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McClatchy-Tribune  08/17/2014 8:12 AM ET
St. Olaf offers crash course in business world [Star Tribune (Minneapolis) :: ]

Aug. 17--The students wore dark business suits and munched on pizza, hanging on Jon Gross' every word.

It wasn't just his 1,000-watt smile or infectious enthusiasm. It was what he represented: a freshly minted college graduate, just a year out of school, with a job, a real job. In this case, as an investment banker.

"My day, depending on the day, probably ends between midnight and 2 a.m.," said Gross, 23. "But I do love it."

For 90 minutes last week, a select group of juniors and seniors from St. Olaf College in Northfield got a rare inside look of what life, and work, is like at Piper Jaffray, the investment banking firm in downtown Minneapolis. It's part of a new St. Olaf summer program called Finance Scholars -- one of a growing number of crash courses for liberal-arts majors to help smooth their way into the job market.

"We're a liberal arts institution, so we don't have a finance program," explained Kirsten Cahoon, who started the summer program as senior associate director of St. Olaf's Piper Center for Vocation and Career. "They're not being taught this in their classes, so this builds the bridge."

With colleges under growing pressure to prove that their graduates are employable, many liberal-arts schools have been searching for ways to beef up the business savvy of their students. Some have even turned to private companies to offer "business boot camps" in basic job-skills, at a cost of thousands of dollars a student.

But Cahoon decided there was a less expensive way. "We're using our alumni to help educate them," she said.

The idea for Finance Scholars, which debuted in June, is to give students a sneak peek at what careers in finance are really like. So Cahoon asked St. Olaf graduates working at some of the biggest corporations in the Twin Cities -- UnitedHealth, Thrivent, General Mills -- to share some secrets about breaking into the field.

The six evening sessions, which ended last week, were free for the students; the alums picked up the tab for the snacks.

"There's no significant cost to anybody," Cahoon said. But for the students, the encounters can be life-changing.

"There's a lot of angst and anxiety around this whole job search," said John Mountain, associate director of the career center at Macalester College, which sponsors a similar program for its students over winter break. The advantage of meeting alumni, he said, is that "it's kind of a safe zone where they can go in and ask really good questions."

One evening last week, a dozen St. Olaf students gathered in the lobby of Piper Jaffray's towering headquarters for the last of their half-dozen corporate sessions, looking like a cluster of black suits with identical notebooks and business cards ("Class of 2015 or 2016"). At the start of the summer, Cahoon had prepped them in corporate dress and etiquette, and they'd obviously taken it to heart. "It's really important for them to practice this stuff before they get out into the real world," Cahoon explained.

On the 12th floor, they ran into their host -- Jon Salveson, a St. Olaf graduate (class of 1987) who is now Piper Jaffray's vice chairman of investment banking (and, not coincidentally, a member of St. Olaf's Board of Regents).

Filing into an oversized conference room, the students whipped out their notebooks as Salveson took the stage. "Hopefully," he said, "you'll get a better idea of what an investment banker does."

By the time Salveson handed off to Steph Wissink (class of 2002), the managing director of investment research, a deliveryman arrived with six boxes of pizza. If the students were distracted by the enticing aroma, they didn't show it, their eyes glued to Wissink as she touched on topics like global investment strategy, capital markets and incentivized teamwork.

After a quick tour of the trading floor (empty, since it was after hours), they returned to the pizza and a panel of relatively new hires, who described adrenaline-filled workdays that frequently begin before 6 a.m. "You always have to be on your toes," said Gross, the young investment banker.

Brian Klein, a 20-year-old junior from Wells, Minn., said he was struck by the lengthy workdays. "In a lot of these cases, these alum are working 60-70-80 hours a week," he said. "That hasn't changed my perception of those jobs -- I'm still very interested in them -- but it's good to know."

Sara Anderson, a 21-year-old senior from Edina, was impressed with their passion. "It's really encouraging to see how much they're enjoying their jobs," she said.

Added Kelly Montoya, a senior from Phoenix: "You start to get a sense of where you might thrive, and where you might fit in."

That's one of the goals, said Cahoon: to give students an "unvarnished" picture of these kinds of jobs, as well as a chance to do some networking with people on the front lines.

That's also why these kinds of college programs are becoming so popular, said Trudy Steinfeld, executive director of New York University's Wasserman Center for Career Development, which launched its own "business boot camp" 10 years ago. "It's one thing to say 'I want to be a marketing person.' It's another thing to say 'what do they really do?'" she said. These programs, she noted, are "not going to teach them to be a financial analyst in an hour and a half." But they can show them the possibilities.

David Williams, a 21-year-old junior from Orono, said he found the sessions a welcome relief. He spent much of his sophomore year, he admitted, "just really worrying" about his future. "That's part of the reason I took this program," he said. "It's very reassuring to see that people from a liberal-arts background ... can get into these kinds of industries."

Maura Lerner -- 612-673-7384

 

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