In success and in life, Wharton alumni fail to fit any one mold.
By Matthew Brodsky. Illustrations by Olimpia Zagnoli.
Penthouse suites towering above the streets of Manhattan or Singapore. A vacation getaway to a colleague’s Caribbean island. Professional sports teams and formula-one race cars that double as hobbies. What is the “Wharton lifestyle”?
True, many Wharton alumni live exciting, fast-paced lives glittering with the perks expected for the most successful people working in the vanguard of their respective professions. But they aren’t all masters of the universe, at least not in the stereotypical sense.
Wharton graduates devote themselves to family, eschew the frenetic lifestyle that can come with a high-powered corporate position, and even spend time with their wildebeests and zebras.
Wharton alumni are far from easy to pigeonhole. Wharton Magazine interviewed but a handful of graduates whose work and lives have taken them on individual, and intriguing, courses.
An RV With Sails
Children have a way of changing lives. Mary Sauer, WG’80, knows this firsthand. Her life was forever altered when her first daughter died of a rare pediatric liver disease. In 1986, Sauer and her husband, Bob Doris, founded Sonic Solutions. During their startup years, they worked seven-day weeks with a one-week vacation.
“I thought I could control anything, until I became a mother,” Sauer recalls. When her second daughter was born in 1999, Sauer vowed to change tacks and carve out more family time. The favored family vehicle? The Marianna, a 57-foot sailboat.
First, the family did short trips up the East Coast from Rhode Island to Maine, then into Manhattan and as far north as Nova Scotia.
As their operating roles at Sonic became lighter, Sauer and family took longer, more exotic summer adventures. In 2008, they traveled along the entire west coast of Italy. The next year, they moved to Florence for a few months and enrolled their then-fourth-grade daughter in an all-Italian school. Their 2009 sailing trip took them from Athens to the Greek Islands, the east coast of Italy to Croatia. In 2010, they cruised the coast of Turkey to Istanbul and the Black Sea.
“One summer, we read Greek mythology and then stood at the Oracle of Delphi. Another summer, we climbed Stromboli and read parts of the Odyssey as we passed through the straights of Messina,” Sauer says.
To escape the hot summers in the south, last year they headed to the fjords of Norway and the archipelago of Sweden. This summer, they laid a course from Barcelona and Costa Brava, across the French Riviera to Italy.
“It’s a family life for which I’m very happy and grateful,” she says. And sometimes very wet and salty.
At Home, On the Road
When he has it, John Amos Cooper, WG’05, spends his downtime with his wife and two young daughters at their house on Sunset Island outside of Miami Beach. As a fine arts major at Cornell, Cooper might also be found relaxing in his studio painting—abstract is his current style of choice.
But Cooper is also an entrepreneur, and it just so happens that working hard sometimes involves partying hard. Cooper grew up around the family business, liquor distillation, so when he wanted to start his own business, it made sense to “pivot off of my professional business experience,” he says. His company currently markets two brands: a high-end ginger liqueur called Domaine De Canton and a hot-pink strawberry shooter called Sweet Revenge.
His job demands that he sometimes drink at 8 a.m., which might have been amusing the first day or two on the job, but then became a grueling duty.
“I don’t even drink that much, that’s the irony of it,” he says.
Work also takes him around the world. This past year, his company sponsored an eight-day press trip to Vietnam to find the source of his beverage’s ginger. Along went his master distiller and Eric Ripert, executive chef at New York’s Le Bernardin, who sought new ideas for his cuisine, which involved exploring such local delicacies as sauce-dipped beetle and fried dog.
Of his life, Cooper says, “It’s a roller coaster of exciting, nonstop intensity peppered with moments of satisfaction and happiness.”
For his work, Frederic Lotti, WG’06, is not hiking rainforest hills in search of the holy grail of rhizomes—he treks for resources. As a member of the physical commodity trading industry with the key goals of building supplies and developing natural resources, Lotti travels by whatever means necessary—4×4 truck or helicopter—to monitor the assets “and meet with employees, bankers, government officials and other stakeholders. He spends up to half the year outside the United States.
It’s not the business travel but his philosophy that sets Frederic apart from his peers. He grew up in New Caledonia, a remote Pacific island. “I grew up in a Polynesian tradition where there was a strong sense of community and attachment to ancestral values, which underpin now everything that I do in life. For instance, in the Polynesian culture, the individual matters much less than the community and in a way serves it,” he says. “What you are matters a lot less than what you do.”
A Simple Dream
Living on an island in Victoria, British Columbia, far from the bustle of his former home of Montreal, Karl-Eric Briere, WG’04, needs a fence to keep the deer out of his vegetable garden. You might say that his former occupation had him fenced in. He worked nine years in Hong Kong, where six-day workweeks are the norm and he was on call in whatever time zone that his client was in. He had two children and a wife, but didn’t see much of them.
The Wharton MBA for Executives program allowed him to put things in perspective, he says. He comes from a family of entrepreneurs, but decided to create a business his own way: the Zen Capitalism way. It is not a notion he takes credit for, claiming he got the idea from a conversation at a campus party and the wording from classmate Rick Blackshaw, WG’04. (Also read about Zen Capitalism in our cover story, “Measuring up Against Memories From Campus.”)
But he has applied it in real life and stuck to it. Zen Capitalism is about entrepreneurship without the stress over banks, employees and clients, without time constraints and strict schedules. In addition to the more natural pace, the core idea of working the Zen Capitalist way is to focus your action on “compassion-centered value creation.”
“If you make the choice from the beginning that you want a quality of lifestyle,” he explains, “there is a way around this and it can still be successful in a market economy.”
Briere and his wife launched the boutique publishing company Simple Dream Publishing, built around the framework of flexible days and at most 20 hours of work per week (a limit they still strive for though don’t always achieve).
“We said, ‘If it does not really work, then we will try something else,’” he explains.
Today, the company is eight years old, three times the size and earning eight times the profits. It is 100 percent equity financed. Banks don’t breathe down their necks, and they focus on partners who can appreciate long-term relationships.
“We’ve been putting on the brakes all the time,” he says. “The Zen approach doesn’t mean you’re slacking off. It just means you’re letting things take their natural course. We end up being much more efficient and competitive and on the ball.”
A Father’s Privilege
Perhaps a natural extension of this approach would be to stop working altogether. Matt Schneider, W’97, did just that: he left the workforce to become a stay-at-home dad. It was not an easy transition for a former tech-industry worker and teacher. He faced the “Mr. Mom” stereotypes and experienced an isolation and loss of identity at first.
But seven years out, he is humbled by the honor of making sure his two sons are where they need to be, happy and healthy, knowing their friends and friends’ families, and generally being present in the life of his family.
Now he spreads the gospel. He started a group for dedicated fathers—NYC Dads Meetup Group. At first an informal gathering, it picked up steam.
“At some point, it all caught fire,” he recalls, adding that he devotes to it his free time when his children are at school.
Now the group has 600 “active” dad members and activities scheduled every weekday, including trips to parks and museums, music and gym classes, soccer games, and lectures and discussions for the fathers themselves. The group also has a very active blog to discuss “the changing face of fatherhood.”
“I actually don’t think fatherhood should be a privilege,” he says.
What Schneider believes is that the workplace hasn’t changed for men in 50 years even though the home has changed—the man is expected to be dedicated to work and help out with the family and household more and more. Schneider and his group are calling for barriers to be broken for men, allowing them to have the work-life balance they desire.
“We have the audacity to think we can change fatherhood by just being out in the world,” he says.
And be out in the world he has. The NYC Dads Group has gotten coverage in the New York Times, USA Today, The Today Show and Nightline, to name a few media outlets.
The group has become such a major project, and the writing and speaking opportunities so plentiful, that Schneider has to remind himself why he became a stay-at-home dad—to be devoted to his family, not to work.
Car Sales and Zebra Tails
Curtis Gunn, WG’64, has appreciated travel his whole life. It’s fitting, then, that a man who loves exotic locales such as Africa brought a part of Africa to his home state of Texas. Unlike exotic sea life collected in an aquarium or a puppy, these creatures aren’t the type of animals you watch and play with regularly. He says of his “pets,” “They do hide a lot.”
Surely it helps his animals’ bashful natures that he’s got about 2,300 acres in Texas on which they can graze, thrive and, yes, keep out of sight. Out there in his very own safari-land, he estimates he has a couple hundred heads—25 to 30 zebras, 40 wildebeests, six or so springbok, 40 waterbucks, 15 kudu, to name a few. He used to have black buck antelope from India. The animals weigh 60 to 80 pounds when full grown and reproduce three generations in one year. Too prolific for his tastes.
“That’s more of a hobby than anything else, though sometimes it gets all-consuming,” he says of his farm, though he hints that “passion” is probably a better word than “hobby.”
And there is some money in it, though it’s not his primary source of income. That would be his family business, auto sales, which the San Antonio native joined in 1967 with his own, brand-new Chevy dealership. His grandfather owned his first Chevy store in 1916. His father bought an Oldsmobile store in 1956. At the peak, Gunn owned 30 dealerships. Now age 75, he acts as advisor to his son in the family business, oversees a portfolio of real estate investments, and participates in San Antonio charities such as the natural history museum and a support group for national parks.
He is also still a traveler. He took his first trip to Africa in ’66.
“I just fell in love with Africa,” he says. “Texas looks a lot like Africa.”
While Gunn travels for leisure, and Lotti and Cooper for business, Kien Lam, W’06, discovered his profession by traveling the world.
For Lam, photography had always been a “pretty serious hobby,” and he shot for the Daily Pennsylvanian when he was on campus. But after attaining his four-year business degree, Lam did not want to mix his passion and his profession, much like people do not want to borrow money from friends. Instead, he worked in finance, took his two weeks of vacation to explore the world when he could, and after each trip he’d yearn for more. Until he gave in.
He traveled the world for a year, only returning to the United States about a year ago. Since then, he transformed the thousands of photos he took into a time-lapse video, posted it online and launched a viral sensation—which propelled him to his new career as a photographer.
Ask him about his favorite stops, and he’ll mention the deserts of Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, or the beaches of Thailand and Indonesia where he “really just lost track of time.”
He did not chart his course ahead of time; rather, he would make decisions and allow his path to unfold when he got into a country.
“I rarely made plans more than a few weeks at a time at most,” he says.
With his video, though, he did have a plan. While he could not fully anticipate the global media attention it aroused, he did hope it would be a catalyst to launch his photography career.
“I kind of knew I had something pretty unique,” he says. “If the video got some exposure, it would be something that could inspire people to actually take that trip they’ve always dreamt about.”
Ask Lam if he is breaking the Wharton mold, and he’ll say he doesn’t think so.
“The underlying traits are students wanting to do something ambitious,” he says.
That may be the best definition if we had to come up with just one for Wharton alumni, whether they are climbing the corporate ladder or exploring careers and personal lives in unique, diverse ways.