Looking to pass on a bit of good career advice

 

WILD GEESE:Glenn Cunningham - Associate director, Master of Finance Career Programming and Advising at MIT Sloan School of Management

‘WE NEED more good finance people, not fewer,” says Glenn Cunningham. That’s why he’s left the trading floors and investment funds of his early career behind in favour of shaping America’s next crop of finance leaders.

As associate director of career programming on the Master of Finance programme at MIT Sloan School of Management, one of the top 10 business schools in the world, the Dubliner advises the finance leaders of the future on their careers. It’s advice that Cunningham himself benefited from as a student.

“I had a wonderful maths teacher at Belvedere College and I really enjoyed studying maths with him,” he recalls. “I’d done an international maths competition, and it just sparked me to think there might be something outside of Ireland. I give a lot of credit to Belvedere for keeping those opportunities open.”

Cunningham decided to bide his time before choosing a degree. Taking an actuary job with Norwich Union in Dublin straight out of school – “I wanted to get a little more independent and get working” – he spent two years in the real world, tweaking actuarial quotes before choosing a course.

“Doing the Leaving, I was a bit of a jack of all trades . . . I’d heard about this Liberal Arts model in the States and I thought it might be a better fit for me.” Aged 20, Cunningham was accepted into Harvard, majoring in Economics.

“Working for a couple of years before college was probably the best thing I ever did,” he recalls. “By the time I started at Harvard, I was so energised to get back into education, I just couldn’t get enough.”

Cunningham describes his Ivy League experience as “an unbelievable melting pot for someone coming from Ireland”.

Offered a spot on JP Morgan’s global markets programme on graduation in 1994, he went straight onto their foreign exchange desk at 60 Wall Street, working as a trader.

“I was focused on European cross currencies, when we still had European cross currencies, and then I moved to the sales desk in foreign exchange,” he recalls. “I was able to put together the first Polish zloty currency option client contract for JP Morgan and that was a nice little first at the time.”

He says while the trading floor experience was “intense, fun, chaotic and stressful”, there was also “great comradery”. “It was a young person’s game and I’m really happy to have done it, but I’m happy to have closed that chapter too.”

As foreign exchange markets started to integrate, particularly with the birth of the euro, Cunningham saw a natural window to step out of work and complete an MBA, which he began at Columbia University in 1999. Was it hard to leave the riches of Wall Street behind in favour of student life?

“You know, I’ve faced that quite a few times, going back to college but also making the break from the private sector,” he says.

“In my 20s, it was about attaining certain financial goals or measuring my success through financial goals, and I think as I started to get into my 30s, it became less about that and more about doing something that I really enjoyed.”

Wanting to stay in financial services, the MBA was about broadening his experience beyond trading. Subsequently joining Deloitte’s finance practice, he said the qualification enabled him to move into strategic consulting. From there he took up the job of vice-president of investment funds with Fidelity Investments.

Giving career advice to Harvard students part-time whetted his appetite for a third move back to academia. When three years ago MIT Sloan invited him to head up career advice on the college’s new graduate finance degree, Cunningham accepted. But with world economies still reeling from the actions of reckless individuals and institutions in the finance industry, do students still want to sign up to a career that has become so sullied?

“Here’s the thing – if Brooklyn Bridge fell tomorrow, the world wouldn’t say ‘Stop educating engineers’. We need more good finance people, not fewer, because the system is broken,” says Cunningham.

He says the topic of ethics is permeating finance courses like never before. “I take every opportunity to really enforce the importance of doing the right thing.” He says with the economy gradually reviving, a “new kind of finance” is emerging. “There is a lot more emphasis on risk management, good data and quantitative techniques to help make better decisions now.”

Being Irish has helped during his time in the US, he says. “When there is a 50:50 balance on something, with an Irish accent here, things may just go your way.” He credits his early mentors at Belvedere for their influence. “I know how much of an impact they had on me and if I can replicate that in a small way here, I’d feel it was a job well done.”