Opportunity Calls

 

Christina Feng '08 taps Barclays head Robert E. Diamond '73 to bring finance to the classroom

By David McKay Wilson '76
Photography by Victoria Feng '13
 

Diamond
Robert E. "Bob" Diamond ’73 addresses students while Teach for America Teacher Christina Feng ’08 looks on.

A week before graduation, high school senior Lissette Paulino stood with her classmates in the office of Barclays PLC President, Robert E. Diamond, Jr. ’73, listening to him discuss the acquisition and integration of bankrupt Lehman Brothers’ North American businesses at the depth of the Wall Street meltdown in 2008. It was a tale of risk and reward in the highest levels of international finance, sprinkled with anecdotes about Diamond’s personal life, and punctuated by encouragement to students to consider a career in finance.     

Standing by Paulino was Christina Feng ’08, business and economics teacher at the High School for Arts and Technology, 18 blocks away, near Lincoln Center. “What CEO invites high school students to his office?” said Paulino, who plans to major in accounting at Lehman College in the Bronx. “Ms. Feng has really opened up doors for us.”    

That June meeting in Diamond’s office at Barclays Capital was a fitting end to Feng’s second year with Teach for America, the organization that takes non-education majors and provides on-the-job training for positions in schools that serve low-income students. Feng is one of 7,300 TFA corps members, including 14 from Colby who taught in urban and rural schools in 2009-10. This fall, 11 graduates from Colby’s Class of 2010 will join TFA.     

Feng, who grew up in Manhattan’s East Village, has taken to teaching teens in her hometown. She signed on with TFA just after graduation, deciding to put off law school for a few years so she “could do something meaningful right out of college.” She agreed to teach for two years at the High School for Arts and Technology, located at Amsterdam Avenue and 65th Street. It’s one of six so-called “small schools” established on the campus of the former Martin Luther King Jr. High School, which earned its reputation as a rough school after two students were shot there in 2002.     

Feng, who will earn her master’s in education by summer’s end, has re-upped at TFA for a third year. She has her sights set on graduate business school, and eventually a professorship in business education. “You improve as a teacher over time,” said Feng, 24. “I now know what works with teaching these difficult concepts.”    

The field trip to Barclays Capital provided, not only a look into the world of finance, but also a glimpse of Feng’s success in the classroom. The visit grew out of her determination to connect her students with top community leaders.    

Feng, a government major at Colby, recalled the advice of Professor G. Calvin Mackenzie, Colby’s Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government, who urged her to be proud of what she knew and not be bashful about asking for what she wanted. “He told me I had to toot my own horn,”

Feng recalled. “At Colby, I learned that as long as you ask, and ask nicely, and show you are deserving, you can get whatever you need.”    

What she needed recently was a top financial leader to inspire her aspiring students.     

At first TFA had arranged for Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein to speak in her class. That planned appearance sparked classroom focus on mergers and acquisitions, proprietary trading, and the mystery of hedge funds. But it turned out that Blankfein was busy over at Goldman, so he had to bow out.

Feng was too far into the material—and too excited about involving inner-city youths in the study of finance—to just move on. So she logged on to the Colby alumni directory and found Stephen Frechette ’08, an analyst in Barclays Capital’s investment banking division. She also noted Diamond, chair of the Colby Board of Trustees, who pulled off what Esquire magazine called “The Deal of the Century” when Barclays strategically acquired Lehman’s North American businesses as Lehman reeled in fall 2008.

Feng sent Diamond an e-mail, saying she believed her students deserved attention from successful people like him. She told Diamond her students were as talented and motivated as anyone else. They just needed the tools and opportunities to succeed.

His response? “Should have asked a good Colby man first,” Diamond replied in an e-mail.

After talking to her students at their school for an hour on May 19, Diamond invited them to his office, on the second floor of the former Lehman Brothers tower at 50th Street and Seventh Avenue, a property that Barclays Capital acquired with the $1.75 billion acquisition. Diamond told the students that Lehman, before the fall, had been valued at $30 billion.

The students were eager to listen to and engage Diamond when they entered his office, just off the trading floor of Barclays Capital’s fixed-income group. They checked out pictures of Diamond with presidents Bush and Clinton, another photo of the Barclays chief golfing with Phil Mickelson. Student Anthony Harris cut to the chase, asking about the company’s internship program, which Diamond noted hired 560 college juniors this June—from an estimated 11,000 applicants.

The graduating seniors in Feng’s class would be eligible in just three years. “I hope to get applications from some of you during your junior year,” Diamond said.

Then the group was off to an upstairs conference room for a simulated game of commodities trading before heading for a tour of the trading floor, where traders talking on headsets sat at desks arrayed with computer screens. The high school group had lunch and carted home some sweet Barclays swag: MP3 speakers, sky-blue Barclays baseball caps, and drawstring Barclays totes.

Leaving the Barclays towers, Paulino said she was intrigued by the huge amount of data at the traders’ behest, as indexes marched up and down and alerts popped up. She’d already taken Diamond’s encouragement to heart–she’s determined to apply for the internship in three years, she said.

“If you want to work in the finance world, you need to get that kind of experience,” said Paulino. “Ms. Feng has provided me with this opportunity.  Now I have to make it happen.”

 
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