Notes for my Talk at the Business Breakfast on Tuesday, September 19th.
Growing up down the street from what was called Elmhurst General Hospital, I never expected to be a professor. Beginning in kindergarten, I went to St. Barts, a Catholic school that at the time had no tuition. But after nine years there, not once did I dream of becoming a professor.
Why didn’t I dream it? Because I didn’t look like the stereotypical professor with a beard, glasses, and a pipe. This leads me to lesson 1: Breakout of Stereotypes. You cannot let your image of what someone in a particular role looks like determine whether it is an appropriate goal for you to pursue.
Defying expectations takes work. What helped? Growing up in a family that loved reading. Trips to the library were part of our routine—stories of a grandfather who never finished high school but read all of Shakespeare’s works. The same grandfather refused to fire his twelve-year-old apprentice because his boss told him the kid was taking too many bathroom breaks. My grandfather was fired for his refusal. It was the middle of the Depression, and my grandfather had to move his family into his sister’s apartment. She was a schoolteacher and kept her job during the Depression. I learned that intellectual life was valuable, no glory needed and that an intellectual life without a moral foundation was not worth pursuing.
Do you know what else helped?
People who talk honestly.
People say to go outside of your comfort zone. But they never tell you how to act when you are outside of your comfort zone. I taught as an adjunct lecturer at Queens College and still took Ph.D.-level courses. I had no idea how to act. My imagined professor looked nothing like me. But perhaps if I can’t look like him, I could try and act like him. This was a terrible idea. Fortunately, at a family gathering, my Aunt’s best friend told me about her daughter and her daughter’s best friend from childhood into adulthood; at the time, she was the author of a best-seller. I heard about two accomplished women who were down to earth and enjoyed people no matter where they came from. She told me of her visit to Stanford to attend her daughter’s class and the applause she received once it was announced to the class that the professor’s mother was in attendance. It hit me. I don’t have to look like that imaginary professor and don’t have to act like him. It opened me to conversations with students that continue to this day. I only wish more professors understood this.
Family. A father who moved from Roslyn, L.I. to Elmhurst, Queens, because he could not afford a brand-new car for my older sister’s sixteenth birthday. This was a time when many were living in Queens and moving to Long Island. We did the reverse. It was the first of many times he decided his family would not follow the crowd. I learned that how much money you have can never and should never determine your worth.
I also heard from my mother that there was a good college on a hill; it was free, and you needed a 90 high school average to get in. If I wanted to go to college, there was no alternative.
People who care, knowing that those closest to you do not require great accomplishments from you to give their support when you need it most.
People who direct you. My ninety-six-year-old mentor, Ray Franklin, taught an engaging class on Race and Class that engaged me intellectually and emotionally—the start of a long dialogue that continues today. In 2017, he showed me a WSJ article about students at elite colleges lining up to take blockchain courses. He said I should teach a crypto course. Fortunately, I had a Sabbatical year in 2018. My old-fashioned view of Economics as the study of institutions and technologies fits perfectly with designing blockchain courses for our finance program.
People who care.
Lesson 2: Advice isn’t always helpful.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Please be careful who you listen to, and make sure that the advice fits your values and what interests you. Attending a Ph.D. program in Economics without a solid foundation in math is like walking a tightrope between skyscrapers. I don't think it's a good idea. But well-meaning and caring people pushed me in that direction. Graduate school expects a plan; there is something you want to do in the field. I planned to save the world. The execution failed, but I learned another lesson.
Lesson 3: Make a difference in small worlds.
This part could fill a book. I’ve had many fulfilling interactions with students. I especially enjoy finding out that our connection lasts, such as getting a call telling me about acceptance to a top MBA program and attending a wedding at the Harvard Club of a former student who runs a hedge fund in Switzerland. Finding out he is expecting his first child. I get texts from former students who keep me informed of their accomplishments. The list of graduate programs is impressive: Harvard for an MA in Statistics, Georgetown Law, Columbia MBA, and the list goes on and on. I would not change this fact about my career for any reason. I’m glad and humbled that I was able to reach many fantastic people who happened to be my students.
My interactions with countless students and others led me to conclude that many have the “Ivy Curse.” Imagine stopping someone on the street, and the person turns to you and says apologetically, “I didn’t go to Harvard, I didn’t go to Princeton, “I didn’t go to Yale,” and you shake your head, “Look, you dropped your phone.” The apologies must stop. The talent pool is too deep and broad to be captured by the Ivies. Recent research has confirmed what many of us knew: when you take out the seats occupied by children of alumna, children of faculty, offspring of big donors, and athletes, there are not many seats left. To my knowledge, everyone who got into the elite colleges because they benefitted from the recent scandal of false grades and activities got out. The deliberate creation of scarcity should not make the rest of us apologetic or feel less than deserving of a seat at the professional table. This leads me to lesson 4.
Embrace your underdog status (along with 99.9% of the population). There is no shame in not having gone to an Ivy. There is nothing to be explained away; please take a look at your accomplishments and what you can do. Look for your Goliath-
Finally, in closing, I come to Lesson 5:
Do Hard Things.
Without this lesson, I would not have gone to graduate school and studied finance and game theory. I would not have done research with wavelets, and I would never have taught. Life isn’t fair, and it can sometimes be very tough. Keep working hard towards your goals.
As the siren song of retirement calls me, I cannot leave until I know that a quality business school at Queens College awaits the little children growing up in Queens today and places just like it, trying to figure stuff out. They deserve to find their way to professional satisfaction and a good life. Queens College did it for me, and let’s change the energy. Here is a concrete goal that we can execute. Let’s make it happen so that every student in the business school has a job offer in hand beginning with the fall semester of their senior year. I would know it was time for me to pass the baton. Thank you.