The Wright Stuff

On the third floor of McNair Hall, a glass wall separates the El Paso Corporation Finance Center from the gaze of a prospective MBA student. The room is alive with activity — a stock ticker, 10 computers, seven displays, and two LED boards: one with commodities, currency exchanges and treasury markets and the other showing equity market indices, Jones School recruiters and Wright Fund holdings.

A full-time MBA student explains how the center is used, “Finance courses are based on theory; this room is about learning practical applications for that theory. You get training with the finance tools you might use in a job, like Bloomberg, FactSet and Capital IQ. It’s also home to the Wright Fund.”

Wright Fund Students (large) 
(L-R) Nolan Waugh, Jeff Montgomery, Edward Rowe and Evan Bertrand (all Class of 2011)

Since 1995, the M.A. Wright Fund has served as an educational investment program for students at the Jones School. Founded with a gift to Rice’s endowment from the former chairman of Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil) Myron “Mike” A. Wright’s estate, the funds were designated for management exclusively by Rice MBA students in order to gain valuable money management experience.

The Wright Fund’s impact on students comes from an intensive hands-on curriculum covering two semesters and teaching a wide variety of investment management tools and techniques. Students begin by performing analysis on individual securities, and by the second semester are managing sectors and the portfolio as a whole, analyzing cross-market factors. This robust process makes for a more comprehensive learning experience.

The fund also allows students to foster their peers’ education: senior Wright Fund students supervise the analyses of junior students, and annually the fund awards scholarships generated from its own returns to two outstanding students.

Three Different Students, Three Different Backgrounds

The Wright Fund is run by Dr. Jill Foote, senior lecturer and director of the El Paso Corporation Finance Center, along with assistance from students elected each semester as Chief Investment Officer, Chief Operations Officer and Chief Economist. This structure allows the students to be an integral part of the rigorous application process, which requires a long form stock analysis and an interview.

The 2011 officers, all of whom graduated in the spring, have one unique characteristic: none of them were finance majors or had much work experience in finance. “The Wright Fund positions itself to be open to all three programs, whether students have a finance background or not. We’re clearly a testament to that,” CIO Nolan Waugh ’11 says.

Waugh is a Rice undergrad (’04) in computer science. He worked as a web developer for a legal publishing firm in Houston for three years before taking a job at the Jones School in the El Paso Finance Center. “During college I helped set up the first version of the trading floor in the finance center. Coming back, the plan was to manage the finance center and also pursue an MBA.” Waugh graduated from the MBA for Professionals program.

COO Natalie Higdem ’11 earned a hotel restaurant management degree from University of Houston in ‘05. She worked for Aramark managing suite operations for events at Reliant Stadium and for a nonprofit putting on special events, raising funds and doing board relations. “My growing interest in finance and energy led me to the Rice MBA program.”

Chief Economist Evan Bertrand ’11 graduated from Rice with a music degree in ’05. He spent three years as a percussionist at the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. “I felt like there was more opportunity for growth and variety outside of the music world. I was interested in finance and knew that the only way to make that drastic of a transition was to get an MBA.”

Gaining Perspective

The blend of student backgrounds enhanced the experience. “We all had something to offer,” Evan says. “The students with finance backgrounds obviously had technical knowledge, but the students with non-traditional backgrounds were able to approach equities in a fresh way.”

This fresh perspective is exactly the kind of innovation the fund looks for in its members. For Natalie, “The Wright Fund allowed me to do a deep dive into financial statements in a way I had not necessarily done in my classes. It also gave me the opportunity to meet alumni in many different industries and better understand what I wanted to do after school.”

As an associate in the Business Valuation group at Deloitte Financial Advisory Services, she says, “Participating in the Wright Fund helped not just my interview process but also my onboarding as a new hire. Much of what I am working on now is quite similar to the analysis and reports I worked on as an analyst in the Wright Fund.”

The Wright Fund contributed to Evan’s career as well. At ExxonMobil he provides financial analysis as part of the Controller’s division and is currently supporting the company’s IT business. “The Wright Fund, more so than any other activity in the Rice MBA program, requires you to formulate an opinion and defend it to a scrutinizing audience. Now I have to do that every day.”

Wright Fund Student (large)
Natalie Higdem ’11 in the El Paso Finance Center  

Bridging the Gap

With a four-hour class every Tuesday night, the Wright Fund was a challenge for a fully-employed student. Nolan found that, despite the grueling schedule, he flourished. “Even in the first few weeks I was better at my job and had a better understanding of the resources in the finance center.”

Which is really the point. “Business school students are here for two years,” Jill points out. “They’re expected to immediately transition into a higher-level job than they had before. A big challenge is to provide a pathway between classroom learning and applying theory, principles and models to live situations. Both the Finance Center and Wright Fund aim to bridge that gap and in the process make the students more knowledgeable and more marketable.”

The Wright Fund currently manages $900,000 and is undertaking a capital campaign to increase funds under management which will concurrently enhance the student’s learning experience and increase scholarships. Its charter expressly encourages ethical, disciplined and holistic investment management.

This approach has generated dual yields —the fund’s annualized return over the past 10 years has firmly outperformed the S&P 500 benchmark. Second, the fund has produced successful professionals in a wide variety of disciplines, whose training in the Wright Fund continues to pay dividends in the form of substantial, mutually beneficial relationships with top finance firms, and increased prominence for Rice University on the world business stage.