February 6, 2011

The Georgetown University credit union reminds me again why I shouldn't have goofed off so much in college.

Here is where some of the credit union's alums have ended up: Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase, First Manhattan, Barclays, Morgan Stanley, the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Procter & Gamble, and Harvard Business School.

The Washington Post is nothing to sniff at. But as I've said in other columns, I should have joined some campus club or done something to prepare me for life after school - even if it only taught me how to work a room at a cocktail party (which is critical).

The credit union's 105 student "interns" are hard-charging entrepreneurs, working up to 50 hours a week at what is essentially a nonprofit, student-run bank. They are familiar with financial terms such as basis points, net worth ratio and delinquency rate.

I couldn't balance my checking account when I was in college.

The credit union - officially known as Georgetown University Alumni & Student Federal Credit Union - has 7,000 customers, 60 percent of them alumni and 40 percent students. The institution has around $15.5 million in assets and $1.5 million in oustanding loans.

Last year it turned a $50,000 profit, although that is rolled back into the credit union, because no one takes any money. The credit union runs two ATMs on campus and pays rent to the school for its offices on the first floor of Georgetown's Leavey Center.

"With assets of $15.5 million and a loan portfolio of $1.5 million, you would be hard pressed to find anything like this anywhere in the world," said Georgetown senior Arjun Mehta, who at 22 is the credit union's chief executive.

The independent, student-run institution started in 1983 with a $100,000 investment from the university. The credit union had a scare when CapitalOne came to campus a few years ago, but it has survived and even thrived.

Overhead is almost nonexistent, since everyone works for free. The credit union occasionally pays for a group dinner, but that's about the extent of the tangible benefits.

The big payoff is intangible.

"The reason I got my job at Goldman Sachs was because I had the credit union on my resume," said alumnus Chris Villar, 30. "During interviews in college you're competing against thousands of other kids who all have impressive backgrounds, but the credit union gets you noticed and stands out."

Villar and another credit union alum, Aaron Shumaker, left Goldman in 2007 to start McLean-based FrontPoint Security, which sells do-it-yourself wireless alarm systems.

Mehta sent me an e-mail describing in detail "what the CU teaches interns":

How to excel in a professional environment.

How to handle crises and other stressful situations.

How to talk to members, customers and clients.

The ability to talk to a perfect stranger.

One lesson is how to say no. (One loan applicant who wanted money for a treadmill was turned down. The applicant lived next to the gym.)

Incoming credit union chief executive Katie Cohen, who takes over from Mehta on March 1, said that working with customers who are delinquent on their loans is particularly instructive.

"If you have a conversation where you can develop mutual respect, people are more receptive to recognize the obligation that they have made," Cohen said. "If you act like a parent or admonish somebody, it provides little incentive for them to honor the commitment, which would be paying the money."

Joining the credit union sounds harder than being admitted to Skull and Bones, the famously secretive and exclusive society at Yale University.

Between 15 and 20 interns are selected each year from among 100 to 200 freshman applicants.

The computerized application form asks questions such as: Why do you want to join? What is your biggest accomplishment? What is an obstacle you have overcome and what did you learn from it?

"We don't expect them to know about finance," said Mehta, who is majoring in international political economy.

The CU mafia is far-reaching and has deep connections in the business world. Mehta and Cohen said they look for people who want to have fun and make friends for life.

Applicants who survive the written questions go on to interview with the credit union's human resources manager and with one of its seven board members, all of whom are students. If you make that cut, you interview with the entire board.

"One of the important things is we want to find out to what extent they can actually perform under pressure," Mehta said. "We invest a lot into our interns. So we have to make sure we have the right group of interns."

Those that pass muster start training as tellers for two hours every night for a week.

Once they finish a semester as tellers, interns start working in other departments, including finance, operations, member service, collections and credit.

As the interns work their way up, they may learn to evaluate loan applications, read credit scores, make accounting entries, work with clients and supervise tellers.

In return for the hard work, the credit union teaches its members how to conduct themselves in the business world. It runs a virtual career center, holding mock interviews and coaching interns on how to get a job.

"When I was a junior, there were seniors who helped walk me through what an interview was going to be like," said Mehta, who spent last summer working for Credit Suisse and will return to a full-time position there after he graduates this spring. "We have interview panels that have interview tips we built over years, with sample questions. I learn more from here than I do my classes."

Cohen, a 20-year-old junior, is interviewing at a couple of very high-profile Wall Street firms for internships next summer. She said one credit union alumnus has been a huge help, marking up her resume and having conversations about what it's like to work at the firm.

And it's all due to the CU connection.

"The most telling part is this is not someone who was my friend, ever," Cohen said. "What really connected us was the credit union. We both shared that passion."

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Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade.