In December 2021, shortly before he graduated, SMU Cox student Julian LaNeve, BBA ʼ21, was the only undergraduate on his four-person team at The Data Open Championship. The national competition hosts some of the smartest students from PhD, master’s and undergrad programs across the country in a weeklong affair to tackle pressing challenges with advanced data. LaNeve’s teammates were two Duke University PhDs and a master’s student from UC Berkeley.
During the course of a week on campus at Duke — the group put up the money to work in person despite the competition’s otherwise virtual backdrop — LaNeve would prove a worthy team member, leaning on his backgrounds in data and software engineering. But the December ’21 SMU Cox grad also had a secret weapon in his tool belt: He’d tested his abilities, competitive drive and confidence in the Cox School of Business’ EnCap Investments & LCM Group Alternative Asset Management Center (AAMC), a highly regarded honors program known as “Alts.”
Highly selective, with a median GPA of 3.8 in 2020, Alts pulls in students who are extremely motivated, smart and ethical for intensive training that begins with a case-based course during spring semester of junior year. The program also includes an internship at an investment bank, consulting firm, hedge fund or money management firm, plus additional classwork and a voluntary CFA review course. The results speak for themselves: So far, the average starting salary for 2021-22 Alts graduates is $102,500, and the Alts alumni network continues to grow, encompassing a who’s who of the most desirable financial workplaces in the country.
“A lot of people will decide they want to go into investment banking or private equity or hedge funds without actually understanding or really knowing what the work looks like,” LaNeve says. “So getting that early exposure, getting a head start, ends up being really valuable when you start to go out into the real world.”
When it was all said and done, LaNeve’s team took home the $100,000 first place prize at The Data Open. His involvement is a testament not only to how Alts nurtures students for success but also to the caliber of student the program attracts. LaNeve chose SMU Cox in large part for Alts.
“I’d love to take credit for that, but I can’t,” says Bill Maxwell, the program’s academic director. “You can help train them along the way. But to get to that level, that says a lot about the person.”
SMU Cox’s Alts Program Requires Dedication
Serving as the Alts director during the past decade, Maxwell has helped turn the dial on an already successful program. Jim Bryan, associate dean of BBA programs, says the fact that Alts has been so effective at producing students who go on to successful careers is “almost 100% attributable” to its director.
“Dr. Maxwell pushes these students to their limits, and they love him for it,” Bryan says. “He knows exactly what kind of competition they will be facing when they graduate, and he gets them ready to kick down all the doors in front of them.”
With Maxwell at the helm, Alts has become an even bigger boon for the Cox School overall, which benefits from having a standout program within its most popular major: finance. “It is one of the drivers behind our brand as a business school,” Bryan says.
Gaining admission into Alts is tough. In addition to requiring a high GPA, students are put under the microscope during a four-month application process that takes into account strength of courses, the student’s demonstrated work ethic, recommendation letters and an interview process. Junior and senior Alts students, as well as alumni, are involved in the process. “I say this, and I believe it’s 100% true: When you walk on campus at SMU, if you want to be an Alt, you can be an Alt — the choice is yours,” Maxwell says. “But to make that decision, that takes a ton of work. You have to pretty much start from the day you show up on campus to have a focus on performing and working hard to position yourself well for success.”
With that dedication now part of the program’s DNA, Maxwell says he’s been able to keep adding material each year without taking anything out. Training continues to get more intense, and results have followed suit. The 2022 class alone saw students snag full-time positions at Bain & Company, Boston Consulting Group, Citi, Goldman Sachs, Guggenheim Securities, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo and many other prominent companies in the world of finance.
“We’re going to make sure we teach you the right skills that are going to differentiate you from day one when you get on your job,” Maxwell says. “The only way to get there is you’re literally going to work harder in this program than you will in any other program out there.”
That could only happen with, as Bryan calls Alts students, the “most motivated and driven group of students certainly in Cox but maybe at the entire University.”
“Is it difficult?” he says. “Of course. But these students don’t know how to function in any other type of environment.”
Students Are Set Up for Real-World Success
The EnCap Investments & LCM Group Alternative Asset Management Center, which was founded in 2008, was the brainstorm of current chair of SMUʼs Board of Trustees David Miller, BBA ’72, MBA ’73, and Scott Luttrell, BBA ’77, Miller’s fellow Cox Executive Board member at the time. Miller is the founder and managing partner of EnCap Investments LP and Luttrell is CEO of LCM Group. Their lead gifts and continued financial support have been vital to the success of one of the most challenging, and arguably most effective, undergraduate finance programs in the country.
“Scott and I have been in the investment management business for many years,” Miller says, “so we had a pretty good sense for the skill set the industry is looking for. Our students had the talent, we just didn’t have the curriculum in place to prepare them for those jobs. And to me, that’s what it was all about: job placement for our top finance students. Go back 15 years, and we would be lucky each year to place a handful of graduates with the top tier investment banking and consulting firms, which often is the stepping stone to private equity or the fund management business. Today, thanks to the Alternative Asset Management Program, the number annually is over 10 times that.”
“We couldn’t be prouder of the students who’ve been selected for and taken part in the Alts program,” Luttrell adds. “When they graduate, these students go on to successful careers, which of course benefits them as well as the industry, not to mention the Cox School’s reputation as an outstanding provider of business education. David and I are thrilled with the success of the Cox Alternative Asset Management Program — it has exceeded even our most optimistic hopes and expectations.”
The case-based structure of the rigorous first semester challenges students to analyze real-world corporate challenges, albeit with company names and numbers often obscured. LaNeve recalls the class advancing incrementally, with assignments mirroring the actual work done by investment bankers by semester’s end. The program also dips into the worlds of private equity and hedge funds. “I’ve read countless stories of students sitting next to some Ivy League graduate, working in investment banking, and these Alts students are just taking laps around these Ivy League kids because of the program,” LaNeve says.
The more Alts graduates gain a reputation at financial firms across the country, the more attention it receives from new applicants. “It’s funny: The early classes are always worried I’m going soft on them. We’re now up to 70 students, and there were 20 when we started,” Maxwell says. “It’s like, you don’t understand; people come for one reason: being in Alts.”
With numbers on the rise, the alumni web has multiplied, making it easier for graduates to find the job placements they desire, again contributing to a virtuous cycle that brings more applicants into the system. Maxwell says that he’s seen Alts alumni go the extra mile time and time again to ensure the next generation has what they need to succeed — whether it’s picking up the phone, answering an email to talk about a career opportunity or just making sure students are aware of openings at top firms. “When you’re an Alt, you’re an Alt for life,” Maxwell says. “One of the great strengths of the program is just that we’ve built in a culture of giving back and staying connected.”
It will be LaNeve who’s soon in the position to give back, and whose accomplishments now only add to the Alts prestige. For now, since he’s graduated and taken a fully remote product manager position with data company Astronomer, he’s ready to fully embrace the work-from- anywhere lifestyle and see the world.
“There’s no better time to do it,” he says. “Especially now that I have the means.”