People

Fels Proud & McKinsey-Bound: A Conversation with Rob Alterman (Fels ’16)

April 15, 2016

By Bill Rivers (Fels ’16)

Bill Rivers: Rob, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. Tell us where you’re going after graduation and what you’ll be doing there.

Rob Alterman: I’ll be starting at McKinsey and Company as an associate. I’ll be working with clients, helping them with strategy problems, broadly-speaking. I’ll be a generalist for a bit, then consider specializing on either an industry or a function.

BR: What do you think you might want to specialize in?

RA: I have no idea. Maybe defense and aerospace. Education and or public sector activity has interested me, too.

BR: Is your education consulting interest an outgrowth of your time with Teach For America?

RA: Yes. TFA is a big reason I even applied to McKinsey. I had friends from TFA who gone to McKinsey and really liked it. Some are in business school now, but they’re planning to go back to McKinsey afterwards. That’s a big indicator.

BR: What are you most looking forward to at McKinsey?

RA: I think I am most excited about the people I’ll be working with. I have met the managers and partners in the office. I am very excited to be a part of the culture they’ve built. They are really great, fun people.

BR: What personal goals do you have post-Fels?

RA: I have only half thought this through. I want to develop a broader skill set. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a “public sector only” person. Getting some real business experience beyond the startup scene is what I want to do. One nice thing about the firm is that it opens up options. I don’t want to be an entrepreneur long term. Maybe corporate strategy.

BR: You’ve been very active in startup space with your work with SmartTrack and the Fels Public Policy Challenge. How has that experience helped you decide that you don’t want to go into entrepreneurship?

RA: SmartTrack was not at first supposed to be a private company. It began as a nonprofit public initiative. But it is incredibly difficult to sustain momentum for those kinds of organizations. You don’t have a revenue stream. You’re always dependent on outside funding. So making it a for-profit made sense. But it was difficult. I had no training in customer acquisition or financing models. Even just fleshing out a coherent business plan about where we should go or how the venture could get to profitability was something that took us months. We had the good fortune of going through the EDSi accelerator that’s affiliated with Penn. It was a joint venture between Ben Franklin Technology partners, some private investors and Penn GSE.

BR: You had mentioned to me before some observations about risk tolerance in the entrepreneurial space.

RA: Yes, long-term entrepreneurs really need a high risk tolerance. You eat what you kill in that space. It is especially hard if you want to have a family, for example. There’s an old saying “Entrepreneurs are people who work 80 hours a week so they don’t have to work 40 hours a week.” There’s a lot of truth in that. It’s weird being the one millennial who is not interested in making his career in startups [laughs]. I feel kind of alone in that regard.

BR: You’d fit right with most Americans who entered the workforce anytime from 1945 to the present, I imagine.

RA: Sure. And don’t get me wrong. Entrepreneurship is incredibly important. Society needs people with good, creative ideas and the passion to take all these risks so I don’t have to.

BR: Switching back to education, SmartTrack was in that space. You did TFA in Mississippi. You have observed closely the education scene in Philadelphia. What are some of Philadelphia’s biggest challenges in education? Try to be succinct, if you can.

RA [laughs]: Pennsylvania needs a fair funding formula. Philly schools are vastly undercapitalized. That they’ve even managed to have a functioning district so long is a miracle.

BR: In line with our conversation on education, what are some of your favorite books? What does Rob Alterman like to read?

RA: Catch-22 is definitely up there. And I was a kindergarten teacher so the The Knuffle Bunny series will always be close to my heart. I really liked The Sun Also Rises. It’s about a vacation that goes well, then poorly, then well, then very poorly. It’s kind of a dark version of a Chevy Chase movie.

BR: Let’s talk Fels. You’re active in student government at Fels. Why did you decide to get involved in student government?

RA: In our first year, there were things that were not going how we wanted them to. That’s not a particularly controversial thing to say. There’s a part of me that says “If you’re not happy, try to get involved and do something.” Especially since I love complaining. I got involved because it felt like the thing to do. And doing the University Affairs chair made sense. There was a logical consistency there.

BR: What was your biggest satisfaction from your work for the Fels Student Association?

RA: I brought in a fair amount of money from other university sources. That probably sounds basic, but it does matter. Getting enough cash in that FSA had flexibility for things like Women of Fels or social activities. I’m proud of that.

BR: What was your favorite class at Fels?

RA: Public Finance. I really enjoyed that. I thought the exercise in building a municipal budget was fun. It was a good opportunity to get your hands dirty in the practicalities of municipal government, but it also allowed for creativity. Things like making high-speed internet a public utility while also making college free for everyone was a fun exercise. It was challenging. I don’t remember if I ever told my teammates, but one of the reasons I was able to find so much cash in my department was that I fired a ton of people in one of those departments. I wiped it out. It was something that could be outsourced.

The accounting portion of that class was fun, too. I still have the bottle-opener I won for answering a question right. That bottle opener is going nowhere.

BR: What was your favorite non-Fels class?

RA: The Geo Politics of Energy. It’s a design class at the Kleinman Center with Dr. Anna Mikulska. A small class, we sit around and go country by country, region by region, and talk about how screwed everyone is energy-wise. It is a great small group discussion. Dr. Mikulska is an encyclopedia. I’ve learned a ton. I have never done energy things before. Electricity is functionally wizardry to me. So it’s great.

BR: How has Fels helped you in your career?

RA: You get to leverage the Penn network, and there are few better networks in the world. For my McKinsey resume, I crowdsourced it to one or two of my classmates and Penn’s career services people.

Fels also provided unique exposure to intricacies and layers of government I’ve never experienced before. Philadelphia is a fantastic place to learn local government. It’s big, complex, but it’s relatively open. Fels has given me a window into that.

BR: What is your advice for in-coming Fels students?

RA: Put yourselves out there. That’s the biggest mistake I see people make in graduate school. They come in, move all the way out here, take two years of their life, cloister together with their own group, do homework and that’s it. Maybe they intern somewhere. I have had a very rewarding, very great time at Penn, in large part because I’ve put myself into so many other social circles with people outside of my department. I have gone to so many events that have nothing to do with government or public policy.

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felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu