Coach Spotlight

In the past two Magnetar Academy Team Challenges, more than 50 financial services professionals, from Chicago and elsewhere, have served as coaches for the participating high school teams.

These coaches come from a variety of backgrounds and participate in the industry in many different roles. On the day of the Team Challenge, each coach is paired with a team of students to provide their expertise as they go head-to-head with teams from other schools.

We sat down to chat with a few of this year’s coaches to learn more about them and their experiences guiding Magnetar Academy students through the competition.

Mark O’Connor, Chicago Stock Exchange

Mark O’Connor is Director of Sales at the Chicago Stock Exchange, where he has served in a variety of roles throughout his career.

Mark first coached in the Team Challenge in 2016, and enjoyed the experience so much that he was one of the first coaches to sign up again for the 2017 edition. This year, he was paired with Sullivan High School, from Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.

“Last year was terrific, and this year was even better. It’s all about educating kids and giving them the tools to succeed in financial literacy. Giving kids a strong foundation at this age will make them more successful as they grow up, and they can take control of their own destiny.”

Mark was also encouraged to see the Team Challenge set real expectations about the markets and the trading industry — trading is not as easy or simple as many think, and it takes effort and strategy to be successful.

“I’ve been in the investing area for a while, and there are highs and lows. During the first [interval] of this year’s Challenge, we made money. And I think the students thought, ‘Hey, this is pretty easy. I can do this the whole time’… but then the second and third [intervals] our gains weren’t as big, [so] they started to analyze things, and then we had a down period. So it really taught them resiliency, that it’s not always the upside. You’ve got to protect on the downside and learn and listen, and don’t think you’re always right. The market’s right — you’re not right.”

For Mark, the coaching experience didn’t end once the Team Challenge was over — the next month, he traveled to Sullivan to speak with students about how capital markets work, and the types of careers available in the industry. He recently wrote a blog post about his experience, the importance of financial education, and the need for others in the trading industry to get involved. In the post, he points out that this type of education not only helps kids who need it, but it will also help the industry in the long run.

“This type of financial education clearly offers many benefits to students, but it can also be highly beneficial to the capital markets. Like any industry, the success of the markets will be heavily influenced by the number of talented young men and women who decide to make a career in financial services. By educating young people about the types of meaningful and exciting careers available in trading — and then offering them insight and guidance on how to follow those career paths — we can both create new opportunities for deserving kids and help promote a healthier future for our industry.”

Jessica Damrat, Magnetar Capital

Jessica Damrat is part of the Business Unit Control team at Magnetar Capital, working primarily on the fixed income desk. She has been part of the Magnetar Capital team since January 2010, when she was hired as an intern.

Jessica was involved with a predecessor of the Team Challenge — a competition for a couple schools with students from financial education classes picking portfolios. She would track the portfolios over time in Microsoft Excel, then show students how their portfolios were doing, how much money they had made and how they ranked among their classmates.

In 2013, the Team Challenge began as the day-long event that it is today. Jessica has remained involved in the competition as a coach, and was once again a coach at this year’s Team Challenge with River Forest’s Trinity High School. As she reflects on what she has learned throughout her involvement, Jessica highlights the fact that high school kids are really thinking much bigger than adults may give them credit for.

“You underestimate what students at that level are interested in and want to learn, and how they think about things,” she says. “Society doesn’t think they’re paying attention, but kids are excited to learn. They’re thinking about their future, trying to figure out what they want to do, how to manage their finances and their own lives.”

Despite this interest, Jessica points out that young adults are not necessarily receiving the information they need about personal finance at this crucial junction in their lives, either from schools or their parents. She references some of the hazards of inadequate financial education. “Financial catch phrases and abbreviations while working through a mortgage or credit card application, for example, can be intimidating. Adolescents might get confused or overwhelmed, rely on those they shouldn’t trust and end up in a less than ideal position.

The solution to this? Help kids learn to ask questions, understand processes and not be intimidated. That helps them realize that they have control, so they won’t end up being victims of a process they don’t feel comfortable with.

For those who are interested in pursuing careers in finance, Jessica recommends doing thorough research about the different types of companies out there, and not just pursuing the companies who advertise on high school or college campuses. She suggests that students connect with their Team Challenge coaches — ask for their email addresses and reach out to ask questions.

Keeping an open mind about career options in finance is important, Jessica says. “Don’t feel boxed into things, because there are a lot of different avenues you can take that are not as obvious. Be open to non-traditional routes.”

As Jessica reflects on this year’s Challenge, she is grateful to have seen the progress of the students and to witness the growth of the competition. “It’s great to meet the students every year. Everybody involved gets a lot out of it. Yes, we’re spending our time and part of our weekend, but I think all the coaches would say that it’s well worth it.”

Students compete at the 2017 Magnetar Academy Team Challenge

Students compete at the 2017 Magnetar Academy Team Challenge

Sagar Sheth, MKM Partners

Sagar Sheth is Managing Director and Co-Head of U.S. Institutional Sales at MKM Partners. He was introduced to the Team Challenge through a colleague at Magnetar, who recruited him as a coach three years ago, and Sagar has been participating ever since. This year, he coached Conant High School, from the northwest suburb of Hoffman Estates.

“It’s a phenomenal cause and an extremely organized event. I love spending time with students. It’s great to educate kids and teach them about a career path that many are not exposed to.”

Without connections on Wall Street, Sagar explains that it can be extremely difficult to learn about it or get the hands on experience. “I feel somewhat of an affiliation with the kids. When I was in high school and college, I didn’t have any connections to Wall Street or any guidance on how to pursue a career path at the investment banks and money managers. I was just writing cover letters and sending resumes to potential employers.”

“For a few hours on a Saturday, to give kids access to this world and help them develop skill sets that they can use in the future, it’s well worth it.”

Involving local financial professionals as coaches for the Team Challenge also helps demonstrate that it is possible to participate in Wall Street without living in New York City. “Being from the Chicago area, there’s always this perception that you have to be in NYC to have a career on Wall Street, but the Magnetar Academy and its sponsors show the students that there are plenty of local firms that can present a variety of opportunities for them in the fields of finance.”

Sagar appreciates what the Magnetar Academy curriculum provides students. “When I was in high school, we didn’t have any classes dedicated to learning about the stock market, hedge funds, or investing. Not only does Magnetar Academy provide the students with some educational framework on financial literacy and investing, but also takes it one step further, and simulates the “experience” of being a portfolio manager, an analyst, and a trader.”

What Magnetar Academy teaches kids constitutes “life skill sets,” according to Sagar. “These skills can be used both inside and outside the classroom, and help students determine their career paths. Whether it’s about deciding on what credit card to choose, how much one should save, or how to make an investment decision — they’re more prepared for the real world.”

“Life skill sets” for children/students is a particular issue that Sagar cares a lot about. He is also a board member of the Israel Idonije Foundation, an organization with a similar objective as Magnetar Academy: to teach kids skillsets for life — from decision making, communication, teamwork, self management, and more. He appreciates that Magnetar Academy’s programming also helps keep kids engaged in something positive, which helps them avoid factors that could derail them from pursuing their bright futures.

And the students, according to Sagar, are appreciating the lessons Magnetar Academy teaches. “One thing I was pleasantly surprised by is that in a world in which career paths seem to be dominated by startups and tech, there are still kids who want to explore the various opportunities on Wall Street. Even more importantly, they are passionate about what they’re learning. And as a coach, there’s nothing more rewarding.”


Mark, Jessica and Sagar and are just three of the many coaches who have made invaluable contributions to the Team Challenge and to Magnetar Academy students over the past few years. If you are interested in helping out in the future, we’d love to hear from you! Please send us an email at financialeducation@uchicago.edu.