Villanova’s old Applied Finance Lab used to be tucked away in the basement of the business school building, a dark and hot space where students could access Bloomberg terminals and other advanced financial software.
Students went there if they had a required course, but generally steered clear of the lab, says Caitlin Delaney, a rising senior who started working in the lab as a freshman.
“It was viewed as intimidating,” Delaney, who serves as president of the Villanova Wildcat Fund & Investment Academy, says. “Most people didn’t go into it until they had to because of a class.”
A MODEL FOR OTHER UNDERGRADUATE BUSINESS SCHOOLS LOOKING TO UPGRADE
Today, the school’s new finance lab looks nothing like its old counterpart. It is a sleek space housed in a high-profile spot in the center of the business school’s airy atrium. Villanova Alum Justin Gmelich and his wife, Victoria, gave the school a $3 million gift to upgrade the sleepy lab, one of the largest named gifts for a financial markets lab in the country, the school says. Villanova has used the funds to turn the lab into a state-of-the-art financial services hub for students. The new Victoria and Justin Gmelich “90 VSB Lab for Financial Markets,” has taken the undergraduate business school lab to a new level, making it what administrators hope will be a model for undergraduate business schools around the country looking to upgrade their labs.
Increasingly, business schools want finance labs to be a place where students learn not just how to use Bloomberg terminals, but also hone technical skills in things like artificial intelligence, Factset, and the Python programming language that can give them an edge in the job market, says Joyce Russell, dean of the Villanova School of Business.
“We wanted our lab to be cutting edge with all of the technology that we’d need for future jobs,” Russell continues. “It’s pretty state-of-the-art and is beyond what you’d think of for a finance lab.”
There are approximately 400 finance labs operating on university campuses throughout the U.S., of which 35% to 40% are named for either individuals or corporations who have given large gifts to build or upgrade existing facilities, according to a benchmark study of finance labs across the country done by Villanova. Most of these school’s labs have had to go dark in the last few months as a result of the coronavirus epidemic, and many are learning new ways to operate them virtually, finance lab directors and students from across the country say.
VILLANOVA’S IMPRESSIVE NEW DIGS ARE MORE INVITING TO MORE STUDENTS
Villanova’s new finance lab has been several years in the making. Russell tapped Stephen Padovano, the school’s executive-in-residence to lead the redesign, a charge he took on with gusto. He spent much of the past two years researching leading finance labs at schools around the country, from the Stanford Graduate School of Business to the Stevens Institute of Technology, ultimately hoping to create an environment for students that would closely replicate what it felt like to work on the busting trading floor of places like Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, he says.
“The old lab was serviceable but needed an upgrade,” Padovano, who also serves as the director of Villanova’s Applied Quantitative Finance Program, says. “The ultimate goal was to make it look, smell, and feel like a trading floor but make sure you are providing the education benefits for that.”
Villanova’s 1,600-square-foot lab is double the size of the school’s previous lab, with 36 Bloomberg terminals, 28 work stations with curved monitors, and sleek desks and chairs that are the same ones used in offices New York’s Hudson Yards complex, Padovano explains. Students can easily stay on top of the latest financial market data and the performance of the school’s $1.1 million student-managed fund by glancing at one of the three 84-inch ultra-wide monitors at the front of the room, or the nine television monitors on the walls. Most importantly, the lab is no longer in the basement. It’s one of the first things students see when they walk into the business school, Russell says. The lab is packed with students from the moment it opens at 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., she says, with more students than ever before, including a larger number of female students. The programs and software it offers appeal to students from real estate, analytics, management information systems, and other fields.
“People are a lot happier when they are in there now, which is what we wanted,” Russell points out. “We knew that if we got the space to be more welcoming and less intimidating than people would walk right in, which is what has happened.”
OTHER SCHOOLS JOINING THE UPGRADE MOVEMENT
Other schools have also seen major upsides to upgrading their finance labs in the last few years. Texas A&M University’s Reliant Energy Trade Center renovated and expanded its lab in 2017 as part of a push to make it more relevant to students and inviting to professors, says Detlef Hallermann, director of the Reliant Energy Trade Center. The lab, which has an energy focus, was originally built in 2000 and back then only had capacity for 25 Bloomberg terminals and students. During the renovation, the school enlarged the room, doubled the seating to 50 students, and bought in new seating, LED screens, and financial simulators. Today, there are now six to seven classes a semester being taught in the trading center, whereas 10 years ago, there were only three, Hallermann explains.
“Now we have so many professors trying to use the trading center we actually have to limit them so students can use the center for extracurriculars, “ Hallermann, also a clinical professor of finance at the school, says. “The problem has flipped to overuse of the trading center, and we’re already looking at the next expansion of the building. It’s a really cool problem to have.”
WORKING THROUGH THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
A more unwelcome problem for finance lab directors in the last few months has been how to run the finance labs virtually even as their schools have closed their physical campuses. May’s Hallermann says his school’s lab is being creative during the crisis, still teaching classes where students can VPN into trading center computers for specified software, though the school has been limited by some vendors in the ability to access software online.
At many undergraduate business schools, students use finance labs as a home base to run their school’s investment funds, making the last semester a challenge. Students at the University of Dayton’s Davis Center for Portfolio Management use their school’s lab to help them run the Flyer Investment Fund, the second-largest student-managed investment portfolio in the nation, and the largest run exclusively by undergraduates, currently valued at over $35 million, according to the school. Students are still actively managing the Flyer Fund from their homes via conference calls, and use FactSet and Morningstar Direct on their personal computers to help them make decisions, says Jake Blewitt, a senior and senior manager of the Davis Center.
“There are still great equity research and portfolio management tools that students can use to manage the fund even when outside of school,” Blewitt explains. “Going forward, we expect to maintain the same degree of connectivity and involvement until we are allowed back on campus.”
Villanova’s Padovano says his school is actively working to figure out how to best utilize the finance lab from afar. Many spring workshops had to be cancelled, but plans are underway for adding summer courses in programming and financial software usage where students could work from home while the professor interacts with them from inside the physical lab, he said. Fortunately, it’s a setup that the lab’s current technology will make seamless, Padovano says.
“We are actively exploring new workshops, but interestingly, this is flipped from what we envisioned for the lab,” he continues. “We incorporated technology to virtually bring alumni and market experts into the lab from their desks on Wall Street. Now this is the reverse.”