May 15, 2008 — Five members of the University of Virginia's Class of 2008 have discovered a novel way to give something back to U.Va. even before they've left the Grounds.
They hope that their legacy, an organization called Get on the Street, will help future African-American students at U.Va. follow their paths from Charlottesville to Wall Street.
Last summer, Debola Badejo, who will receive a bachelor of science degree in systems engineering with a concentration in financial systems and a minor in business, gained an internship in the investment banking division of Credit Suisse. Once back in Charlottesville, he began sharing notes with several classmates who had also spent their summers as interns on Wall Street.
"As we talked about our experiences, we discovered some common problems that we had faced in, first of all, gaining information about the internships, but also in going through the process of the information sessions, the applications and the interviews," said Badejo. "Together, we decided it would be a service to other students if we could provide a support group and demystify the process."
So Badejo joined forces with Stephanie Durden, a marketing and international business major in the McIntire School of Commerce; Nicholas Jordan, a political and social thought major in the College of Arts & Sciences; Moréniké Mougni, a finance major in McIntire and an economics major in the College; and Whitney Wilcher, a psychology and English major in the College.
In September 2007, they formalized the organization around a clear mission statement: "To give talented minority students at the University of Virginia, who are historically underrepresented in the business community, the chance to fulfill and enhance their career ambitions and opportunities in the financial services industry."
The results, less than nine months later, are impressive. By year's end, the group had 30 members, representing a range of academic interests. This summer, nine of those members who were mentored as part of the GOTS program will participate in internships with such companies as JPMorgan Chase, Barclays Capital and Deloitte Consulting. Altogether, underclassmen who participated in the program received 18 internship offers.
The program has been designed with three strategies: mentorship, business career development training and networking.
Mentorship has two parts. There are peer mentors, starting with the five graduating students who worked this year with individual students. But there are also "street mentors" — U.Va. alumni who currently work on Wall Street and are willing to assist in the process.
"The street mentor aspect of the program was more informal this year than we anticipate it will be in the future, but we were able to make some initial contacts," said Badejo.
Going forward, the five founders will themselves become street mentors once they take their respective places on Wall Street.
"Within the organizations where we work, we can keep an eye on U.Va. students who apply for internships and encourage them along the way," Badejo said.
In addition to mentoring, GOTS partnered with the University Career Services and five faculty members to create what it dubbed a "Business Career Development Curriculum." Members meet twice a month and focus on introductory topics, including likely interview questions and the recruitment process.
Even in its first year, GOTS held several networking events. One was a trip to New York where 15 students met with representatives of both Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.
"The five of us are all planning on staying very active," said Durden, who interned at Lehman Brothers last summer and will return to the company's investment banking division as a full-time analyst after graduation. "But we also are comfortable leaving the program in the hands of the new leadership team that is taking over for next year. We have some hopes that we could help spread this program to other universities, too."
Wilcher, who will either enter a master's program in accounting or begin work with Wachovia Securities, believes GOTS can continue to play an important role, not only at U.Va. but ultimately by helping to provide greater diversity among the workforce in the financial management industry.
"Having had an internship and now looking ahead to a career in this field, I think diversifying the workforce is critically important," Wilcher said. "I think it is especially important when you can see diversity in senior management positions. One of the reasons that I chose not to return to the firm where I did my internship was that I didn't feel comfortable there. There was no one who looked like me; there was no one who shared a similar life experience. When you're spending 80, 90, 100 hours a week working with people in these settings, you really need to have a comfortable culture."
In Durden's view, Wall Street needs to become more diverse because its clients are more diverse than ever.
"We've seen firsthand how important diversity is," she said. "And more and more firms are coming to recognize that importance."
Badejo notes that the experience of creating GOTS has increased his appreciation for the role that diversity plays. Companies, he says, should not be forced to embrace diversity, but should see real value in providing the broadest range of ideas for clients.
The creation of GOTS is a classic win-win experience — those U.Va. students who have gained internships for this summer are certainly among the winners, but so are the program's founders who have benefited immeasurably from the experience.
"I think we have gained a greater understanding of what it means to be entrepreneurs," Badejo said. "We know what it means now to take an idea and see it grow through our teamwork.
"But this has also given us an appreciation for giving back. When we graduate and become alumni and think about how we can contribute to U.Va., this is one important way that we can do that. There are clear rewards in giving back and in understanding that as you're moving forward in your own career, you should also be thinking about giving opportunities to those who are behind you."