A group of Davidson economics students put on their Sunday best recently and motored to Charlotte to gain a "Comparative Advantage" in their career aspirations.
They gathered for a reception at the home of Professor of Economics Vikram Kumar, where each one was introduced to a volunteer mentor pledged to help them explore business careers and fortify their professional skills. Davidson President Carol Quillen attended the gathering to thank mentors for their participation and urge students to take advantage of the opportunity.
This is the 14th year that Davidson's Omicron Delta Epsilon economics honor society has organized the "Comparative Advantage" program, which this year has paired a record 25 students with Charlotte area mentors. They represent a broad range of top financial, real estate and commercial firms, as well as not-for-profit organizations. Many are Davidson alumni.
The program serves as a structured forum for students to gain insights into future economics-related careers through formal and informal interaction with their mentors. Mentors are encouraged to maintain contact with their mentees throughout the academic year through informal meet-ups and visits to job sites.
The Office of Alumni Relations helps recruit mentors. To ensure that each student is paired with someone with similar interests, student applicants submit a brief essay about their interest in economics, background and reasons for seeking involvement in the program.
Genevieve Nielsen '14 joined the program this year after an internship last summer in Chicago at a business accelerator turned her attention toward business development. She was paired this year through Comparative Advantage with Jeff Tonidandel, a 2002 Davidson graduate who knows business development from top to bottom. Within the past few years Tonidandel has purchased and operated two successful restaurants in Charlotte.
"I don't know a lot about running a business," Nielsen said, "but my mentor is being very accommodating in showing me what happens in business on a day-to-day basis. She said Tonidandel has been forwarding her some of his business correspondence and daily sales reports, and is arranging for her to sit in on staff meetings. "Having someone to show you the ropes and give you a better idea of what you might face in trying to apply an econ major to a business career is important," she said.
Andrew Craft '14 had a long-standing interest in healthcare, but hadn't settled on any particular aspect of the field. He was paired through Comparative Advantage two years ago with Joe Piemont, the chief operating officer of Carolinas HealthCare System. "He's still an incredible mentor today," said Craft. "Through our relationship, I was able to intern in Carolinas HealthCare System's management company, and their marketing department. I got a much better perspective on the field, and it has helped me focus on what I want to do after graduating."
The Comparative Advantage handbook prompts students with questions for their mentors, such as "What skills are required in the job?" "What personal qualities would be assets in the work?" "What types of people does the business serve?" "What are typical benefits and salary?" and "Is the field growing, or saturated?"
"At Davidson we learn economic theory, but not so much how companies operate day-to-day," said Anna Ike '14, one of the ODE student chairs of Comparative Advantage. She continued, "We're lucky to have Charlotte so close to campus. It makes it easier to find out more about big business."
Professor Kumar, faculty adviser for the program, said relationships with mentors offer students significant benefits. "They will have a much better understanding of the difference between being a student and being someone companies can depend upon to carry out missions," Kumar said. "I hope students gain a deeper sense of independence, and a realization that they must make a way for themselves in this world."
Ross Saldarini '91, president of the "Mountain Khakis" apparel division of Remington Arms, has volunteered as a Comparative Advantage mentor for several years. "It's been a great experience, and I continue relationships with some former students," he said. "They've spent time in my office, I've hosted them for dinner, and we've attended basketball games. Most of them just need some exposure to the business world and reassurance that they're on the right path to get there."
Travis Hain, vice chair of Davidson's Parent's Council, views Comparative Advantage as another way he can support the college. Hain is a partner of a private equity firm, and hopes to offer insights into the business that he didn't learn as a young professional to his mentee Willie MacDade '16.
Thanos Petkakis '16 came to Comparative Advantage with concrete notions of what he hopes to gain from it-a jump start on his career so he can eventually return to Greece and help reestablish his family's tile manufacturing business.
As a high school student he worked in the business, and felt the pain of its almost complete collapse when Greece's economy fell apart in 2008. "My grandfather founded the business 50 years ago, and it was the largest tile business in the country," he lamented.
Petkakis is pleased with the economics courses he is taking, but believes participation in Comparative Advantage can help him integrate classroom theory with practical advice from a business professional.
"I'd like some advice on how I can stand out in a crowd so that I can get into a good MBA program and work for a bank in New York. That would be my dream job on the way back to Greece," he said.
Petkakis said he and his mentor, Lowe's Companies Merchandising Director Kelly Sherman, discussed differences between the Greek and American business environment at the reception in Charlotte. She also has offered to host him on a tour of the Lowe's headquarters and has invited him to shadow her through a business day. "She clearly wants to help," said Petkakis. "It's great to have someone with a personal interest in my business education."
Chris Trinetti '14 said joining Comparative Advantage was one of the best decisions he made at Davidson. "The program turned out to be an invaluable experience," he said. "My mentor, John Laughlin, was eager to help me understand his work as an investment banker for Wells Fargo, and to connect me with other alumni."
Spencer Perry '15 joined Comparative Advantage for different advice than most of his peers, who are interested in business careers. Perry is an economics major who has developed a scholarly interest in the subject he hopes to carry into an academic career. "At this point I'm pursuing economics for its own sake, wherever it leads," he said. "Comparative Advantage gives me an opportunity to continue exploring. It never hurts to get another perspective on things."
Jarred Cochrane '03 was in one of the first Comparative Advantage groups, and is working now for Wells Fargo. He's eager to give back to the program, and help his mentee Roger Irigoyen-Berlanga '15 explore different facets of the investment banking business that he has learned along the way.
Cochrane said he has switched jobs and positions several times, but each change has helped him learn more and get closer to the long-term goal of owning his own business. "Every opportunity I've seized is another step along the way," he said. "One of these days the right opportunity will come up, and I'll be ready for it."
Likewise, the students who take the initiative to participate in Comparative Advantage are taking advantage of an excellent learning opportunity, and taking a step outside the classroom for an education in the business world.