Laura Kornhauser

By Wendy Plump for The Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering

It might have been an easier choice than most undergraduates face for Laura Kornhauser to pursue a degree through the Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering. Her father, Alain Kornhauser, is a professor there, and her mother is a mathematician. She was always going to be “a math and science kid.”

But that does not mean Kornhauser did not earn her way onto Wall Street, using as leverage the quantitative skills and the application of logic she learned through ORFE.

Now in equity derivative sales with a portfolio of institutional clients, Kornhauser, who graduated in 2003, easily recalls the day the School of Engineering freshmen heard pitches about the majors open to them. ORFE stood out from the beginning, she said. There, she would be able to exercise her love of figuring things out.

“From the get-go, the focus was on problem solving, and taking concepts that may seem simplistic at first about how a business produces widgets, for example, but needs to figure out where to produce them, how many to produce, how much to sell. Having the skills to actually take that problem to the next level and look at the complexity of it really interested me.,” said Kornhauser during a phone interview from her office in Manhattan.

“It was almost like an interdisciplinary engineering degree. ORFE really tries to bring in the real world in interesting ways. That was a very exciting part of the curriculum.”
She cited in particular Professor Warren Powell’s perennial “orange Juice game.” In class, teams of students apply complex modeling techniques to a “real-world” orange juice company, for which the logistics, strategies and challenges change on an almost weekly basis.

“We created our fancy ways to try to deal with that, and then Professor Powell ran random simulations for a ‘year,’ for a hurricane or cold weather when there were no oranges,” said Kornhauser. “It was absolutely mind-blowing when you look at all the variables.

“It’s not just about the numbers,” she said. “It’s about what comes in between the numbers.”

Asked to identify one way in particular that ORFE has equipped her for a career on Wall Street, Kornhauser answered without hesitation that the quantitative skills she developed are applicable not just in one discipline, but across the scope of factors that graduates will face on the job. The ability to analyze large data sets and draw conclusions from them will only increase in value in our digitized world.

The evolution was not simply intellectual, she added, but interpersonal. As she encounters a range of individuals and clients, those skills manifest in dealing with differences of opinion, building a case, and bringing others on-board with an idea or strategy.

“I didn’t take a single class that gave me a road map for figuring out a problem,” Kornhauser emphasized. “That is one of the most memorable differences between ORFE and a normal finance degree. You’re really being taught the skills that will develop the mind over time, so that you go out into the world with a better tool box in your head.

“Being able to think about a problem and then step away from it and try to figure out a set of processes leading to a successful outcome was something we were doing in all of our classes almost every single day.”

Apart from that, Kornhauser urged Princeton undergraduates to enjoy the range of resources at their disposal. “Just sip as much of it in as you possibly can,” she said “They really are the most wonderful developmental years of your life.”