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"There exists a misconception—in business and in some groups at Cornell—that finance and sustainability are polarizing topics"

During orientation last August, I found myself standing atop a wobbly utility pole, 40 feet above solid ground. My new friends stood below shouting encouragement for me to jump. My heart thudded, and my breath was short, despite the harness on my back and the belayer down below.

The first module of the Park leadership training program had brought me and 25 other first-year students to Cornell's ropes course. There, we were challenged to work effectively in teams, solve problems, take on new roles, and step outside our comfort zones. The day proved to be a remarkably appropriate introduction to business school.

Over the past 10 months, I have been outside my comfort zone more often than not, learning new skills, embracing new ways of thinking, and evaluating and modifying my behavior as both a team member and leader. I have felt the heart-pound of uncertainty and I have looked to others for support. The Johnson School provides endless opportunities for growth and development, as well as the resources to meet the daily challenges. Looking back on the year, I recognize how incredibly difficult it was. And that is precisely what I liked most about it.

Unrelenting Challenges

During the first semester, I was impelled to call my parents and enlighten them. "Mom and Dad," I said, "all my life, you have told me that I am smart and able. I wanted to let you know that I am actually dumb and incompetent." I was only half-kidding. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried, my courses were harder.

Before entering Cornell, I had done well in school with relative ease. The Johnson School, however, does not allow for ease. This is what Johnson does best: It provides unrelenting challenges and accountability, so that all students are forced to work to their fullest capacity. I won't say that it is always enjoyable, but in retrospect, I would feel cheated if it had been any other way.

It was in this challenging environment that I decided to expand my academic focus. My application to the Johnson School had been built on a platform of sustainability study. Before applying, I met with the director of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise (SGE) at Johnson. I wrote essays on my plans to bring sustainability to the food industry. I checked the box that stated my intention to enroll in the SGE immersion. Needless to say, I became quite confused when my favorite courses were those in finance.

There exists a misconception—in the business world at large, and in subsets of the Johnson School population—that finance and sustainability are polarizing topics. Johnson professor Stuart Hart calls this the "Great Trade-Off Illusion," defined as "the belief that firms must sacrifice financial performance to meet societal obligations." The two topics are, in fact, inextricably linked. Capital is required to build and implement sustainable, responsible processes. In turn, these processes can lead to greater and more sustainable financial returns. By extending a company's investment horizon beyond shareholder-pleasing quarterly returns (i.e. thinking sustainably), there appears a brilliant financial case for corporate social and environmental responsibility.

Finance Is a Powerful Currency

A year ago, I might have dismissed the idea of studying capital markets, corporate finance, and asset management. I might have thought that a focus on money was less noble, but I now recognize it as one of the most powerful currencies there is for affecting large-scale, positive change.

I have always been more attracted to conceptual understanding than technical skill. In deciding to study finance, however, I chose to immerse myself in the technical. While initially less thrilling to me, I have come to love the tools, frameworks, and structure that these skills provide for my naturally analytical mind. My ability to approach and solve complex problems is greatly increased by the addition to my toolbox of Excel models, decision trees, and the like.

After a year of uncertainty, I determined that I wanted an internship that would allow me to hone my financial knowledge and skill set. Days later, I received a call from a financial consulting firm in Manhattan, a connection made by the hard-working Career Management Center. The firm's founder was a Johnson School alumnus, and we immediately hit it off. Two interviews later, I had an enticing job offer. I accepted the summer associate position, where I will have the opportunity to sharpen my finance and modeling skills by performing valuations, revenue projections, research and analysis.

I've heard from many that the second year of B-school is a whole lot easier. According to the rumors, second-years have time for hobbies and leisure. While this sounds tremendously appealing, I can't imagine squandering the opportunity to engage in another year of intense and rapid learning. Then again, I have heard that perfecting your golf swing can be quite a challenge.

Stoler is a member of the MBA class of 2009 at Cornell (Johnson) .

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