When Bing Lang was first presenting her findings for a consulting project to her peers, she was nervous about stumbling over words or failing to get her point across — and of taking a wadded-up paper ball to the face.
Lang was part of a team of six Stevens MBA students that worked on a consulting project for Pershing LLC, a Jersey City-based provider of services to other financial organizations. In a 16-hour rehearsal and practice on the eve of the team’s final presentation, one of the project advisers, Dr. Murad Mithani, handed out paper and encouraged students to throw balls at their colleagues when they gestured wildly or went off course.
It was a big help, Lang said.
“It calmed me down, helped me gain my confidence,” she said. “It helped me get over making mistakes when I was presenting. And for the rest of the team, it makes you focus on what the speaker is saying — because you don’t want to be the only one not throwing balls at him.”
Addressing a real-world challenge
Lang and her colleagues are the first Stevens students to participate in the Industry Capstone Program, in which MBA candidates work with a company to address a real-world challenge executives are facing. Pershing, a BNY Mellon company, asked students to assess how its business might be affected by the rise of computer-enabled systems that use intelligent algorithms to automatically manage an individual’s finances.
In a presentation to Pershing executives at the company’s Jersey City headquarters in May, the students walked high-level employees through their research into how disruptive so called “robo-advisers” might be to their clients’ businesses, and made a number of recommendations as to how the company could position their clients to take advantage of what students say is a growing trend. Among their suggestions: creating online platforms for investors, diversification into areas outside the realm of those algorithms, and building a stronger traditional advice model with high-touch customer service.
Traditional financial advisers interviewed by Stevens students said there’s no substitute for a human at the wheel of an investment portfolio. But students found that’s a skewed perspective, since 20 percent of clients take up 80 percent of an adviser’s time.
To ensure they brought the right perspective to the Pershing team, students interviewed more than a dozen investors, and invested in seven different online platforms to better understand the role and capabilities of online advisory firms. They also spoke with Pershing competitors, current clients, broker dealers and startup ventures to get a broader perspective on the pulse of the industry.
Rich Bingham, a director in Pershing’s Global Strategy, Marketing and Communications group, said the message from students was clear.
“The reality is that digital advisers are making inroads into the mass and mass-affluent markets,” said Bingham, whose group is responsible for innovation initiatives. “The concern is that if a tipping point is reached, exponential growth could begin, and result in late movers being marginalized.”
Executives at the meeting praised the business sense and presentation skills the students brought to the table, but the students’ command of technology also drew praise. Bingham pointed out that many of the suggestions had been kicked around by managers at Pershing, and praised the team for having “a real understanding of the technology behind the possibility” of machine-driven portfolio management.
That’s exactly the kind of student companies get when they engage with Stevens. The MBA program incorporates a technology-flavored emphasis that is distinct among business schools, said Dr. Murrae Bowden, MBA program director and another adviser on this consulting project.
“Elsewhere, the focus is primarily on the business disciplines,” he said. “Here, we recognize that technology is an important component in any business, and have tailored our core to include courses on technology and innovation management, as well as entrepreneurship.”
An MBA degree that's distinct
For Lang, that was an important distinction as she looked for an MBA program that would allow her to work in the financial industry. She worked at a software development company in Beijing for three years before coming to Stevens. She worked as a computer programmer before getting a taste for management, which she enjoyed despite having no experience.
“I want to learn more about management and finance, and Stevens is famous for its engineering and technology and innovation,” Lang said. “I have a dream of creating my own company, and Stevens combines all my dream factors together: stay in technology, learn management and be innovative.”
Lang said the project helped her make sense of the lessons she absorbed in the classroom.
“When I was taking previous courses, I learned a lot, but there’s a gap of what I learned and what the industry wants us to learn. This project gave me the chance to see what the industry cares about,” she said. “Without this project, it might have taken five or 10 years of working in the field to really make sense of what I learned.”
That’s the advantage of the Industry Capstone Program, Mithani said. The program, he said, “works as a high knowledge, high impact consulting arrangement that combines the creativeness of academic experience with the practicality of professional experience. Students are expected to propose expert solutions to real organizations seeking change.
“This requires students to not only capitalize on their academic work in believing that once they have all the pieces of the puzzle in place, things can start working, but they work closely with the people who are eager to translate their ideas into action.”
'Grateful' for student insight
The faculty advisers worked with Bingham to plan a strategy for the students’ research. The team was split in two, with one team enjoying direct access to executives over the course of the project and the other meeting only once with the Pershing team before coming up with innovative solutions that might have been impeded by regular access to the team.
The results won over executives. Bingham complimented the students for their creativity and effective presentation skills during the two-hour session.
“Each time we sat down with you, I was more and more impressed,” he said to the students. “We’re so grateful for your insight. You validated some key points we’ve been discussing and also brought in some great new concepts that made us think differently about the challenge at hand. ”
Much of that, Lang said, had to do with the perfectionists on the student team, as well as the structure offered by their advisers. The professors, she said, “made it all come together.”
“They gave us direction when we didn’t know where we were going,” she said. “They attended every long-hours meetings, and late into the nights, when we met. They adjusted the methodology to help us when we got frustrated or didn’t know how to go forward.”