Wharton San Francisco EMBA student James Cleland works in finance, but he also is an avocado and lemon farmer.
We asked James, executive director of investments at Aotearoa Investments, Inc. in San Francisco, to tell us more about his work and his experiences at Wharton.
Here is what he said:
I work for a family investment office, which invests in venture capital, real estate, equities, commodities, and manages hedge fund allocations. We also do some direct investing in startups and special situations. Three years ago, we purchased a 90-acre avocado and lemon ranch in Santa Barbara as an agribusiness investment opportunity.
Unfortunately, it happened to be during the worst drought in California’s history. My wife and I moved there to manage the farm and turnaround the business. Since then, we’ve been rotating out water-intensive plants like avocados, planting drought-resistant plants like dragon fruit, and working with irrigation engineers to make our water use is more efficient.
We’ve also been working with local municipalities to secure water rights and allocations. That’s a challenge in Santa Barbara where there are conflicting water interests among food farms, large single family homes with sweeping lawns, and golf courses. The good news is that within one year of investing in the farm, we made it a profitable and self-sustainable business. We produce over 700,000 pounds of fruit a year, which we sell to large retailers like Costco, Whole Foods and Walmart.
On Coming to Wharton
I started my career on Wall Street as a sales-trader at Goldman Sachs and then worked for a hedge fund as a research analyst and trader. As I moved more into direct investing, I realized that I had been in a very narrow area of the markets for most of my career and I saw holes in my wider knowledge of finance that I wanted to fill.
Wharton San Francisco was the only EMBA program that I seriously considered. I knew I wanted to stay on the West Coast, I wanted to continue working – and I sought a best-in-class program. When you put those three requirements together, coming to Wharton’s MBA for Executives Program was a no brainer.
When I visited campus, there was an immediate and palpable connection to the other MBA students, the Bay Area, and a sense of belonging to the global Wharton community. The tight relationship with the East Coast campus and direct exposure to the large concentration of Wharton alumni in the Bay Area made Wharton the only choice for me.
On Applicability of Classes
All of the first-year core classes strengthened what I knew and allowed me to explore the gray areas in greater detail and test myself. The Corporate Finance and Accounting classes have been particularly helpful because I had a surface-level understanding of those topics before, but now I am very comfortable talking about those areas with founders and other investors.
On the agribusiness side, I’m learning how to put together forecasts for upcoming years and make better decisions about where to invest in terms of our equipment and infrastructure. My Communications class has also helped improve my presentation skills at Town Hall meetings and startup presentations, and communicating strategy.
On Connecting with the Philadelphia Campus
A highlight of my first year was the weekend we spent at Wharton’s Philadelphia campus. Early in the program, our entire class flew to Philadelphia where we met our East Coast classmates.
It was a very enjoyable experience and it made me realize that there is a serious connection between the campuses. It certainly proved the magnitude and power of the Wharton network.
On the Environment
In the EMBA program, we’re not competing for jobs because we’re already on our own professional paths. The environment is extremely collegial. We all look out for each other and help when it comes to balancing work, school and home life.
Another interesting aspect is that many students in the San Francisco program work in the tech sector. I work in finance, but there is great value to being exposed to other professional fields and perspectives. Since starting the program, I’ve become more tech literate and savvy.
The big challenge is learning how to pace yourself and balance all of the aspects of your life. My daughter was born nine months into the program. I’m not alone with that added responsibility; we’ve had about five or six babies born in our class so far.
The key is to not get behind with school. Be prepared for class weekends, even if you just shave off a little bit of work each day. A half hour of reading here or there can really help. Be prepared to spend on average approximately 20 hours a week on school work.
Advice for Incoming Students
The program only lasts two years and it goes by very fast. Dedicate those two years not only to learning the curriculum, but also to getting to know your classmates. Those people can be huge assets in your life both professionally and as friends.
Try to take advantage of the Wharton alumni network as well as the opportunities like Global Modular Courses. Throw yourself into the program to get as much as you can out of it.
Posted: June 27, 2016