Access Distributed, a non-profit organization, formed a partnership with the University of Wisconsin and the School of Business to help students from underrepresented backgrounds get jobs in high-ranking positions in the finance industry.
The initial collaboration started in New York, where the founders of Access Distributed worked on the same team in investment finance with now Director at the Nicholas Center for Corporate Finance at the Wisconsin School of Business Brad Chandler, Chandler said.
Mannie Ajayi and Jessica Holton, two of the founders of Access Distributed, reached out to Chandler last year and told him about an idea for a free fellowship program they wanted to start offering to students from underrepresented backgrounds who were interested in investment banking, but not attending elite private schools such as Harvard or Columbia.
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“When you are born into a family where these things exist and you know these things happen, it is much easier for you to find yourself in one of those jobs,” Chandler said. “And that spoke to me as well.”
As the son of a schoolteacher and a mechanic, Chandler said he never knew anyone who worked in New York. The program’s goal is to impact students from backgrounds similar to his and others from even more underrepresented demographics at an early stage in their college career to help them make connections with high-profile firms normally not accessible to universities beyond the top tier.
Hallie Greenberg was a participant in the program’s pilot in her sophomore year. Greenberg said she submitted an application and created a video in order to apply to the year-long program.
Once accepted, students learn from financial trainers, are paired with mentors and receive real-world experience from major financial firms like TPG and The Carlyle Group, all while networking and building relationships with fellows from around the county, Holton said.
Last year’s pilot program had six participants from the Wisconsin School of Business. About the same number of participants is anticipated for the coming year.
Greenberg said the first semester was really focused on learning and preparing for interviews. Every week the participants were talking about a new financial topic. They held conferences over Zoom with panels of professionals before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
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“They were way ahead of the game,” Greenberg said. “They were the first people I had ever seen use Zoom before. When everything went online, nothing really changed.”
Over winter break, all fifteen fellows nationwide convened in Chicago for a three-day event that allowed hands-on learning provided by financial professionals. This also gave them an opportunity to meet each other in person.
The program’s second semester was focused on recruiting, where guest speakers and panels of analysts would join their weekly Zoom meetings, Greenberg said.
Greenberg said the most helpful aspect of the program was being paired with a mentor.
“I am so close with my mentor now,” Greenberg said. “I am going to be working at the same firm as her. It just gives you this good relationship and good in to whatever you want to be.”
Max Fischer, another UW student who participated in Access Distributed’s pilot program as a sophomore, said his experience was amazing.
Students were put through training courses that gave them the fundamentals of the financial industry. The first semester was really a learning experience, Fischer said.
“I had a mentor at Evercore and Piper Sandler,” Fischer said. “Every week I had a call with one of my mentors. We were able to go over finance and interview questions.”
Fischer declared a finance major early but remained unsure about the decision until joining the investment banking club based on an advisor’s recommendation. When given the opportunity to apply to Access Distributed, he jumped at it, Fischer said.
Fischer said many talented kids go to state schools like Wisconsin, but that is not where top financial institutions are generally recruiting from. Access Distributed is building a bridge, putting positions at those firms within reach of students who do not have a direct line. And the program is reporting success.
“All the other kids from Wisconsin, I think we all would speak very highly of this program,” Fischer said. “It is something Wisconsin really needs to continue. Especially finance, it is a tough, tough process and I think this program was so helpful in preparing me.”
Access Distributed’s recent partnership with the $70 billion investment firm TPG proves the program is gaining traction.
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In a statement, TPG said they are proud of their partnership with Access Distributed. They are focused on supporting the mission of enabling students from all backgrounds to gain skills and experiences to launch successful careers.
“If you are investing in a company at a really early stage, a lot of people only look at the management,” Fischer said. “For this program, the two people that started it, Mannie and Jess, the sky is the limit. Because of that and the partnership [with] TPG, I can see them partnering with every bank on the street.”