By Robbie Shell
Meet eight alumni who took a chance and traded security for the pursuit of a passion.
On the Big Screen: Rick Yune, W’94
Rick Yune’s career change began to unfold seven years ago in a building on 5th Avenue and 17th Street in Manhattan. Yune, who was taking a year off from Wharton, had an appointment with an attorney to discuss the merits of a career in law. An executive from a modeling agency also at that address happened to spot Yune on the elevator. He handed Yune his card and suggested he drop by.
From there, it’s been fast forward for Yune. He started modeling for Versace and Polo Sport, returned to Wharton for his degree, spent three years working for a hedge fund while also taking acting lessons, and earlier this year landed a lead in Snow Falling On Cedars, a movie based on the New York Times best-selling novel. The movie, which made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, opens this December.
Meanwhile, Yune has been interviewed by magazines like GQ, Details, Newsweek, Vogue, Mademoiselle and Premiere. He is traveling to film festivals and film awards ceremonies around the world. And he has been offered parts in several other movies.
It’s definitely been a career switch, although Yune, who was brought up in Tacoma Park, Md., by Korean-American parents, is not exactly writing off the business world. For a while he considered becoming a Wall Street trader, “but I couldn’t see myself doing the same thing for the next 15 years, no matter how much money traders can make,” he says. “I didn’t want to become a slave to that lifestyle.” He has, however, started an ice tea business in Manhattan (a joint venture with a bottling company in the Midwest), completed two private placements in Internet companies and is looking to start an Internet multimedia venture.
Yune’s rapid rise to the top of two of the toughest fields in the world — modeling and acting — has given him a definite perspective on success. “Modeling helped me pay my bills while I was at Wharton,” he says. And although he occasionally would jet off to Paris or some exotic island for a photo shoot, “most of modeling is going to a studio, changing outfits and standing in front of a camera. It’s just about selling clothes.”
As for acting, Yune, who lives in Los Angeles, knows he has been lucky. “I’m a product,” he says, an Asian American actor in a market where the pool of talented Asian Americans is relatively small. “I was there in the right place at the right time. It would have been a lot more difficult for me if I were Caucasian or African-American. The competition is much tougher. “In one respect I’m just an image on a piece of paper, and if I look at that image in one way I see that there is a lot of room to grow and a lot of opportunity.”
A career as an actor, Yune adds, is more difficult than, say, being an entrepreneur. “There, all you are risking is your money. In entertainment, the risk is more personal. It’s a business of attrition. Tomorrow it could all be over.”
A New Vocation: Skip Ferguson, WG’78
After Skip Ferguson earned his MBA from Wharton and law degree from Cornell, he spent the next 15 years in law and business. That included, for example, four years in law firms in Chicago and Buffalo, two years as head of business development for the trust and investment group of Key Bank in western New York and three years as part owner of a chain of ski shops called The Ski Rack. “The one thing they didn’t teach us at Wharton was how to predict the weather,” he says. After three mild winters, he and his partners sold out.
In 1990 he worked for a consulting firm in Buffalo and in 1994 was hired by The Economist’s Intelligence unit as an editor in its management and finance publications group. His team produced large research reports on such topics as derivatives, leadership development, change management and the impact of technology on global business.
During all the years that Ferguson worked in law and business, he was actively involved in both his church and the community, serving, for example, as a trustee for Westminster Presbyterian church in Buffalo as well as a board member for the YMCA. “I found that the more I was doing with the church, the more I wanted to do,” he says. “I was dealing with people and having a positive impact in ways that I didn’t feel I was having in the business world.”
Ferguson started to tell his business colleagues, his family and people in his church that he was considering going into the ministry. “‘Does this make sense?’ I remember asking them. And they all said, ‘absolutely, this makes so much sense.’”
Ferguson interviewed with the director of admissions at Princeton Theological Seminary. He had lunch with a first-year student, a former investment banker. He applied for, and received, a full-tuition scholarship. To meet his living expenses he landed a part-time job as an editorial consultant for Wharton, writing and editing the school’s multi-part Financial Times series on “Mastering Finance” and “Mastering Marketing.” “Slowly but surely the pieces fell into place,” he says.
Ferguson graduated in June from the three-year master’s of divinity program and is now looking for a job as a pastor in a Presbyterian church. “I know that when you are in your 20s you feel invincible. You get your degree from a prestigious institution. You join a consulting firm, you’re golden for the next few years, you get married, have kids, buy a big house. All of a sudden reality hits in the form of a divorce, or a job setback or an illness. And then the questions start to come. They are not clichés. You wonder what this is all about, and what is next.”
If Ferguson had any doubts about choosing his new path, they all disappeared in August 1998 when he received a telephone call from Wharton classmate and friend Joel Friedland. It was not a social call. Friedland told Ferguson that he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. There was a pause in the conversation and Friendland asked, “If I don’t make it, would you preside at my funeral?”
Friedland lost his fight with cancer and died in January. Ferguson led a memorial service for his friend a week later. “Joel’s service was filled with sadness, to be sure, but it was also filled with love,” Ferguson says. “He had such a wonderful family and so many caring friends. It was so powerful to lead the service that celebrated Joel’s life. And that may best sum up my new calling: whether it is leading worship, teaching, counseling, performing weddings or presiding at funerals, it is all about celebrating the gift of life each of us has been given.”
Heavy on Talent: Lori Christopher, WG’95
After working for two and a half years at Bain & Co. in London, Lori Christopher finally decided to make her move.
“I had taken a summer off to attend a film-making class at NYU, as a test to see how serious I was about the entertainment industry,” she says. “It was at that point that I realized if I didn’t do it now, it would never happen.”
Bain allowed Christopher the flexibility of working part-time so she could pursue her job search before moving back to the U.S. “I came to Los Angeles for a week to 10 days at a time, doing informational interviewing with fellow Wharton grads, with friends of friends, friends of the family, anyone I knew who was in the entertainment industry.”
The legwork paid off and Christopher found a job — in the mailroom, to start — with Endeavor, a talent and literary agency in Beverly Hills that is “relatively new (four years old), and has about 100 employees and a great reputation,” says Christopher. Endeavor’s clients on the talent (acting) side include, for example, Adam Sandler, Bill Paxton, Jeff Goldblum, Arsenio Hall, Bette Midler, Heather Locklear, Diane Lane and Minnie Driver, to name a few.
“I was lucky because there was a lot of turnover shortly after I started and within six weeks I became an assistant to one of the partners.” After 10 months she was promoted to the new position of coordinator for the talent department, where she manages information coming from emails and meetings, and updates all of the databases to ensure that agents have pertinent information about projects that are casting, among other responsibilities.
Christopher originally expected to move into the literary side of the agency, “which in Hollywood doesn’t mean books, it means writers and directors. But the talent department is much more fast-paced than literary. Actors work three-to-four times a year and you are constantly booking them, whereas directors can work on the same project for up to two years.”
Christopher is shooting to be an agent, which she hopes will happen in the next year. Her business background, she adds, has been an asset. “I’m able to use my business/negotiating skills as well as indulge my passion for the creative side in representing and working with writers/directors/actors.”
Before coming to Wharton, Christopher, who graduated from USC, worked at ABC television, Apple Computer and in her uncle’s garlic processing company in Burgundy, France, where she did marketing and operations management.
At Endeavor, she makes about 20 percent of her former salary at Bain, although it helps that her husband, Joel Post, WG’95, works for Credit Suisse First Boston. Even so, says Christopher, “I don’t spend money like I used to.”
All That Jazz: Mitch Goldfeld, WG’93
Mitch Goldfeld called from his car phone on his way from Boston to Litchfield, Ct., where he was about to launch his third annual jazz camp. “We have approximately 100 students, ages 10 to 65, who come to study jazz with faculty who I hire mostly from New York and Connecticut,” says Goldfeld. “So for the next couple of days I’m spending my time schlepping music equipment.”
It’s a far cry from his pre-Wharton days, which he spent at Goldman Sachs, and his early post-Wharton days, when he worked as an investment analyst for Wellington Management Co. Goldfeld today is president of his own music management company, MAGI Productions, where he manages 10 world-class jazz artists who tour all over the world. He also teaches piano one day a week and performs at a Boston restaurant on Friday nights.
“I’m not making Wharton salaries, but I’ve made a go of it,” he says. “I’m supporting myself and my wife, an aspiring opera singer. We’re expecting a child in January.” His wife just finished a long Gilbert & Sullivan run in Boston. “We like to say that our child is performing in The Mikado every night,” Goldfeld says.
The switch from finance to music wasn’t as abrupt as it may seem. Goldfeld is a jazz and contemporary music pianist who performed in jazz ensembles throughout high school and college. During his first year at Wharton, he was the pianist for the Follies; his second year he was music director.
What precipitated his career change after three years at Wellington, however, was a chance meeting with a hotel pianist in the Marriott Copley in Boston. Goldfeld, who was attending an investment conference, had stopped by to ask the pianist for names of piano teachers. “His response was ‘I don’t know any but do you know any subs who could fill in for me at the hotel a couple of times a month?’” Goldfeld offered himself, got the job, and realized after a few months of playing that “I wanted to be immersed in music rather than having it as a hobby.” A few months later, a pianist asked Goldfeld to be his manager, which eventually led to MAGI Productions.
“My Wharton degree has helped, without a doubt,” Goldfeld says, citing specifically his courses in the legal aspects of entrepreneurship, venture initiation and negotiation.
Golf, On Paper: Richard K. Summers, W’74
After Richard Summers graduated from Wharton he spent five years working in the audit and tax departments for the national CPA firm Laventhol & Horwath. He left to join a client in the cable television business who hired him to help create new ventures.
“One of his ideas was for me and another employee to start a magazine similar to TV Guide for the cable TV industry. Neither one of us knew anything about publishing, so we were perfect for the job,” recalls Summers. Back in 1980, he adds, the industry “only wanted a very small guide for a couple of pay TV channels. HBO and Showtime weren’t even 24 hours a day. The market wasn’t ready for a full-scale magazine.”
Before long, it was. What started out as a monthly with a circulation of 2,000 and two employees ended up six years later with a monthly circulation of 5.6 million and 150 employees. Summers and his partner sold the magazine, called The Cable Guide, and the company, called T.V.S.M., to an investment group in 1986. (It was sold again, last year, to TV Guide.)
“I retired for about a week,” he says, at which point he and his family moved for a year to Switzerland. While there, he started a company called Great Golf Resorts of the World, Inc. “What happened was I met my college roommate’s sister in Geneva. She asked me what I was planning to do after I got back to the States, and I told her I had to meet Jack Nicklaus. As it turned out she knew somebody right there in Geneva who knew Nicklaus well. The introductions were made and four months later I signed an agreement with Nicklaus to be a partner in my company.”
Great Golf Resorts of the World, Inc., based in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., publishes two magazines. The first, Great Golf Resorts of the World, has two annual editions. One goes to private golf clubs and the other is an in-room directory for resorts. “It’s also a marketing consortium for these properties … We represent 46 of the world’s top golf resorts,” says Summers.
The other title comes out five times a year and covers the four major championships plus the Ryder Cup.
In addition, the company has a joint venture, based at the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland, which is responsible for all the official publications of the Ryder Cup in Europe.
Despite this combination of enterprises, Summers’ company has only six employees. “I freelance out everything I can, including editors, writers and photographers. The world of publishing has changed radically because of computers, email, faxes, mobile phones and so forth, so that it is much easier to have expertise based all over the world and yet be able to work together very closely. The freelancers can operate out of their own home or office and they get their work into a beautiful, high-profile magazine. The great benefit to us is that this arrangement allows us to concentrate on things we do best, such as finding advertising and building up the business.”
And did Summers get the idea for Great Golf Resorts of the World, Inc. because he loves golf? “I’m not a fanatic golfer and I’m not a very good one either,” he says. “I thought it was a good business idea.”
Public Relations, with a Twist: Ruth Gottesman, W’90
Ruth Gottesman graduated from the Fels School of Government at Penn after she completed her Wharton degree, and then went to work for the federal government.
As a presidential management intern she spent two years working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation as a mass transit program analyst. She then worked for a U.S. congressman until January 1995, when her boss lost his bid for the U.S. Senate.
“I spent much of the next year looking for a job, but I really didn’t want to stay in government. I was tired of the bureaucracy and the sheer politics of Washington. I felt like I needed a break.”
During that same year, Gottesman returned to her home in Brooklyn to help her father care for her mother, who had become ill. Her mother died in October 1995. “That was the impetus for dramatically changing careers,” she says. “Up until then I had been considering working for the mass transit agency in San Francisco. But when my mother passed away, it opened my eyes to the fact that I have a limited amount of time on this earth. I asked myself what I really wanted to do, what it was that I really loved. And the answer was movies and the entertainment industry.”
Gottesman took a class on starting a career in the film industry at the New School. Her teacher helped her arrange internships at two movie studios with offices in New York, Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox. That led to a full-time job in 1996 at New Regency, a production company. “I spent a lot of time marketing the movie LA Confidential while I was there, working on the movie poster, TV commercials, the film trailer, the publicity campaign. It was fascinating.”
The industry itself, says Gottesman, “is both different, and not so different, from government. The bureaucracy and office politics seem the same wherever you go. And coming from a business background, I found that the lack of business skills in the entertainment world drove me crazy. For example the way money is spent. You are not really rewarded for saving money on a project. It can be just the opposite. The incentives can be perverse.”
When Los Angeles-based New Regency closed its New York office in 1997, Gottesman was out of a job. She is now taking more classes, this time in public relations. “I would be interested in public relations with an entertainment bent to it,” she says, “like working for a company that does PR for a movie or an actor, or firms that connect celebrities with public causes. That type of company would be a great merging of my two fields — government and entertainment.
“For now,” Gottesman says, “I’m still trying to map it all out. The last nine years have been pretty interesting. It’s certainly not been the straight career path that I had imagined.”
Food and Film: Nancy Yaffa, WG’92
Nancy Yaffa was into her fourth year as a product manager at Coach, the New York-based leather goods company, when she ran into an old college friend at a party. He and another of their classmates had an idea for a restaurant that would be both a place to eat dinner and to watch first-run independent films. Yaffa, who had dreamed for years of being a restaurant owner, immediately saw the idea’s potential. She helped her friends raise $1 million and, in July 1996, the Screening Room opened in Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood.
By the end of 1997, the Screening Room — which includes a 130-seat movie theater, 175-seat restaurant, bar, lounge and screening rooms — was turning a profit. The partners are looking to open a second restaurant in New York and perhaps go national as well. Yaffa’s major responsibilities in the venture are marketing and operations, which include everything from advertising to hiring and training staff to arranging private parties. “We have several different party areas that range from a 20-person private dining/screening room on up to a space that can handle 150 and is used for corporate events, weddings and premieres,” she says.
“I enjoy doing things that are entrepreneurial,” Yaffa adds. “When I was at Coach, I was in charge of developing and launching a line of technology-friendly cases, including ones for cellular phones and computers …
“The only down side (to opening the restaurant) is that, initially at least, you don’t make the money that you do in a big corporation. My salary is half what it was at Coach. Eventually I think the money will be there but in the meantime, it’s a big pay cut.
“For me the best part (of The Screening Room) is that it combines all aspects of business — human resources, marketing, finance, management,” says Yaffa. “And it’s great being my own boss. I haven’t regretted the career switch for a minute.”
The Business of Pets: Philip McHugh, W’74
“I worked with cows for about a year and thought I wanted to work with horses as well. But it’s very physically demanding labor. I got tired of getting kicked and bitten.”
McHugh, a veterinarian, now has two cat-only clinics and one cat and dog clinic, in addition to helping supervise an emergency vet clinic in the town of Durham, N.C. He has clearly found his niche.
But it took a few years to get there. After graduating from Wharton, McHugh worked in commercial banking in West Orange, N.J., for two years before he and his wife decided to travel around the country. They eventually relocated to Cary, N.C., where McHugh was director or foundations investments at N.C. State University for four years. He first thought about getting a graduate degree in business, then considered becoming a doctor. But his wife, an oncology nurse, said she wouldn’t put him through medical school. “She didn’t like many of the physicians she had met,” he says.
Instead, McHugh, who has always loved animals, decided on vet school. He got his degree in 1985 and set up a practice in Durham, where he and his wife and three children now live.
It’s a very “sane” life, he says. Any after-hour emergencies go to the clinic, which means he works regular days, doesn’t have to wear a beeper and “no longer gets called out of church or away from a child’s birthday party” to attend to a sick or injured pet.
His Wharton degree, he says, has helped “tremendously.” In addition to their role as vets, he and his colleagues are also “small businessmen. I handle everything on the business side, from dealing with equipment leasing to talking with bankers, lawyers and financial advisors. I also enjoy mentoring new vet grads.
“The only regret I have is that I didn’t take more entrepreneurial courses at Wharton,” McHugh says. “I’m always thinking about another career, like starting a house building company. I’m an entrepreneur at heart.”