| July 21, 2002, Sunday
Corporate Bad Guys Make Many Seek the Road Less Traveled
By RACHEL LEHMANN-HAUPT and WARREN ST. JOHN (NYT) 1867 wordsJUST three years ago, Ameet Shah, 24, was successfully laying the groundwork for life as a corporate titan. After graduating from Duke University, he had landed a $50,000-a-year job in New York at J. P. Morgan Chase, working 100-hour weeks on deals involving companies like Enron and Kmart. But no sooner had Mr. Shah settled into the perks of his new career -- expense accounts, car services and enough cash to support an apartment in a doorman building -- than his world was shaken by a market downturn and a stream of stories about corporate malfeasance. The deals -- and the perks -- dried up, many of his colleagues were fired, and Mr. Shah got a peek at capitalism's dark side.
''I saw people who put 15 years of service into the company get laid off in a day because of the irresponsible behavior of corporate executives,'' he said. ''I started thinking that I didn't want to be associated with that.''
Mr. Shah's disillusionment eventually became so complete that in June -- sometime between the indictment of L. Dennis Kozlowski, the chairman of Tyco, for tax fraud and the news that WorldCom had improperly accounted for $3.8 billion in expenses -- he quit J. P. Morgan Chase and joined Teach for America. He now lives in a dorm room and teaches summer school in a classroom without air-conditioning in the South Bronx, training to earn $35,000 a year.
Where once a tough assignment may have meant fielding a call from an angry managing director, Mr. Shah said, ''Last week I had to confiscate a weapon from one of my students.''
Those in the current generation of aspiring professionals face a world they scarcely could have imagined three years ago, when they were filling out business school applications and Robert W. Pittman still seemed invincible at AOL. Not only is the job market grim but also the ethos of corporate America is under the cloud of what Alan Greenspan has called a culture of ''infectious greed.''
This unpleasant reality has forced a reassessment of values among many at the start of their professional lives. For some, that means simply asking tough questions about their motives for getting into business in the first place. Others, like Mr. Shah, have decided that conspicuous consumption is not all it was cracked up to be. While not quite marching en masse to ashrams, they are choosing jobs that are more personally and spiritually rewarding and even -- gasp -- altruistic, according to interviews with dozens of recent graduates and career guidance officials.
''Those who are sitting on the fence about corporate careers are definitely exploring other options in public service and nonprofits,'' said Beverly Hamilton-Chandler, the director of career services for Princeton University. ''Students are somewhat more wary of business, and many are doing more research and asking more questions about the stability of the company.''
While there are always a few on the fringes who seem destined either to run for president or to open a Marxist bookshop, most graduates enter the real world straddling a sense of idealism and practicality and choose their careers by following the cultural winds or the influence of peers, parents and their heroes of the moment.
In the 1970's, a wave of young idealists took to journalism, inspired by the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. In the 80's, young liberal arts majors flocked to Wall Street aspiring to be the next Henry Kravis. In the mid-90's, the fantastically successful initial public offerings of Netscape stock and the tale of the company's whiz kid programmer, Marc Andreessen, spurred legions to embark on careers in computer technology. But what do you do when the good guys are anonymous investigators from the Securities and Exchange Commission?
''The fake revenues, the depreciation tricks, the personal loans to executives,'' said Murad Sofizade, 25, who is pursuing a joint degree in business and public service at the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government. ''It's all an example of the kinds of abuses of power I read about in the public sector of underdeveloped countries.'' Mr. Sofizade had planned to work for an American corporation for several years before applying the lessons of the free market to problems like third world poverty. After the recent scandals, he said, ''I'm now more inclined to go to the public sector directly.''
''My belief was the private sector was more efficient, and apparently that's not the case,'' he said. ''It's a major shock for me.''
Part of that shock comes from the fact that many of the new economy moguls studied by the recent crop of economics majors and business school graduates are the very people now under scrutiny for various alleged bad acts. Rob Zeaske, 29, an Iowan who graduated from the Harvard Business School in June, said that when Jeffrey K. Skilling, the former Enron chief executive, spoke to his class a little over a year ago: ''We were enthralled by a company that was changing its industry. It was the spirit our class came in on. Everyone in our class wanted to work for this guy.''
A year later, ''People are scratching their heads and approaching a meeting like that with a different set of eyes,'' Mr. Zeaske said. ''They're looking for an ethical component. That's a major change.'' As part of a new Harvard Business School program that seeks to place recent graduates in the public sector, Mr. Zeaske is moving to Portland, Ore., to join Mercy Corps, a humanitarian agency.
For those already set on a life of good works, the scandals have had a validating effect. Alana Clements, 22, a graduate of Williams College, said she has known since she was 13 that she wanted to be a nurse. She has been accepted at the Yale School of Nursing and is taking a year off to do a medical internship in Ecuador and to work in public health in Peru, possibly at an orphanage. News of corporate deceit, she said, ''has confirmed my desire to be far away from business.''
''I had friends who were going into banking,'' she said. ''It's a little more abstract than taking care of people.''
Of course, it is much easier to take a low-paying job at a nonprofit when your corporate-minded classmates can't find work. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the number of graduates hired from the class of 2002 dropped 36 percent from the previous year. Wall Street has been affected as well. Data from the Labor Department indicates that there were 729,000 securities industry jobs in the country in June, down from a high of 780,000 in January 2001.
Some career counselors say that the weaker job market, combined with the aftereffects of the Sept. 11 attacks and the disclosures of executive malfeasance, have caused people new to the job market to deliberate more about their career choices. In the late 90's, when high-paying jobs in technology were plentiful, many young people embarked on careers of convenience, only to be forced to face hard questions about their true callings in their 30's -- after being laid off.
''We think this is a positive step,'' said Sheila Curran, the director of career services for Brown University. ''Taking the time right after college to figure out your passion will make you less likely to make bad decisions in the future.'' Ms. Curran said that at a career conference at Brown last semester, one of the most popular panels was called Off the Beaten Path and included a juggler, a professional triathlete, a freelance writer and a musician.
But for the relentlessly business-minded, it is not the corporate scandals that create a problem so much as the resulting news coverage and Congressional scrutiny.
''I do not take this to be an indication of widespread corruption in corporate America,'' said Jason Crawford, 22, who majored in computer science at Carnegie-Mellon University and who is working at a New York investment firm. ''I'm worried that the government and the S.E.C. might use this as a way of grabbing power. If I become a businessman, am I going to be presumed guilty? That's the big question. I'm wary of that backlash.''
Fred Ball, a managing director at Goodrich & Sherwood Associates, a New York human resources and consulting firm, advised recent graduates to plan careers based on their interests and not on trends in the market or culture. ''There are always going to be issues out there, whether it is the savings and loan scandals in the 80's or the run-and-gun 90's or what's happening now,'' he said.
''Young people shouldn't make decisions based on these temporary things,'' he added. ''They should make them based on their skill sets, their interests and their passions.''
To parents who have paid tens of thousands of dollars for their children's educations, the phrase ''chasing your passions'' may sound like 20-something shorthand for ''doing something wildly irresponsible.'' Mr. Shah's parents, who immigrated to the United States from India and run a Super 8 Motel in Lexington, N.C., were none too pleased to hear that their son was rejecting Wall Street.
''In the beginning I was disappointed,'' said Harsha Shah, Mr. Shah's mother. ''I thought, 'He's giving up this great life going to work in a bad area.' ''
Mr. Shah's parents have reluctantly come around. ''A person should love what they do,'' said Umesh Shah, Mr. Shah's father.
Many of the adventures of wayward young professionals will no doubt end up as fond memories stored in picture frames on Wall Street desks. And, of course, not every renunciation of corporate culture is voluntary. Last week Kathryn Carlson, 24, a Wellesley graduate who lives in Boston, lost her job in the mergers and acquisitions department of Robertson Stephens when FleetBoston announced that it was shutting down the company.
''When I graduated in 2000, it seemed glamorous,'' she said. ''All my friends were doing it, and the money was seductive. But when I found myself working into the middle of the night making money for the Enrons and the WorldComs, it became a lot harder to justify.''
Ms. Carlson is now studying for the
Foreign Service exam and in her spare time, practicing her violin. ''I
don't have a clear direction of what I'm doing next, but I definitely
know that it is not going to be banking,'' she said. ''Part of me
thinks that I should go surfing in Thailand, or I actually have a
friend who has a farm in India. . . . ''