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Students put the private sector to work for the public good

Alex Cooper

“Find out how much you’d like a PhD before you try a doctoral program.”

That’s how Kenan Scholars was originally advertised to me by a student when I was looking at UNC as an MBA applicant. As someone who has been interested in that idea since I was a research assistant in college, the concept of a pre-PhD attempt appealed to me.

As it turns out, the value of being a Kenan Scholar at the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise is much more than the opportunity to work on a research project (although that is also a wonderful benefit). Between introductions to well-to-dos around UNC, lunches with CEOs and our own lounge area, there was considerably more to this program than advertised.

The largest component of the program is certainly the research aspect, which is a year-long project working on a specific subject with a professor or advisor. While the project has to be associated with the Kenan Institute, there is a wide range of areas in which you can work. Behavioral finance was my focus, and I worked with Camelia Kuhnen to study tail-risk perception in low socioeconomic status individuals. Other research projects were on topics including non-profit operations, venture capital in the local area, diversity and inclusion at UNC, and the economics of green real estate. That is all to say that there is no one box into which the program fits; it is what you make of it.

Outside of the research piece, being a Kenan Scholar means a multitude of benefits, not the least of which is a connection to Lingmei Howell. She helps run the program, like she did with its predecessor (the Kenan Institute Leadership Fellowship), and it feels like her goal in life is to benefit the scholars as much as possible.

When I mentioned I was interested in learning more about how the Kenan Funds functioned, I was introduced to Dan Drake, the president of the funds, and he is now a mentor and friend. Some of my passions lie within innovation and entrepreneurship, so naturally Lingmei set up a time for me to have coffee with Judith Cone, vice chancellor for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development. There is seemingly no length too far for the program to go to make sure its Kenan Scholars succeed outside of the academic setting.

In addition to introductions, the other benefits come from all of the events I have been able to attend as a Kenan Scholar. Talks amongst healthcare professionals on the opioid crisis, a forum with the city planners and mayor of Durham on the future of the area, and countless lunches with a host of impressive individuals all have been the norm since I joined the program. On the docket before I graduate: a field trip to and tour at the N.C. State Legislature, a small group session with the dean and lunch with the former head of the CATO Institute.

Although I still don’t know if I will do a PhD down the line or just continue working on my paper with Dr. Kuhnen, this ws an unforgettable part of my time at UNC Kenan-Flagler. And that’s not just because the Kenan Center – where all Kenan Scholars are welcome to work – has the most beautiful views around.

By Alex Cooper (MBA ’19)