On being successful in business
Thomas Kutzen ’76
“It takes the same willingness to be involved that I discovered at Oberlin, the ability to examine the community and to be an individual therein with the right blend of independence, challenge, collaboration and courage.”
It was in Milton Friedman’s seminar on Price Theory at the University of Chicago that a few of us were selected to join a practice debate, as his warm-up for the Free to Choose TV series. The topic was based on his book’s collection of provocative new ideas for market forces to improve social issues.
The discussion related to the concept that school vouchers would facilitate more competition among public schools and, hopefully, increase the quality of a public education. My humble stance, filled with the confidence of a good education in economics from Oberlin, was simply that schools would compete, but with an increasing importance placed on first impressions of the facilities themselves. This would eclipse the real evaluation of the school, which is largely experiential. Rendering the measurement of a school’s relative value more superficial would not improve competition. New capital plant should matter, I argued, but it is not everything. Fortunately, there was a wink and a nod of agreement from the mighty professor.
That day was a turning point for me, and I have carried a sense of reflection on my Oberlin experience ever since. It’s natural for many to reflect on college while the experience is fresh, comparing it to graduate school, early work experiences, or our lives in the few years following graduation - but less so as time passes. For me, however, a more constant reflection over several decades yields the best understanding of Oberlin’s value.
As a student, living for the moment but with an eye to the future, my faith in the Oberlin value system was based on its population of predecessors. The enormous welcome and positivity of the campus was such fresh air; it enabled me to learn, to explore new activities, and to participate to the maximum. Graduate school and Wall Street would never hold the same sense of freedom.
Fast forward twenty-five years. I started AlphaBridge Capital Management, a hedge fund, as a natural outcome of the skills and experiences I gained on Wall Street. Not discounting the value of some good luck and timing, successfully starting and growing a hedge fund requires knowledge of more than just the financial markets. It requires being able to set a course and then use everything you have to make it work. Nearly ten years later, every day still presents new challenges. I still draw from my Oberlin experience and education and actually use concepts like the elasticity of demand or supply and the impact on financial products and their pricing in the markets we study.
But it’s not the scientific know-how from Oberlin, or the University of Chicago, or the experiences and lessons from the banking firms that I see as our formula for success. It is the willingness to make the right set of tracks as we travel forward with the businesses and markets we work with. It takes the same willingness to be involved that I discovered at Oberlin, the ability to examine the community around us and to be an individual therein with the right blend of independence, challenge, collaboration and courage. While successful business careers take many forms, an Oberlin education and participation in such an inspired community are terrific foundations for the challenges that any business faces.
There is no final chapter in studying the value of the Oberlin experience. Oberlin will welcome you always; this is one of the great attributes that make it such a special place. Volunteer, donate, and participate as an alumnus or parent, and you will continue to experience the value of Oberlin. We gain more value each time we raise a hand, make some calls, or give back.
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