Alumni Sell the Alternative Business Path
- by Matthew Brodsky
They walk on career paths currently in completely separate career spheres, at different points of personal and professional development. Maria Baum, WG’94, had been a star derivatives trader on Wall Street when she and her husband decided to retire in their 30s. They moved to the Hamptons, then became serial entrepreneurs to the point where Baum’s busier than she ever was in Manhattan. Shahbaz Alam, W’07, worked his way through jobs at Penn and PwC to join the Professional Services arm of Amazon Web Services. Despite their differences, both brought the message to current Wharton undergraduate students that a career outside of finance or consulting is not only possible—but attractive.
Baum’s alternative career path began after 10 years as a Wall Street derivatives trader. She and her husband felt they wanted more from life.
“Usually, one of you talks the other off the cliff,” she quipped.
In this case, they both took the leap in 2004 and moved to the beach.
Retirement, as Baum tells it, lasted two weeks.
“I was definitely not a have-lunch, play-tennis person,” she admitted.
This realization launched a series of endeavors, from private wealth investing to real estate, financial services recruitment to restaurateur, venture capitalism to philanthropy. (For her philanthropy work, see the Wharton Magazine article about the Hamptons Paddle & Party for Pink.)
An interesting note about all of these entrepreneurial pursuits is that Baum has chosen and led them always with the rigorous, analytical mindset that she sharpened at Wharton and then in finance. With that in mind, she offered a number of “trading floor” lessons for fellow Wharton entrepreneurs:
• Search constantly for value.
• Act quickly when opportunity presents itself.
• Know your exit when you enter.
• Cut losses and move on when necessary.
• Consider the risk/reward profile—“the king of everything,” Baum said.
She lives by these rules as every day, she struggles with the sheer number of opportunities that present themselves to her. She must know which opportunities are worth her time, which she needs to block out.
For Wharton students, opportunity number one may be in the technology business. This is where Alam’s viewpoint could prove valuable, which can be summed up by a Pablo Picasso quote: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” The point: You need humans to come up with the questions, and humans to help interpret the answers into action.
Business school students should be encouraged about getting a job in the rapidly expanding, global world of the technology industry. It is a fallacy, Alam stressed, that someone needs a “hard core” engineering or programming degree to enter the field.
From his perspective in the technology industry, professionals with business degrees are best suited to do that kind of creative, analytical work. And the work is needed, he said. The trends of SMAC—social, mobile, analytics and cloud—will drive the “next wave of disruption” in business.
“There’s a very big need for business functionality at tech companies,” Alam told an audience of undergrads, whether that functionality involves marketing, operations and supply chain, or finance, for instance.
Whatever career path that students choose, they would be wise to keep in mind one of Baum’s closing remarks:
“Always have butterflies in your stomach,” she said, meaning that we need that everyday excitement, creativity and passion about what we are doing in order to succeed and be happy at it.
Baum and Alam were guest speakers on Sept. 5, 2014, during the Wharton Alumni Colloquia series, a program sponsored by the Wharton Undergraduate Division and the student-run Wharton Alumni Relations Council in which alumni return to campus to present to undergraduate students. Also giving talks that day were Steven Yanis, W’85 (on hedge funds); Wendy Silverstein, W’82, WG’86 (on real estate); Susan Weil, W’84, and Terri Wein, W’84, WG’88 (on careers); and Andrew Stern, W’10 (on job searches).
Watch Stern present during the 2014 Wharton Alumni Colloquia on “The New Job Search: Linking Company Mission to Personal Meaning.” Stern works on the Leadership, Learning and Organizational Development team at Bloomberg LP in New York.