Meet Maria Alvarez
2007 College of Business Gold Nugget
Co-Principal of VeraVista Business Solutions
UTEP can prepare you for anything.”
Why did you decide to major in business?
The thing is that I wasn’t sure early on about what I wanted to do. I started out thinking that I was going to do something along the lines of pre-med. I took biology courses and then I went ahead taking engineering classes. I took all the “heavy-duty” advanced math like calculus and then I went on to take educational classes to teach kinder through eighth grade. And at that time, I worked for The Popular Department Stores and I realized that my heart really belonged in business.
It took me about eight years to graduate from UTEP, but I don’t regret it. To tell you the truth, I am really pleased how it worked out because it made me a really well-rounded person. I would definitely advocate students to take courses that will really push them and raise the bar rather than just focusing on their areas of expertise. There are some statistics that show that those that take longer than fours years tend to not graduate, so it is unusual this actually worked out for me and in a sense benefited me in the long run with a broader base of knowledge.
How was your transition from El Paso to New York City for graduate school?
Well, I guess I should begin with the fact that I am the first college graduate from my family. So when I was looking into a graduate program, I really didn’t have a lot of people I could talk to about this plan, and in particular the woman whom I worked for at The Popular was very instrumental in keeping me focused and not letting me give up.
New York City had always been on the back of my mind, but when I was at UTEP, I saw the opportunity become a possibility due to a college edition of Newsweek magazine. The
cover pictured the Admissions Director of Columbia University’s Business School next to a stack of applications that went to the ceiling. The story talked about the difficulty of getting admitted to the Business School, and I was both interested and surprised to learn that Columbia was in the heart of New York City. And so I made a decision that I wanted to go to B-school. Through my research and with the help from professors at UTEP, the cost of attending a business school also became clear to me. It made me decide that I really needed to get into a “top-notch” school to make it worthwhile. So I planned to apply to all of the top 10 B-schools, but my number one choice was always Columbia and since it had an early-action option, I completed that application first. To my surprise, the school called me very shortly after I had applied to inform me that I had been accepted and asked that I not agree to attend any other school, because they were going to offer me a scholarship. I was very surprised and I was so naive that I thought everyone received a phone call to inform them of admittance.
Now, the dilemma was that I had to tell my parents and the reason I hadn’t told them what I was doing was because I thought they were not going to be so keen with the idea.
When I told my parents, my mother was very pleased but my father was very concerned with my going so far away from El Paso and he was wondering when I would settle down and start a family. I became more determined than ever to go to New York. That’s when I actually started to figure out how much money I would need.
When I left for NY, I only had about $500 in my pocket and there were some family members that were skeptical whether I would be able to make it. And I was determined to not disappoint, so the moment I arrived, I went straight to the Financial Aid Office and explained my situation because my scholarship only covered the tuition. They immediately helped me find other financial support for living expenses.
Initially, I got a little concerned: would I be prepared as well as my classmates that came from Ivy League undergraduate schools, and would I even be able to compete with their level of education? But I must say, UTEP was wonderful! I was as ready if not more so than other students that had gone to Ivy League schools. The preparation I received at UTEP, till this day, I believe it was “top-notch” – the school only lacks exposure for its first rate education. I can absolutely reassure anyone that UTEP can prepare you for anything, in particular with the engineering and math departments. And I know lots of people that graduated from UTEP who have achieved successful careers and gone onto prestigious graduate schools. People sometimes underestimate the potential of the academics and overlook some of the great professors at UTEP.
After graduation from Columbia, where was your first employment?
I started to work for the Chase Manhattan Bank which later became JPMorgan Chase. I worked there during the summer of 1987, during a B-school break, and I had such a wonderful experience. At the end of that summer, they actually made me an offer to go back once I graduated the following May. So, they gave me an offer letter immediately! I was pretty fortunate to get that letter because Black Monday, the stock market crash of 1987, happened a couple of months later and several classmates that had worked during the summer for big time investment banks were left without offers.
I actually ended up working initially for the Corporate Treasury Department at Chase. In retrospect, I have found myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in that particular area. It gave me the opportunity to sit in meetings with senior level executives from all divisions of the bank - I am incredibly grateful to them for giving me that opportunity. By the time I left Chase, I had already established important business relationships with several Chairmen from Chase on a one-to-one basis as a result of being one of 20 individuals appointed to the Chairman’s Diversity Council. I worked at Chase for 17 years.
After Chase, what was the next step in your career?
I was fortunate that while at Chase I was allowed to venture into all kinds of different positions and business groups. I was in marketing, sales, compliance, and service management, among other areas. At one point, I worked on a special re-engineering project for the Chairman and Chief Financial Officer that took me to Dublin, Luxembourg, and the Channel Islands. I did extremely well in these assignments and because of that people opened doors for me, but I had really been searching for something where I felt that the product we sell would have added social benefits. That’s when I changed to a new industry within Chase: education finance. The student loan business was very attractive to me because at the end of the day, what everybody does helps to finance the ability for students to go to college and that is something very positive.
So I ended up moving to the student loan business and that was very wonderful. I became Chase’s representative on the board of a company called ELM. This company is the main loan data and funds exchange vehicle for the whole education finance industry so every lender of any size uses them to process their student loans: Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, etc. Lots of the schools are using data formats that are different from what the loan providers would use, so what ELM does is work as a universal connector and convert data to a format that loan providers can use and process so students get their money to go to school.
I didn’t want to leave JPMorgan Chase. But it had been going through merger after merger after merger and the time seemed right to consider moving on. I will always be grateful to Chase - I learned so much there. The people there: my mentors, the executives – it had been a really good place for many years – it was very difficult to leave.
Was this new company different from where you worked before?
Oh yes, it was different. ELM is a company of less than a 100 employees, whereas Chase at that time had 200,000 or so employees, and was still growing after new acquisitions. A huge difference. But unlike Chase or any other large company, at ELM I had mostly independent approval process.
At larger companies whatever you want to do has to be reviewed by executives, and then it’s passed to other higher level executives. There are several layers of approval. You cannot launch a project on your own; you cannot restructure your service area on your own without approval. But it was cool at ELM because I got to make change and see the impact of my decisions almost immediately.
When it came to ELM, the demand for its product was so high and increased so fast, that the infrastructure was not prepared for the huge growth, so there needed to be some work done in terms of the restructuring of services, implementations, etc. And we did that and we had such a great amount of success. The customer satisfaction rates during the time that I was there were the highest they had ever been: 96% excellent/very good results, which are really unusual. Basically, a year before I had arrived the customer satisfaction rating was in the 50’s. Within the first year that I was there it moved to the 90’s. Organizational changes can be very stressful to employees. I had a really wonderful experience with all of the changes that I led. Like many senior managers, I have come to realize that we are nothing without our people. All of the employees at ELM were extraordinary, all of their ideas were taken into account, and we were able to make all sorts of improvements and keep them happy—almost no turnover whatsoever.
What is your plan for the future? What do you plan on doing?
There was a moment when the direction of the company changed as a result of new leadership and it was not really what I had envisioned for its future; you know sometimes that happens. I just decided this was not what I had signed up for and made the tough decision to move on to my next chapter.
While I was in New York I was involved with a lot of charities and non-profit organizations. I did a lot of work leading projects with children who were living in shelters and providing tutoring to at-risk youth. It has always been my dream to take my business knowledge and use it to help a national or international mission/purpose-driven charitable organization. A lot of these organizations need to have business expertise and knowledge for efficiency. I think that it is a challenge in times like these when they need to find ways to be more productive with the amount of resources that they have in order to continue to provide the same or a higher level of services. If you have not gone through the day-to-day experience of running a business organization, where you are looking for those things on a day-to-day basis, I think it is going to be difficult for someone who does not have that level of experience and I would love to bring that expertise to some of these organizations. I would like to help major organizations who provide services to children or do something related to protecting the environment or animal welfare, or any of many other humanitarian efforts. I have an interest in this direction and this is where I am taking myself now.