Alumni Interview: Terry McKenna

By Jack Daly | October 21, 2021

In my first interview for CSJ, I spoke with alum Terry McKenna '15. Terry grew up in Summit, New Jersey, and was recruited to play lacrosse at HC. In my interview, I learned what you should do to prepare yourself for a career in a few different business roles and his experience during his time on the hill and after. Terry began his professional career in consulting at EY, investment banking at Sandler O'Neill, and private equity at Genstar. Now, Terry has just started his first semester at Harvard's business school.

Academics at Holy Cross

Was it always the plan to study Economics, or did you arrive thinking you would do something else? Growing up, I was always math/science brained and I came to Holy Cross expecting that I would be a math major. I even applied to the Pre-Med program to keep my options open, but looking at it with a long-term lens, I didn't think I had the patience for eight more years of school. After college, I took Econ first semester freshman year and thought it had the perfect mix of math and applicability. It took the quantitative problem solving that I loved but kept the math to a realistic level and taught me how to apply it to the real world. Even a major like accounting was a little too in the weeds for me, and I liked that Econ was always making me look at the big picture.


Being a student-athlete is very challenging, was balancing athletics with your work very difficult, or were you able to handle it reasonably well?

I actually think it helped me. In high school, between classes and athletics, I was basically working a 10-hour job in a very structured environment, and I think applying yourself in high school is the best way to prepare for college, especially if you're going to be an athlete. When you get to college, you lose all the structure, and you're no longer told what/when to do everything. So in a sense, I think lacrosse provided that structure for me and helped me focus on academics because I was more regimented.


Outside of the particular courses students should take if they are interested in businesses, what classes should they take to prepare themselves?

I think if you're interested in finance or business, taking accounting, calculus, statistics, and economics are a must. However, in terms of a major, I think finding what you're passionate about is what is essential. Most careers in business are very "learnable" on the job, and when you boil everything down, they are typically just many simple concepts stacked on top of each other. Business is very different from, for example, being a doctor because as an aspiring doctor, you really need to know a lot before you start. Studying something you love not only makes you a better student, but it makes you a more interesting and purposeful person. People don't realize how important it is to differentiate yourself from the pack and almost any major can relate to business somehow (e.g. using biology in a healthcare business or psychology to understand people in the workplace). So as long as you're supplementing what you're passionate about with those necessities, then I think you should be perfectly fine. Looking at the people I have worked with, I don't see any clear delineation between people who major in more business-related majors and those who don't.


What areas do you usually see Holy Cross students excel in? What do we do better than kids who major in business or engineering?

I think Holy Cross teaches students to be great thinkers and learners, which is critical over the long term because you're going to need to learn new things your whole career, not just to get your first job. Also, because Holy Cross doesn't have business/finance majors, I think the students have to be more thoughtful in what they want to do and work for it, which I've seen lead to hustle and humility. Holy Cross students spend time figuring out their passions, and then they become purposeful with their desires to achieve their goals. One thing that's important to mention and can be harder as a liberal arts student is that you shouldn't let the things you don't know or don't learn in class get in the way of you pursuing them.. One word of advice I would give would be to pick up the phone and call alums to find out what they do.


Recruiting

Did you have any internships while you were at Holy Cross? How was the process of figuring out what you wanted to do?

I was fortunate to have internships after my sophomore and junior years, both of which came through the Holy Cross network and career office. The Holy Cross network is really strong, and most alumni are very responsive if you just go through the database and start reaching out, which I spent a lot of time doing. My first internship was my Sophomore year at a small investment bank. Then, in my Junior year, I did a rotational sales and trading program at Citi.


EY

So EY was your first job out of school. What made you want to do consulting, and what was that experience like?

To me, consulting at a large firm like EY was a great entry position because it essentially let me try out many different jobs within one company. I met many people from Holy Cross who were there, and I also really connected with the culture at EY. Not only that, but working at a place like EY, there are so many opportunities to figure out what your interests are. Anyone who wants to have a broad range of experience seeing what problems businesses deal with should consider consulting. That experience ultimately led me to realize how much I enjoyed quantitative modeling and strategy within a business context.


Investment Banking and Private Equity

To touch upon both experiences quickly, what was your time in IB and PE like, and what led you to those roles?

After my consulting experience, I knew I wanted to work at a smaller company and on the transaction side of corporate strategy, which led me to apply to Sandler O'Neill through an alumni connection. There I was working on their insurance M&A team, and I also did some capital raising. I was really fortunate to be in positions on very lean, apolitical teams with a lot of deal activity.


The recruiting for IB is very intense. Did you have to go through that normal recruiting process? One thing that is important to recognize is that the bigger the bank, the more structure the hiring process will have. Probably 99% of the big banks get their full-time hires out of internships. When I got the job at Sandler, I was a lateral hire which generally takes longer and has even less structure. Because there is less structure, when you go through an off-cycle recruiting process, it is a lot more about networking.


Wrapup and Harvard Business School

There are a lot of brilliant people who go to HBS. Are there any similar traits you see between your classes, or is everyone very unique?

Everyone here is certainly smart, but that comes out in so many different ways given the diversity of careers, countries, etc. that people come from. What I really think everyone has in common here is the belief that they can accomplish anything. I think that's really important because when you're young, you think everything is very complex, and you ask yourself, how am I going to make it? Then as you get older you realize that there are very few geniuses, but if you are a good person, work hard and get a little lucky, you can do anything. More so than raw intelligence, I think those who realize that are the most successful. So there's just this belief factor that students at HBS have that they can do anything.


What guiding principles/values/questions have you asked yourself as you go about your journey?

I think for me, it has always been about asking myself if I measure up to what I think I can do. Ultimately, you need to be content with yourself, and only you can know what that means. So I think I always find myself asking myself that question of personal fulfillment and making sure I push myself.


If there is something that you could have done differently in your professional career, what would it be?

I would have started a company when I was younger. There is no downside, and even if the business fails, you learn so much because you learn about yourself and what it takes to run a business. I also think right now is a fantastic time to be a founder because there is so much money going into private investments.


What would your definition of success be?

I don't think you can be successful in your life by maximizing one bucket of your life. For me, it's all about figuring out what matters to you and trying to maximize the sum of the parts. For me, those buckets are some mix of career, physical & mental health, and relationships.


Do you have any mentors or people whom you have looked up to your whole life?

The easy answer would be my brother since I am nearly identical to him; we both played lacrosse at HC, we both got into banking, I followed in his footsteps so much. Another group I would have to mention is my parents only because the way I think has so much to do with my parents, and I think they taught me certain things about life for me to be successful. Once you're older, I think you start to realize how much your parents shaped who you are today.


Finally, now that you have all this time at HBS, what are you doing when you're not in class or doing interviews with Holy Cross students?

Honestly, I've been playing a lot of pick-up basketball. I played a lot in high school, and it's been something that has been able to ground me. I would've picked lacrosse, but it's much harder to pick up, but basketball has been entertaining.


Edited by Max Caron and Joseph Barbieri