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Giving Minority Students A Leg Up in the Business

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Many people have bemoaned the lack of racial and ethnic diversity within and around the profession, noting the obvious fact that the makeup of the financial planning and investment advisory industry, and the ranks of its practitioners, fail to reflect the demographics of American society as a whole. Chuck Widger didn’t just talk about the problem; he has done something about it.

Brinker Capital’s founder, chairman, and CEO, Widger was recognized for his efforts in establishing the Gateway to Leadership internship program at an April 24 dinner co-hosted by The Money Management Institute (MMI) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Gateway to Leadership, which debuted in 2007, places African American students in summer internship positions at some of the biggest financial services firms. “When you look at the financial services industry, there is an under-representation of minorities,” explains Widger. “Only 2% of the workforce in this industry is African American–something is wrong with that.”

In 2006, Widger and the co-originator of the program, Chris Davis, decided to put a program together to give these students opportunities in the industry. “We met with the NAACP and told them what we had in mind,” recalls Widger. “Once we obtained that commitment, we called on members of the board of the MMI and some of them got involved as well.”

After a screening process that scanned students’ academic records, extracurricular activities, and leadership positions, 19 students were selected to participate in the 2007 program. The students came from a select group of historically black colleges and universities (Bennett College, Florida A&M University, Hampton University, Howard University, Grambling State University, and Southern University), and interned at firms including A.G. Edwards, Bank of America, Brinker Capital, Charles Schwab & Co., and Goldman Sachs, among others.

Each firm can develop its own set of experiences for the interns, though in each case, the students rotated through a variety of positions in such areas as investment management, due diligence, performance reporting, and finance and accounting. “They got to experience all the different operating functions of a financial services or investment management firm,” notes Widger.

Learning by Doing

Simultaneously, students participated in a case competition. Teams of interns worked on a case designed by a faculty member of one of the participating schools. After the solved cases were submitted, judges reviewed the solutions, and the winning team presented at a ceremony in August. Bi-weekly conference calls also kept the students in contact during the eight-week internship, and a Web site created just for Gateway graduates and current interns helps with the networking process during and after the program.

The Gateway curriculum concluded with a graduation-like ceremony in New York. “[The students] show up in May with a cockeyed view of the industry and by the end of the summer, they are properly prepared to perform at a high level, and they see the career opportunities,” notes Widger. “The growth that takes place over eight weeks is phenomenal.”

Gateway to Leadership 2008 began on May 21 with a kick-off meeting in Washington, D.C. Approximately 34 interns are expected to participate in this year’s program, hosted by 17 firms. In addition to the sponsoring firms, other companies have stepped up to support the program. Jones International University is providing access to its e-global library and Extended Stay Hotels is providing housing assistance.

As for future plans, Widger would like to expand the program to include another minority group–Hispanics. “Our long-term plan is to have a broad-based diversity initiative,” he concludes.

Staff Editor Kara P. Stapleton can be reached at [email protected].


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