Cover Story

The Amazing Adventures Of Supergrad

By Liza Mundy
Sunday, June 8, 2008

EMMA CLIPPINGER HAS RECENTLY GOTTEN OFF A 24-HOUR FLIGHT FROM AFRICA, but you'd never know it to look at her. Wearing tall black pumps and an ash gray suit, she commands the stage of a Manhattan boardroom without the slightest sign of jet lag.

Clippinger, a junior at Brown University, is delivering a PowerPoint presentation to a panel of executives at the investment banking firm JPMorgan. On the screen behind her is a photograph of Rwanda, showing verdant fields of bananas and corn. The scene may look healthy, but it's not, the 22-year-old tells the executives. The banana and corn crops are so dominant in that nation that many Rwandans get too much starch and not enough other nutrients.

"This," she says confidently, "is the picture we're trying to change."

Clippinger is a passionate and resourceful young woman poised to make her mark on the world, and the investment bankers are practically salivating as they listen. What Clippinger wants from them is charitable funding to support Gardens for Health International, a nonprofit venture she co-founded with Emily Morell, a junior at Yale, that aims to improve the nutrition of HIV-positive Rwandans by helping them diversify their diets, making the anti-retroviral drugs they take more effective.

What the bankers want from Clippinger is something more complicated and long-term. Simply put, they want her to like them. They want her to understand that investment banking isn't just about making money; at JPMorgan, they say, it's about making money and then giving some of it back to the world. They want her to be their emissary by returning to college and telling classmates how globally oriented and civic-minded JPMorgan seems. And if she likes them enough to apply for a summer internship or a full-time job after she graduates next year, they want that, too.

But if she chooses not to do all or any of those things, there are other promising candidates who might. At the bank this morning are about 30 students organized into 10 teams. Over the course of the day, each team will pitch a charitable endeavor, and the winning project will be awarded $25,000. The finalists were chosen from more than 100 projects submitted by students around the world as part of what JPMorgan calls its Good Venture Competition, a contest for undergraduates that is part genuine philanthropic giveaway, part recruiting gimmick.

For a relatively small investment, the JPMorgan execs have assembled before them some of the most desirable potential hires in the world. In addition to teams from Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Washington and Lee and other blue-chip universities, there are entrants from England and Ireland. These standouts were asked to submit résumés along with their project packets, and Clippinger's, which is typical, shows the depth of their achievements. Clippinger is a developmental studies and comparative literature double major who has spent time not only in Rwanda but also France and Senegal. She captains the Brown varsity equestrian team, worked as a production assistant on Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," interned with the Clinton Foundation in Africa, and speaks fluent French as well as basic Kinyarwanda, one of Rwanda's official languages, and Wolof, which is spoken in Senegal. Her teammate, Morell, is a neurobiology major with a grade-point average of 3.95 who has worked in Thailand, published in the Yale Journal of Public Health and founded a public policy center.

Small wonder that around the boardroom are JPMorgan recruiting posters saying, "This Is Where You Need to Be." On tables in a refreshment room lie recruiting packets containing articles touting how there are now more women on the trading floor and how JPMorgan supports gay workers.

Clippinger, in a break between the presentations, will allow with some amusement that she was a little naive: She didn't anticipate that, in addition to being about giving back, this competition would also be about getting hired.

SHE'D BETTER GET USED TO IT. For the graduates pouring out of public and private universities across the country and into the newly lush landscape of postcollegiate employment, the competition for their services has perhaps never been so creative, the goody bags so well-stocked. The so-called millennial generation -- students born in the 1980s and '90s -- are one of the most heavily recruited cohorts to enter the American workforce, their hearts and minds incessantly battled over. That's because the baby boomer generation, which has dominated the U.S. employment market since the 1970s, is finally ready to retire. Six decades after the boom began, employers are facing massive losses in their white-collar workforces. As they troll for replacements, they are courting what may be the best-credentialed graduates ever produced by American colleges. Raised in the age of high-speed Internet, deregulated airline prices, ubiquitous study-abroad programs and wildly competitive college admissions, today's juniors and seniors are computer-literate, well-traveled, hyper-groomed and accustomed to competing for what they want.

The frenzy to hire these prodigies is called "the war for talent." It is being waged even as gas prices soar, companies downsize and consumer confidence plummets. And, as well qualified as this group seems to be, the graduates' appeal also lies in the fact that they'll be paid less than more experienced workers would be.

"You want to get them now," says Claudia Tattanelli, CEO of Universum North America, a firm that consults about "employer branding." Speaking to an assemblage of recruitment officers at an all-day hiring conference at Howard University, Tattanelli advises them to snatch students right out of college, rather than waiting a few years when they will be more expensive and less likely to want to move. "Later costs so much money," she warns.

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