Ten years ago, the words “finance” and “investment banking” were scarcely in the Oberlin lexicon, despite the fact that so many alums had forged successful careers in the business world. When Bela Szigethy ’77 and Stewart Kohl ’77 funded an innovative winter term program in 2004, they opened the gates for students to gain exposure to the intricate workings of mergers and acquisitions, hedge funds, and venture capital, as well as more general topics of accounting, consulting, and public relations.
Celebrating a milestone anniversary in January, Oberlin Business Scholars is a month-long experiential opportunity that provides selected scholars from all majors with a foundation of skills, knowledge, and contacts to compete for jobs and internships in the fields of finance and consulting. Students participate in intensive workshops and site visits with alumni volunteers in the private sector. The inaugural Business Scholars paired a dozen students with alumni in Cleveland and New York, and over the years the program has expanded to include program components in Oberlin, Chicago, and Boston.
The support of Szigethy and Kohl—co-CEOs of the Riverside Company, a private equity firm in Cleveland—and other dedicated alums has sustained the Oberlin Business Scholars program. And even through the financial collapse and the Occupy Wall Street movement, interest in the program continues to grow, proving that Obies want to broaden their perspectives about ethics and the ways they can bring meaningful change in the private sector.
The 2013 program began in Oberlin and placed 13 scholars in Cleveland, New York, and Chicago. This year’s class included students majoring in politics, neuroscience, mathematics, and economics. At the start, students spent a week on campus working with faculty mentors Barbara Craig and Ed McKelvey (both in economics) to research and prepare for site visits.
McKelvey has participated on both fronts: Before he became a faculty member, while he was working at Goldman Sachs, he volunteered with the Business Scholars program. “I personally know graduates of the program who have benefited,” he says. “And this is a program that is valued by the students—judging by the competitiveness to be accepted, as well as the kinds of students we get. It’s one of the best winter-term programs on campus.”
Mami Suzuki ’05, an economics major who participated in the first class of Business Scholars, says the program invariably opened doors, including an internship with Riverside (Kohl was so impressed with the students that he hired two interns from the program, even though the firm had never had interns before). Suzuki was also one of the founding members of the Oberlin Student Finance and Investment Club, a chartered student organization that manages a real investment fund.
“I would not be here doing what I love doing if I didn’t participate in Business Scholars, says Suzuki, an MBA student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “I worked in the financial litigation-consulting field for six years before starting business school at Duke. I’m now deciding among six summer internship offers. I think about my positive experience with Business Scholars in every step of my career.”
The impetus for Business Scholars is quite simple. Oberlin is a liberal arts school without a business major. Yet, “the best thing that could happen to finance is Oberlin students arriving,” says Kohl. That’s “a sentiment his cofounder shares." At the program’s 10th anniversary celebration, held January 17 at the Yale Club in New York City, Szigethy said: “Oberlin values have made me a far better business person. And Oberlin values have made me more successful." “Wall Street would be a whole lot better with a little more Tappan Square in it," said Kohl.
While learning the inner workings of the finance industry, past participants have also discovered ways they can fuse “doing good” with “doing well.” “Ultimately, it’s an opportunity for Oberlin students to look at the finance industry more seriously and understand how it is a contributor to the country’s economic well-being, not an evil force that needs to be suppressed,” says Roger Heine ’79, managing director at Deutsche Bank North America.
Fred Cummings ’89, who founded and runs Elizabeth Park Capital Management in Cleveland, has been a volunteer since the inaugural Business Scholars. Cummings understands the importance of sharing his knowledge and experience. The feeling of uncertainty about how to apply your college degree, especially in a tough job market, isn’t lost on him. “I knew, and this was true even when I was a student, that one of the toughest questions students would run up against is what career path to follow. That’s because there’s just this lack of awareness of what’s out there and what you can do with your degree,” Cummings says.
This year, the program returned to Chicago, where scholars visited Ariel Investments. John W. Rogers Jr., Ariel’s founder, chairman and CEO, helped to fund the Oberlin Research Fellows Program, which provides mentoring and research opportunities to help undergraduates who are low-income, first-generation college students, and/or minorities prepare for graduate school. Rogers is the son of civil rights pioneer Jewel Lafontant-Mankarious ’43 and Judge John Rogers Sr.
“What’s been rewarding for me is to see the quality of students who pass through the program,” says Cummings. “They’re very inquisitive and engaged, and they very much enjoy the interaction with the alumni. I think this helps to establish a culture of giving back. We had an outstanding intern from Business Scholars this past summer. It’s invaluable for the students who get a chance to participate.”