Kow Atta-Mensah, MITES ’99 and MIT ’04 alumnus, and a current OEOP donor.
The following are excerpts from OEOP alumnus and Morgan Stanley Managing Director Kow Atta-Mensah’s Keynote Speech at the MITES 2019 Symposium Luncheon.
“It’s honestly pretty surreal for me to be standing here 20 years after I did the program. When I look back on the last 20 years and think about what my life is today, and what I thought it would be sitting where you are, at the end of the program, I can honestly say it’s completely different. I probably did very few of the things that I thought I would do when I was 16. Not in a bad way, actually, in a very good way: I think I probably exceeded my own expectations of myself. And I would say that’s in no small part due to MITES.”
“I grew up in the Central Valley in California. I was actually born in Ghana, but my family moved to California when I was about 5 years old. I grew up in a community of people who really didn’t look like me. I went to a high school of about 3,000 students and my brother and I were two of eleven African American students in the school. (…) Despite my parents’ best intentions, they didn’t really have the tools to help me figure out my way through the whole American educational system. So, even though I was doing well in school, I really didn’t have much of a plan for what came after high school, to be honest. The defining moment for me was when I was probably a freshman or sophomore in high school. I was kind of putzing around the early internet, and I was on MIT’s website, and I saw a story about MITES. I don’t remember what it was, because it was a long time ago, but I remember clicking on it, reading it, and being like: ‘I think this is something I should look into, I think this is something that speaks to me. I’m an underrepresented minority student who is interested in science and technology so I’m probably the person they are looking for.’”
“The best thing about MITES – and I think you guys know the best thing about it – is that you don’t have to ask your parents for money to come here. And I think that really is what makes this a really special and impactful program. I was thinking earlier, and it’s probably an unknowable question, but I don’t know what the amount is that my parents could have paid to send me here. Luckily, I didn’t have to find out because it was sponsored by the university, and alumni and people who give to the program, and I think that’s really important.”
“MITES was a defining moment in my youth, honestly, because I had never left home before that. I was born in Ghana, moved to California, and once I got to California I had never been on a plane. So from age 5 to 16, I was never on a plane. Coming to MITES was the first time I got on an airplane, and I was by myself. I remember getting picked up at the airport. We were staying at Next House that summer, I got out of the van and there was steam coming out of the ground, and I was like “what the hell is happening?!” The MIT steam thing, it was the first time I’d experienced something like that. Six weeks, I think at the time it was 40 kids. I became very close friends with a large number of those 40. Today, I’m still very good friends with a pretty good number of those 40.”
“I tell people if MITES were a private school, it would be the most successful private school of all times. The success rate of people leaving this program and getting into the best schools in the world is incredibly high. It’s because the program is incredibly selective. If you made it here, I promise you, you have what it takes to do quite literally anything you want to do. And I know that because before I came here, and before I went to MIT, I thought that the career that I have today was for people who weren’t like me. I didn’t know that I could go to a Wall Street bank and start from the very bottom, with no connections and no prior knowledge of what I was doing, and make my way to a reasonably high position in the bank. And all of that started for me, with getting on the plane, coming here, doing this, coming back to MIT, getting a world class education. My parents were right, you guys.”
“So, I came to MIT, I studied computer science. How did I end up in the world of finance? Well, completely by accident. (…) I got a phone call from a friend of a friend of a friend. They had an opening at a newish company where they decided the new thing was that computers were going to do finance. In 2004 that was actually a radical idea, for computers and algorithms to do finance. I didn’t know anything about finance, I hadn’t studied it. I took one or two courses just because they were easy, to be honest, but I heard the guy out and it sounded really cool. I was like ‘so the idea here is that we can program the computer to make trades, and potentially make money.’ So, I went and did that. I only did it for two years because then I got a call from my current employer Morgan Stanley, and there was an opening for my current job; it’s called structuring. Structuring in my world is taking real-world problems around energy supply and energy management and looking at those through the lens of financial models. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 13 years.”
“I think the key to finding something that you can really be successful at is picking something that you’ll be interested in, because a career is 20, 30, 40 years.”
Question and Answer Session with MITES ’19 participants
Q: You going to MITES was the first experience leaving your town, do you think that if you had not gone to MITES you would have still wanted to leave your small town?
A: It’s a tough question for me to answer, because I want to say yes but I don’t think so. I really want to say “yes, I would have,” but I didn’t know enough to want to leave. I didn’t know enough of what else was out there, even with having international parents, having been born internationally, my world was too small to know, and I think MITES really expanded my world.
I have a sister, she’s about 7 years younger than me, and when she was leaving high school she wanted to go to Stanford, which was right by us. I quite literally bribed her to get her to apply to East Coast schools because I felt that if she had gotten into Stanford she would have stayed there her whole life. She went to Princeton and she ended up in New York, and now she lives in Houston, and she’s gotten to see a lot more of the country and the world, I think because of that choice. I think in general, leaving the place that you are from is actually a really good thing. I think if more people left the place that they were from, and saw more than the place that they were from, the entire country would be very different.
Q: How did you think your education in computer science at MIT translates with what you’re doing now with finance?
A: There is no shortage of ways that a computer science education can translate to what you do. I have a friend who runs a company not too far from here called Ginkgo Bioworks, we were undergrads together, we lived in the same place. Their company is basically programing DNA and they hire just as many computer scientists as they do biologists. I think the basic ideas around computer science are still useful, besides just being very agile with the computer and being able to write software and manipulate data. It’s so important, certainly in finance and in other areas as well. What I do involves a lot of simulation and modelling and I write a lot of code still, I mean, I have people who do it for me now, but I did [laughs].
Q: I was wondering why you went to MIT and what other school you saw as a good fit for you?
A: When you have a lot of friends who are coming back to MIT it matters. You’ve made friends here, you’ve made relationships here, you feel comfortable on this campus and you feel like it’s a place that you can be successful – and it doesn’t hurt that it’s considered the best school in the world, you know. And that was basically it. For what I want[ed] to do, computer science, I didn’t think there was a better place to go.
When you decide where you want to go to school, I know that for a lot of you, money is going to be a big factor in what you decide. To the extent that you can, try to choose the place you actually want to go to. I really believe that, especially for this population, the money part will work itself out. I didn’t have the money to come to MIT – at all – I didn’t, and I came to MIT and I figured it out. A place like MIT helps you, they helped me a lot. I had student loans, but when you graduate from MIT you’re actually able to pay off your student loans, which is not always true for everybody.
Q: Did you already have a passion for computer science when you came to MITES or did you develop that while you were at MIT?
A: Yes, I was all the way into computers from the time I was 10 years old. I think when I was 10 my parents bought me my first computer. It was not a great computer, but it gave me the ability to sort of tinker, I was allowed to open it up and figure out what was going on. I had that interest already, but I didn’t know anything about computer science.
Q: Did you have any doubts when you went into computer science? Did you have any other fields you were interested in?
A: Yeah, I think the curriculum is a little different now, but anyone who took Course 6.001 comes out with doubts – it’s really hard. Even if you know programming languages before you take that course it’s really hard, and you come out with doubts. I think I did that course my first semester of my freshman year, and so then I was a math major for a while, but there’s so much crossover between math and computer science, that I easily moved back. So, your confidence can waiver. This place is really hard. It just is. Your confidence can and will waiver, but at the same time that’s why making it through here builds you up so well for your future. It’s because literally nothing else will be as hard after you graduate from here, everything else will seem simple.
Q: Throughout your progression in life, from being an immigrant and minority who doesn’t have privileges or resources to being your own boss – what are some values or lessons that you’ve stuck with during that progression?
A: Number one, it’s recognizing where you actually came from. A lot of people point to people like me and say “see, you can just work your way and come from wherever and be successful.” And that’s true, you can, and that’s a great thing about this country, but I also know I had real advantages. My father was very educated; if he hadn’t been, I think things would have gone slightly differently. I think you have to have people like that in your life, and a lot of people don’t have people like that in their life. It’s hard to self-motivate from age 0 to 18 when you leave home, you have to have other people motivating you.
I also have this value in understanding that everyone’s situation is different. And not everyone has the same opportunities, and I mean in the very real sense – you quite literally don’t have the same opportunities, and you make the best of the opportunity you have.
The other thing is giving back, it’s really important. I used to just give money to MIT and then I recently started giving money directly to the OEOP because my wife kind of woke me up and said: “You had all these things happen to you that were so impactful, why don’t you focus on helping other people have those same opportunities?” And that’s why you marry someone smarter than you. And so, OEOP and MITES are a big one for me; there are a couple other local causes that are similar to this that we’re very involved in, and it’s really for the reason I just said. We know that there are people who don’t have the same opportunities, and they are starting a race way behind, and anything we can do to help them is something that is meaningful to us.
Q: In reference to your MITES experience, I was wondering what was most impactful? Was it the connections that they give you with networking, with individuals? Was it the bonds you made with students, was it the teachers – what was the most impactful of all the resources you were given at MITES?
A: I really think it was leaving home, leaving California, leaving my bubble for the first time really ever in my life, meeting people from different places. It was the first time I met kids from New York, kids from Texas, and from everywhere. That was a quite an eye-opening experience. So, for me it was really experiencing (diversity). And finding other people who looked like me who were interested in things I was interested in, and that was the first time in my life that I ever had that happen.
Q: I know at some point all of us will meet a low point in our lives. Has that ever happened to you and if so, any recommendation for us to bounce back?
A: I think that’s very tied to your personality. For me, I only let myself sulk for 15 seconds and then I start solving. I want to say that’s probably a trait that people who come to MIT have: you’re a problem solver, so you just start working through a problem. And there’s something about working through a problem that makes it seem less daunting, you start finding the steps to work your way out of it. So whether it’s doing poorly on an exam, that’s not going to change the course for you. You start figuring out the plan to do better on the next one. I really think for me it’s been that: I turn it into a problem that I need to solve and start working on the solution.