“We are building courses to inspire, to raise awareness that the finance industry is one that anyone can navigate with the right exposure, the correct skill sets. That’s why AltFinance is great for Wharton, and vice versa for our HBCU participants.” – Dr. Burcu Esmer, Academic Director of the AltFinance Institute and Senior Lecturer of Finance at Wharton

In Fall 2023, the School hosted the Wharton-AltFinance Institute conference on Penn’s campus in a two day workshop for historically Black college and university (HBCU) students to learn about the alternative finance investment industry. 

The Wharton School collaborates with the AltFinance initiative to introduce HBCU students to alternative investing, which involves financial processes outside the traditional system of banks. The establishment of the Wharton-AltFinance Institute is in conjunction with Dean Erika James’ vision for extending business knowledge and acumen, allowing programs like AltFinance to share Wharton’s research insights and curricular innovations with more students than ever before. 

Alternative finance meets tried and true business practices

Wharton first partnered with AltFinance in 2021, offering a virtual institute with coursework on alternative investment. AltFinance President and CEO Marcus Shaw said the initiative aims to expand access to finance education.  

“AltFinance is designed to help increase diversity in the alternative investment ecosystem by partnering with HBCUs and really arming students with industry-driven curriculum and sustainable financial support,” Shaw said.

Dean James converses with AltFinance President and CEO Marcus Shaw during the conference in October. (Image: AltFinance)

During her fireside chat on the last day of the conference, Dean James’ echoed these sentiments from Shaw, and also spoke on the specific value that HBCU students bring to not only the Wharton-infused partnership, but also the world of finance writ large. “There is a level of confidence and maturity that comes from students in the HBCU system,” said James. “When you’re in that environment, you don’t need to prove anything to any other group. You are surrounded by people who just want to support what you do.”

Both Dean James and the founding leaders of AltFinance recognize that to truly impact an industry, it’s important to get specific about the qualities future employers seek in their top candidates. Narrowing this scope includes expanding institutional reach and relationships to stay current on the fluctuating markets of today. “It’s very easy for academic institutions to become insular,” James remarked. “When you have very smart faculty, it’s easy to think you know everything. But when the world is changing, we make a point to get our faculty out into the world and meet with employers.” 

Caption: Hands raised, eyes forward: questions abounded during Dean James’ Q&A portion of the conference’s fireside chat. (Image: AltFinance)

Founding sponsorship of AltFinance came from Apollo Global Management, run by CEO and Wharton alumnus Marc Rowan, W’84, WG’85; Ares Management Corporation, co-founded by Bennett Rosenthal, W’85, WG’86; and Oaktree Capital Management, co-founded and co-chaired by Howard Marks, W’67. With robust models of leadership and success underscoring the overall mission of AltFinance, the program will continue to thrive. “We needed to make sure that the Wharton faculty members involved with AltFinance are aware of what competitive employers are actually looking for today. Diverse students bring unique perspectives and a set of experiences that challenge the status quo, which is an essential asset in this burgeoning industry,” said James. 

A convergence of diverse perspectives

Meet Florida A&M senior Jazmine Hughes, a business student who ascended to Philadelphia with fellow classmates and her mentor and FAMU professor Dr. Inger Daniels-Hollar. Hughes found particular value in the cross-institutional collaboration between not only Wharton and FAMU, but the opportunities for connection with other HBCU students from across the country. 

Florida A&M University senior Jazmine Hughes, pictured in the lobby of Wharton’s Huntsman Hall during the October AltFinance conference. (Image: Grace Meredith)

“I think the Institute is amazing,” said Hughes. “I appreciate all of the courses that are offered through the Institute, and that we have access to these workshops and outstanding professors. The exposure from HBCU students to Wharton professors – and then vice-versa from professor to student – is inspiring because we can take our Wharton learnings back home with us and really put them into practice.” 

Her professor, Dr. Daniels-Hollar, echoed these sentiments and also added that the intersection of HBCU students with Wharton’s network of esteemed peers and faculty offers a value that is destined to resonate, long after their involvement with AltFinance formally concludes. “HBCUs have hardworking faculty and talented students who navigate through certain historical yet persistent disadvantages. Access to elite networks, exposure to instruction inspired by cutting edge research, and opportunities to demonstrate their skills and talents to the right audience can make all of the difference for our students,” Daniels-Hollar said. 

HBCU students are striving for opportunities just like every other student in America. I am delighted that organizations like AltFinance are available to bridge the gap, to help get our students where they want to go. It’s invaluable.” 

Dean James (center) stands with visiting HBCU faculty at the AltFinance conference in October, including Dr. Daniels-Hollar, who is pictured to Dean James’ immediate right. (Image: AltFinance)

With Wharton’s support of AltFinance and the Institute, the School is carving paths for success in a burgeoning industry, while also connecting students to mentors and robust channels to explore high quality research and professional opportunities.

Looking on, Dr. Daniels-Hollar attends a lecture in a classroom within Wharton’s Huntsman Hall. (Image: AltFinance)

“Nurturing students is the name of the game,” Daniels-Hollar said. “When they go to various conferences and expose themselves to the public, or graduate and perform well in roles at prestigious firms, it enhances the reputation of schools like Florida A&M; which, in turn, attracts more talented students to come to HBCUs. At the conference, it is very clear that Wharton is also aligned with these goals, which is wonderful.” 

From the old guard to the new and the excellent, AltFinance connects 

Senior Lecturer and AltFinance’s faculty director, Dr. Burcu Esmer, envisions an equitable future for the finance industry, wherein excellence is never compromised with an emphasis on the importance of diverse representation in finance. 

“We want to show that there are different arms within the finance industry, and that finance is not scary,” said Esmer. “We are building courses to inspire, to raise awareness that the finance industry is one that anyone can navigate with the right exposure, the correct skill sets. That’s why AltFinance is great for Wharton, and vice versa for our HBCU participants. It’s great for us to be exposed to the strengths of these students; to hear what they want to learn, to better understand the diversity and potential in the field.”

Dr. Esmer is pictured lecturing during the AltFinance conference in October. (Image: AltFinance)

Looking to the future of AltFinance, Esmer reflected on a sentiment reiterated throughout the conference. “We are very lucky to have someone like Dean James,” Esmer said. “Her heart is in this, and she also sees the huge benefit of this partnership for Wharton, our faculty, and HBCU students around the country. We’re all looking forward to long and mutually beneficial relationships.”

As the Wharton-AltFinance collaboration continues to illuminate paths of success in the finance industry, the lasting impact extends beyond workshops and conferences. In the convergence of knowledge, mentorship, and ambition, this partnership not only breaks barriers but builds bridges designed to last, forging a path where every voice is heard, and every opportunity is within reach.

– Grace Meredith

Posted: January 22, 2024

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