Distinguished Alumnus Kashkari offers students career advice
To say Neel Kashkari(BSME '95, MSME '98) has ascended rapidly in his career would be a severe understatement. He became the leader of the U.S. Government's Office of Financial Stability—and was referred to in the media as "the $700 Billion Man"—less than ten years after leaving MechSE.
Now the head of global equities for PIMCO, Kashkari was back on campus in April to receive the Distinguished Alumni Award from the department. And when asked to share his thoughts on careers with current engineering students, he proved willing and generous as he described his three keys to success.
"One is hunger—real drive. Number two is skill," he said. "And number three is luck. In our society, in my view we underappreciate the importance of luck. Luck matters a lot. And I've been very lucky."
Illustrating his point on drive, he mapped out the path he has taken since his time at Illinois: west to Los Angeles for an engineering job; east to Philadelphia for business school; west to San Francisco for his first finance job; east to Washington, D.C. to work in government; and now back west to southern California for his PIMCO work.
"That's an illustration of what I'm willing to do in pursuit of opportunity," he said. "And so I think hunger and drive is a huge determinant of long-term results."
Kashkari's drive was evident when he left a promising career in engineering to earn his MBA and start a new career in finance at Goldman Sachs, and again when he left his lucrative position at Goldman Sachs to take a lower-level position in government. But this move to government, which many people might consider too risky, put him in position to ultimately head up the huge bailout effort. He claims that luck was a factor for him being in a position to assume this high-level post, but he obviously would have never been given this enormous, nationally prominent position without skills—many of which he attributes to his training in MechSE.
"The problem-solving skills that we learn as engineers are applicable in many different fields," Kashkari said. "Especially when I went to Washington, I drew on my engineering skills even more than I did on my finance skills. Policymaking is about problem-solving. This really stemmed back from my engineering training, and so these were very useful skills that I built at Illinois."
Much of Kashkari's time at Illinois was spent leading the solar car project, which he said took up many 60-hour weeks during his senior year and two years in grad school. It entailed complicated work in fundraising, budgeting, and managing 80 to 100 other students, in addition to the work of designing and building the car and traveling to competitions.
"For me, the solar car was literally a transformative experience," he said. "When I walked out of here, I walked away with tremendous confidence that I could accomplish things. I feel very fortunate to have had that experience."
In his current position with PIMCO, the world's leading investment firm in bonds, Kashkari directs the company's effort to build an array of stock funds for their clients' portfolios. And even now, his engineering education continues to pay dividends.
"It's coming up with a plan, figuring out what the right plan is, what we can actually implement, getting the right people on board to develop it, and then actually executing the plan," he said. "So I think what I’m seeing the students here do is going to be applicable wherever they want to take their careers and is great to see."
Kashkari noted that his schedule has allowed him very few trips back to Urbana-Champaign, but that he was pleased to see the department is doing so well today. And being on campus brought back fond memories as well.
"One thing that I'll always remember is that after long days in the auto lab, we would often go to Murphy's for burgers, so that was a favorite for everybody," he said. "That's probably the place that I remember the most, going from the auto lab to Murphy’s—and back to the auto lab."