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The Push for Women in Finance at Cornell Johnson

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A career in the finance industry is often sought after by MBA graduates. After all, few other industries offer a mean starting salary of $123,259, plus bonuses of $42,175 and other guaranteed compensation up to $35,278. (That’s a total first-year salary of more than $200,000).

At Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, finance is a core program and is woven into every aspect, from faculty research to curriculum, immersion programs, competitions, and more. Thirty-two percent of its 2016 MBA class found jobs in the financial services industry.

But only 10 percent of investment management roles are filled by women, and that’s a problem not just for gender parity, but also for the success of companies. Organizations with higher-than-average female populations are 15 percent more likely to outperform those organizations with average gender diversity. Increased female representation in leadership roles improves share prices and finance performance at companies

Because there is such opportunity in the field for its female graduates, the Johnson School has made a conscious effort toward encouraging women to become involved in finance.

For the two-year MBA Class of 2019, currently 27 percent are women, and faculty and staff leaders like Lakshmi Bhojraj, the Breazzano Family Executive Director of the Parker Center for Investment Research and founder of the Women in Investing (WIN) Conference, are working steadily to increase that number as well as the opportunities for women within the business school.

About Lakshmi Bhojraj

At Johnson, Lakshmi helps to run the asset management program, develop and maintain corporate relationships for the Parker Center while also advising students with an interest in asset management careers. She’s responsible for running several signature events, including the MBA Stock Pitch Challenge and the WIN Conference. Prior to joining Johnson, Lakshmi was an equity analyst at Salomon Smith Barney, now Citi, as well as an associate equity analyst at Deutsche Bank.

Lakshmi has also been featured in The New York Times, The Financial Times and Bloomberg BusinessWeek for her work in promoting women in the asset management industry, and in numerous other media outlets discussing the Center’s work, including Pensions and Investments magazine, Financial History magazine, and in television appearances on CNBC and CNN. This breadth of experience made Lakshmi the perfect interview subject to learn more about finance and women.

Parker Center for Investment Research

“Historically, between investment banking and investment management, 90 MBA students out of 265 are interested in Wall Street finance careers. It’s a big chunk,” says Lakshmi. And the Parker Center for Investment Research is one of the main avenues of support for those students.

Developed in 1998, the Parker Center provides a world-class education—including instruction and training in the latest analytical tools used by Wall Street—in security analysis and asset management. As part of this, the Parker Center offers a $1 million Cayuga Fund to allow students the opportunity to manage real money as part of their training. There are also many flagship MBA events, including stock pitch challenges and women in investing conferences, which provide valuable networking and recruiting opportunities.

“The Cayuga Fund manages money for the Cornell University endowment and is distinguished from other university-based funds in its structure,” explains Huichun (Nicole) Wu, MBA, ’18. “As a portfolio manager of the Cayuga Fund, I participate in the management of the fund, and apply theoretical frameworks learned in class to manage equities.  We receive continual expert feedback from faculty and alumni mentors. The structured performance-learning environment gives me an unusual degree of decision-making responsibility and prepares me for real-life investing.”

The Parker Center also offers some female-specific initiatives. “As far as finance goes, we have some dedicated programming for women including two women in investing conferences: one at the MBA level and one at the undergraduate level,” explains Lakshmi. “There are also clubs like the Women’s Management Council, which are focused on bringing women and women’s interests to campus.”

The female-specific initiatives came about as a result of a general under-representation of women in finance. According to Lakshmi, there was a general phenomenon where barely 10 to 15 percent of MBA finance programs were filled with women and corporate partners were experiencing the same trend in their workforce. The way to counter this was to draw in more women with hosted events such the MBA Women in Investing (WIN) Conference.

WIN Conference

The WIN Conference kicked off at Johnson in 2010 as a way to educate women about the rewarding career opportunities available to them in investment management. It gives full-time MBA women from top business schools around the country a chance to network, learn from industry professionals, hear perspectives on investment careers, and showcase their stock-picking skills. Finally, the Stock Pitch challenge is a key highlight of the conference and provides attendees with a valuable opportunity to present investment ideas, benchmark themselves against their peers and to shine in front of judges and recruiters.

Approximately 60 women and 65 representatives from top-tier investment management firms attend each year. “It has become a great conference and a staple on the MBA circuit calendar,” said Lakshmi.

Women like Nicole appreciate the opportunity: “The WIN conference gives female MBA students a fantastic opportunity to hear and learn from distinguished keynote speakers and panelists. Women are underrepresented in the investment industry, but having a chance to learn from female investment practitioners on investment ideas and advancing women’s roles in the sector was truly invigorating and fulfilling,” she says.

And, in 2016, the opportunities for women expanded to include undergraduate students with the Undergraduate Women in Investing Conference. Similar to WIN, this conference was designed by Lakshmi to reach women earlier in their education for more effective gender parity. In its inaugural year, 32 women attended the conference and, already for the next year, it has grown to 54 women and 13 different schools.

Benefits for Women in Finance

women in finance at cornell
Lakshmi Bhojraj, Parker Center executive director and Women in Investing (WIN) Conference founder

For Lakshmi, being a woman in the finance industry is a solid choice. “Investment management is an attractive career option if you’re interested in Wall Street finance,” she explains. “It offers a healthy work life balance since your hours are generally tied to the market, which is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.. This means you’re not stuck with 12- to 14-hour days at the office.”

And Nicole agrees. “Finance is not boring at all,” she says. “A confluence of events and trends have provided the opportunity for technological disruption of the financial services industry as never seen before: early Fintech efforts have focused on ‘low hanging fruit’ such as payments, consumer lending, and brokerage; larger, more disruptive attacks (insurance, corporate banking/lending, investment, currency) are currently under way.”

Plus, for Johnson women, there are many other benefits to choosing the finance career path including:

  1. Faculty Experience

“We have a great mix of faculty—both tenured professors and practitioners with a ton of industry experience—that give back to the school,” says Lakshmi. “Our faculty has a breadth of real-world knowledge and experience that they can impart to the students.”

For example, Lakshmi herself has a background in equity research and regularly advises her students on the buyside and the sellside. Another example is professor Drew Pascarella, who spent 15 years working at bulge bracket banks, advising clients on over $35 billion worth of Merger and Acquisition transactions. And there’s Randy Allen, who spent more than 22 years at Deloitte Consulting and is a senior lecturer of management and a consultant in resident at Cornell.

  1. Extensive Recruiting

Both investment banks (such as JP Morgan Chase, Citi, Goldman Sachs, and Credit Suisse) and investment management firms (such as Fidelity Investments, Vanguard Group, Wells Fargo, and Dimensional Fund Advisors) recruit on campus and through Johnson events. “From a recruiting standpoint we have very strong relationships with a number of corporations,” explains Lakshmi. “And we can leverage these relationships to connect students to both alumni and recruiters.”

  1. Immersive Curriculum

Last, but certainly not least, is the in-depth curriculum offered at Johnson. For example, out of the seven immersion experiences offered by the school—hands-on transformative learning opportunities—three deal with finance: Corporate Finance, Investment Banking, and Investment Research and Asset Management.

These immersion experiences offer coursework that covers a range of topics from financial policy to valuation, governance, and financial modeling. In each immersion, students receive real-world, intensive training to prepare them for their future career.

There’s even an upcoming FinTech experience in the Spring of 2018. “Johnson will be offering a FinTech Intensive to MBA students in the spring of 2018 at the Cornell Tech campus in NYC,” says Nicole. “We will have the opportunity to explore the FinTech landscape, analyze past moves, discuss current trends, and identify future opportunities, while solving real problems at start-ups, traditional financial services firms, and the VC and consulting communities which serve them.”

To learn more about the various opportunities that Johnson offers MBA students interested in finance, visit the school website at

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