. He would be very bluntly telling students why he is short or long on an investment. He’s very passionate about what he does, and his fund is doing extremely well. This guy is brilliant, he’s so open, and he loves to mentor students and teach. That’s what I saw in him. I thought that was an amazing class. I can go on and on.

Kent Daniel, he’s a thought leader in the behavioral finance area. He’s taught at different schools, but at one point, he was the chief investment officer [CIO] of Quantitative Investment Strategies’ equity research at Goldman Sachs Asset Management. So he’s an academic who helped marshal the CIO role at Goldman Sachs, and he’s teaching me about option theory in his “Capital Markets & Investments” class. So there’s a lot to learn from this guy.

I love the fact that a lot of the professors have real-world experience. And they’re coming back with some academic theories, marrying those concepts, understanding how those theories are put into practice, and then telling students what they should take away from it all. So you learn much better. It’s much more practical and less backed by theory, as opposed to pure theory on market issues.

mbaMission: What’s your impression of Dean [Glenn] Hubbard, and how do you feel about him stepping down from that role?

CBSA: I had very limited exposure to him, so I have very limited thoughts on him. I think he did do a lot of great things, such as fund-raising. He’s been on the job for a very long time. I think he gets a lot of blame for the school’s ranking having come down over the years, but I think it’s really unfair to put it on him, because there are a lot of job market dynamics that play into the rankings. The school doesn’t have an undergrad business school, so it doesn’t have the type of resources to pull from that some other schools do, for example. I’m sure the school’s also not getting such a great score because the campus is horrible.

mbaMission: I was going to ask about that. What are the facilities like?

CBSA: It’s really old. They’re running out of space. I walked into [UPenn Wharton’s] Huntsman Hall when it was first built in 2002 and realized that it was a real world-class business school facility. My first day in Uris Hall here, I was like, “Oh my god, there must be a different building. This can’t be it.” Now the business school is forced to share building space with the law school. The main building itself is very, very old and dodgy. There’s not enough private rooms for students to get together to work on group projects. I think a lot of that’s going to be addressed when they open the new campus. It was supposed to happen in 2016, but it keeps getting pushed and pushed. So I think the dean’s done the best he could do.

He’s taken a lot of blame for things he couldn’t deliver that I feel were out of his control. A lot of students did raise an eyebrow when he was being discussed as a Fed chair favorite under Trump. He wasn’t really top of the list, but he was definitely under consideration for it. When Trump became president, there were a lot of differences of opinion. Columbia tends to be very liberal and attracts very liberal people. And associating Dean Hubbard with Trump didn’t sit very well. I mean, that’s outside of the scope of his role as dean.

mbaMission: But it was something students were talking about?

CBSA: Yeah. He’s the leadership of the school, and this is when Trump was going through issues with women, in the beginning and all that. So there was a lot of negativity around that. I think some of that, it’s unfair to blame him for. Some people might say it’s too much focus on politics and not enough on the school. But I don’t think that has a direct implication in how he was able to steer the school.

mbaMission: I get that. Are there any good parts of Columbia’s facilities?

CBSA: They are setting up satellite office space for those interested in start-ups. There are a lot of classes that focus on start-ups now, and the school will rent out space in Manhattan and elsewhere, and whoever gets selected can use that space to develop their own start-up. So there’s some good news. But facility-wise and infrastructure-wise, it’s not… it’s old.

mbaMission: I imagine a lot of hope is being pinned on the new building.

CBSA: It’s overdue.

mbaMission: Did you participate in any extracurricular activities you really enjoyed?

CBSA: I was part of a student club that organized investment ideas among students. We would invite alumni of the school to come in and judge and provide feedback on student stock pitches and ideas. I think that was a meaningful experience. Coming from IB/PE [investment banking/private equity], I thought stock pitch would be easy. I quickly realized, it was totally different. Tools to evaluate investment opportunities are the same for private and public equities, but the approach, the analysis is not. I remember my first pitch night. I thought I nailed it, only to realize how uninteresting my idea was to public equities investors during the Q&A and feedback session. I realized the best way to learn was to become a part of the leadership team of the student-led investment ideas club [part of the Columbia Student Investment Management Association]. Participating in these club activities meant more work outside the classroom, writing investment pitches that had nothing to do with class work, but this helped me get feedback on my ideas, hone my skills early. It also allowed me to connect with judges on a regular basis, who were mostly CBS alums. This created the best networking opportunity. Building on this, I found a school-year internship at a prominent hedge fund, which led to a summer internship and eventually, a full-time opportunity post-graduation. So arguably, being part of this club sparked the chain of events that led me to where I am today.

Travel-wise, a lot of trips throughout the year, either as part of a course or just among students. I only went once, partly because I was busy with work in and outside classrooms, and my wife was pregnant, which restricted travel. But students definitely have a lot of options to travel and get course credit, where travel is part of the course work. There’s no shortage of options here, and fellow students who participated all loved their experiences.

mbaMission: What would you say to someone who might be considering Columbia for their MBA?

CBSA: I would tell them to consider the merits of living in New York City. There’s definitely value in that. It’s very warm, welcoming, and inclusive. If you can put up with some terrible facilities and focus on the learning experience, that is important. And keep an eye out for opportunities outside the classroom. Also, consider what the living experience would be for your better half or family.

More importantly, don’t get too tied down to ranking, prestige, average pay post-graduation, etc. Think bigger—think about what matters to you, not how your brand will be perceived by others. For example, if you truly believe in the value investing principle, meaning the market is inefficient and is heavily influenced by human behavior, you will probably not be happy learning about market efficient theory at [Chicago] Booth. If you want to get hands-on experience honing your stock pitch by learning from top practitioners in the field, a school that uses the case study method might not offer you the learning experience you are seeking. Every school has its strengths and weaknesses, so find the one that fits you best. Get to know the type of experience in and outside classrooms that different schools can offer you. And once there, wherever that might be, make the best out of those two years. Treat it as an investment, and take full advantage of the school, city, and free time you bought yourself to reflect on what you truly want in life. Think about what these can offer you. Columbia Business School was the right fit for me, and I have no regrets.

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