Much like the professional path that follows, the road to a degree isn’t always straightforward. For Arizona State University alumnus Alex Witherill, a break from school to see more of the world offered the long view he needed to jump-start his studies and forge a career.
“I finished my freshman year in 1987 and then took six months off to travel around Europe,” he said. “I remember thinking that I had to do it right then — I wanted to have that experience so I could come back to school more engaged and with more perspective.”
The trip paid off. Witherill said he returned to the Tempe campus a year later with a renewed drive for higher education and plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in political science at what is today the School of Politics and Global Studies in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. After graduating in 1992, he accepted a position in the Mesa office of investment banking and retail brokerage conglomerate Shearson Lehman Brothers. A few years in, he was looking for the next big thing when a three-month training program took him to the firm’s New York investment office.
“I wasn’t feeling challenged working on the firm's retail side in Arizona, and when I saw the investment side I thought I’d found something that offered more,” he said. “So I started to enlist the help of some of my fraternity brothers working in San Francisco and former classmates who’d gone into investment banking. Eventually, I met a guy who hired me to work at Lehman Brothers in the Bay Area.”
Witherill’s new position provided the change he was searching for. But another barrier still loomed — graduate school.
“Everyone at the firm who had their own clients had advanced degrees in business, usually from places like Harvard or the University of Chicago,” he said. “A guy that I worked with told me, ‘Look, you can either find a way to go back and get an MBA or you can just work to overcome that obstacle. I decided to work hard enough to find a way around it, and I became the only undergraduate degree holder with his own clients.”
A broad base
Witherill spent almost 10 years at Lehman Brothers before moving to investment banking and wealth management positions at Credit Suisse and Barclays. He now serves as managing director of investments at San Francisco firm Stifel Financial Corporation. And while the progression from a political science degree to an investment banking career may not seem like the most obvious, Witherill said his time at ASU gave him the tools to make the jump successfully.
“My belief is that an undergraduate degree should be broad-based and something that really teaches you about yourself and what you can offer to the world,” he said. “My favorite class at ASU was a Shakespeare course, and even though that’s not information I necessarily use in my career today, it’s something I really enjoyed and something that helped me become a more knowledgeable and well-rounded person — I feel that way about a lot of my education at ASU.”
Between joining Greek life and writing articles for ASU student publication The State Press, Witherill remembers juggling a range of diverse interests while in school. And the same drive for variety continues to play a role in his professional life.
In addition to his work in banking, Witherill has found a second calling producing independent films. Over the last several years, films like “Dean” and “Frontera” have earned him recognition at the Tribeca Film Festival and Sundance. Today, he’s a board member of the San Francisco Film Society and the owner of his own production company, Green Street Films.
“Business and filmmaking have become some of my main interests, and the ability to combine both is really rewarding,” he said. “Getting to play your small role in the creation and dissemination of art, there’s a certain validation to that. It allows me to use the skills I know from business and apply them to something new.”
Witherill’s filmmaking passion has also led him back to give back to current students. He became a board member of ASU Film Spark almost a decade ago and still holds the position today. The university initiative is based at the ASU California Center in Santa Monica and helps students interested in careers in Hollywood network and work with industry professionals.
“The film world can be really tough to break into,” Witherill said. “What Film Spark gave students was the chance to work with award-winning actors and cinematographers that they could take into the real world as tangible experience.”
From advancing in banking, to building a reputation in the world of independent films, Witherill said he tries to remember to always look for opportunities to expand. And he encourages students still in school to do the same.
“When I started my career, I threw caution to the wind and moved to San Francisco to try to start a new career. That meant leaving my comfort zone and taking a risk, but it’s one of the things that really shifted everything for me,” he said. “I think you should always be thinking about how much more is in your city, or how much more is at ASU. Those are the questions that will help you get to where you want to go.”
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