Young People Forgo MBAs For High-Paying Ventures

Most people who knew Gabriel Hammond at Johns Hopkins in the late 1990s could have predicted he would rise quickly on Wall Street. As a freshman, he traded stocks from his dorm room, making a $1,000 bet on Caterpillar. Soon after, he abandoned his childhood dream of becoming a lawyer and, upon graduation, joined Goldman Sachs as a stock analyst.

Three years into his new job, Mr. Hammond noticed something. Very few of his young co-workers were taking a hiatus from Wall Street to go to business school, long considered an essential rung on the way to the top of the corporate ladder.

So he, too, decided to forgo an MBA. Instead, he raised $5 million and started his own hedge fund, Alerian Capital Management, in 2004. The fund now manages $300 million out of offices in New York and Dallas, and Mr. Hammond, 28, enjoys seven-figure payouts.

Like other young people on the fast track, Mr. Hammond has run the numbers and figures that an MBA is a waste of money and time — time that could be spent making money. “There’s no way that I would consider it,” he says.

As more Americans have become abundantly wealthy, young people are recalculating old assumptions about success. The flood of money into private equity and hedge funds over the last decade has made billionaires out of people like Kenneth Griffin, 38, chief executive of the Citadel Investment Group, and Eddie Lampert, 45, the hedge fund king who bought Sears and Kmart. These men are icons for the fast buck set — particularly the mathematically gifted cohort of rising stars known as “quants.” Many college graduates who are bright enough to be top computer scientists or medical researchers are becoming traders instead, and they measure their status in dollars instead of titles.

Many of the brightest don’t covet a corner office at Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. Instead, they’re happy to work at a little-known hedge fund run out of a two-room office in Greenwich, Conn., as long as they get a fat payday. The competition from alternative investment firms — private equity and hedge funds in particular — is driving up salaries of entry-level analysts at much larger banks. And top performers at the banks make so much money today that they don’t want to take two years off for business school, even if it’s a prestigious institution like the Wharton School or Harvard.

The new ranks of traders and high-octane number crunchers on Wall Street are also a breed apart from celebrated long-term investors like Warren E. Buffett and investment banking gurus like Felix G. Rohatyn. What sets the new crowd apart is the need for speed and a thirst for instant riches.

“With the growth of hedge funds, you’re getting a lot of really smart people who are getting paid a lot very young,” says Arjuna Rajasingham, 29, an analyst and a trader at a hedge fund in London. “I know it’s a bit of a short-term view, but it’s hard to walk away from something that’s going really well.”

The shift has not gone unnoticed by administrators at some business schools. Richard Schmalensee ’65, who was dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management until June, chalked it up to the changing nature of money-making. In many banks and investment boutiques, traders with math and science backgrounds now contribute more to the bottom line than the white-shoed investment bankers who long presided over Wall Street. And traders tend to be less likely to go to business school.

“I don’t think you will see MBA’s less represented in executive suites, but you may see MBA’s less represented in the lists of the world’s richest people,” Professor Schmalensee says.

Business school has not fallen out of favor among the student population at large. The number of students who earned MBA’s in 2005 was about 142,600, nearly twice the level in 1991. But as MBA’s become more common, the degree seems to carry less prestige with people who land top-paying jobs in finance soon after college.

And recent upheavals in the financial markets don’t seem to be changing the thinking of these younger high-fliers and their employers.

Hedge fund managers are unlikely to punish their younger workers for any dip in returns this year, says Adam Zoia, managing partner at Glocap, a headhunter in New York. Management fees charged by funds — typically 2 percent — come in regardless of return levels and can more than cover large salaries for young employees at many funds.

“Most managers say, ‘If I don’t pony up a decent bonus, then I’m going to lose people,’ ” Mr. Zoia says. “It’d be short-sighted of them not to retain their good people.”

At funds that manage $1 billion to $3 billion, people with just a few years of finance experience will make $337,000 this year, Mr. Zoia says, and those with five to nine years of experience will average $830,000, up 6 percent from last year. These estimates include analysts and researchers but not portfolio traders, who can make much more because they sometimes share in profits.

Dozens of young people (mostly male) who want to be, or already are, successful traders said in interviews that they relished the challenge of their jobs, in addition to the lofty paychecks.

But they also spoke as if a money-clock were ticking: many said they wanted to make as much money as fast as they could so that they could live in style later in life while doing less lucrative things like running a charity, working for the government, spending time with their families, or inventing new technologies. Some, of course, plan to stay in finance their entire careers, and they, too, are very focused on earning fat bonuses fast.

“The sales pitch of these private equity funds or these hedge funds is, ‘Come here, and you’ll make a million bucks in two years,’ ” says Gregg R. Lemkau, 38, managing director and chief operating officer of investment banking at Goldman Sachs, who passed up business school to stay at Goldman in the early 1990s when that choice was more rare.

And because today there are more self-made millionaires — and billionaires — than ever before, 20-something traders seem bolder in their monetary ambitions. Business school often does not fit into these plans.

“If you want to make the most money in the shortest period of time, you can’t be away from work for two years,” says Vitaly Dukhon, 30, who recently left the Fortress Investment Group in New York to join another hedge fund.

While in college at Harvard, Mr. Dukhon thought he would go to business school in his mid-20s, but in his first job on the Treasury desk at Deutsche Bank, he realized that the smartest people just a few years his senior were staying put. “I saw that people that had been working for 20 years did have MBA’s, but people five to six years older than me were not going,” he says. “Going to business school is a way for people to try to open the door, to try to get into a company or hedge fund. But if you’re already there, it doesn’t make sense to go.”

Mr. Hammond of Alerian noticed the same trend while he was an analyst at Goldman Sachs. His co-workers who went to business school either wanted to change careers, or they were not doing well in their current jobs, he says.

Part of the shift comes as investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse have changed their tune on business school. Instead of pushing all their young employees into MBA programs, banks are telling the best ones to stay put.

“We are the perfect training ground for people who want to have careers in finance,” says Caitlin McLaughlin, director of campus recruiting for Citi, the former Citigroup. Just 15 years ago, Ms. McLaughlin estimates, 85 to 90 percent of Citi’s analyst classes ended up attending business school. Now, she thinks that figure is closer to 50 percent.

Samir Ahmad, 25, has worked at Citi since college. This summer, he was promoted to associate, an MBA-level position, in the fixed-income, currencies and commodities division. Despite advice from his older brother that he should attend business school, Mr. Ahmad says he cannot see what he would gain to justify the time. “If I were to spend two years at business school, I’d get an MBA degree, but I think learning a different product or a different group here at Citi would be more valuable,” he says.

To be sure, business school can still be a valuable investment, especially for those who want to change careers. Most schools teach a well-rounded curriculum that exposes students to the full picture of the way the business world works. They are great places to make friends and connections that can help throughout a career. And the top business schools serve as a useful filtering system, placing a seal of approval on graduates that can help them find jobs.

“Most banking — and that includes private equity — is about deals and about relationships,” says Timothy Butler, director of MBA career development programs at Harvard Business School. “That will always be MBA territory.”

Yet even some students at top schools like Harvard say the decision to go is tougher now than it likely was two decades ago. “We all struggled with it,” says Katie Shaw, 28, who is in her second year of business school there. “It’s not only, ‘Where do I go to business school?’ It’s also, ‘Do I go?’ ”