“This is my toy,” announces Adlai Wertman while approaching his Porsche Boxster. It’s an uncharacteristically cool early December night in Los Angeles. Soon, we’re whipping around turns in a parking garage on the fringe of the University of Southern California campus. “It’s not about how fast it goes,” he explains as we make our way to The 10 (California-speak for Interstate 10). “It’s about how fast it goes fast.” Moments later Wertman is working the clutch like a seasoned stock car driver, hitting video game speeds while merging onto the freeway.
As we rocket towards the Pacific, two things become evident about the 56-year-old man behind the wheel. First, Wertman is very much the product of nearly two decades on Wall Street. He’s got that confident, Master of the Universe attitude necessary for investment banking prowess. Not to mention, the stereotypical look. He’s sports a full head of hair that’s more salt than pepper. He’s of average build and height. And he’s white, very white.
But more importantly and just as obvious, Wertman is hell-bent on helping others and sharing what he has earned. He buys food and coffee for others, receives hugs from nearly everyone he comes across, and demonstrably treats every person with respect and dignity, no matter what their station in life. Wertman’s truly a do-gooder trapped in an investment banker’s body. And his life has played out like a movie script crafted by the block buster-producing industry he lives and works near everyday.
A 10-PAGE PROPOSAL THAT LED TO A MASTERS DEGREE AND SOCIAL ENTERPRISE LAB
“I’m on a mission to create a workforce,” Wertman says, back in his second-story office in one of the oldest buildings on USC’s campus. The building is a converted men’s dorm that smells like an aging Midwestern middle school and once housed actor John Wayne. It seems a humble setting for a former higher-up on Wall Street.
Armed with a ten-page proposal on how to produce MBAs with a greater appreciation for the social sector, Wertman came to USC’s Marshall School of Business in 2007 as a professor of clinical entrepreneurship. Since then, he’s developed a social impact fellows MBA scholarship program, created an undergraduate minor in social entrepreneurship and became the founding director of Marshall’s Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab. Now, he’s leading a gang of do-gooders through Marshall’s master’s of science in social entrepreneurship degree–a program that evolved from his original proposal (see Building A Do-Gooder Brigade To Tackle Society’s Ills).
Standing at the back of a classroom in Popovich Hall on the downtown L.A. campus, it’s evident Wertman is the patriarch of this socially-minded tribe of business students. They approach him with obvious admiration, seeking advice and confirmation, alike. But for Wertman, who has battled a non-terminal form of cancer, had to tragically make the decision to take his brother off life support and grew up watching his parents scrape by so he could have a better life, the decision to create something better in the world and larger than himself was simply a matter of time.
‘IF I JUST STIRRED IN HARD WORK, I WAS ABLE TO GET ANYTHING DONE’
“From an early age, I had a feeling that I had never earned anything I had,” he concedes. “That I was born with a weird set of circumstances. I was born in the United States. I was born white. I was born male. I was born with a high IQ.”
Wertman grew up with two brothers in Queens, New York. His parents were both teachers, and his father worked three jobs so he could send his sons to college.
“I was born with the ability to bullshit,” continues Wertman. “I was born—as I always joke—with a set of looks that doesn’t make someone throw up over a cup of coffee. And none of those had to do with me.”
But Wertman soon learned about another quality that had more to do with him. And that he could control and develop. “What I did learn from an early stage in life was, if I just stirred in hard work, I was able to get anything done,” says Wertman. “I had all those things and all I had to do was work really hard because all of those advantages were already there.”
AN UNEXPECTED PATH TO WALL STREET
So Wertman worked hard. He made A’s in high school and college. After graduating with honors in econometrics from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1980, one of his professors asked him what he wanted to do. Wertman had no idea. The professor made a couple of connections for him and soon Wertman was interviewing for finance positions in New York City. Five days later, Wertman was on Wall Street working for Laidlaw, Adams & Peck, which is now Kuhns Brothers.
“This was right after the 70’s and I was still hung over. I don’t remember most of those interviews,” Wertman exclaims while laughing about the first job interviews he did after graduation.
“I was the first Jew they had hired in 150 years at this firm,” says Wertman with a hint of hyperbole. “And they didn’t find out I was a Jew until four or five months later when I finally called them out for all of the constant anti-Semitic comments. And I said, ‘Guys, you know I’m Jewish, right?’ And my boss said, ‘You have the secret to success on Wall Street, you look British and think Yiddish.’ And I replied, ‘That’s racist!’”
‘PUBLIC SERVICE WAS SORT OF WHAT THE SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD DID’
Jokes and inappropriate comments aside, Wertman was indeed built for Wall Street success. He had the smarts and the intelligence. And as it turned out, Wertman was damn good at the Wall Street game. Within four years, he worked up to vice president status at Laidlaw, Adams & Peck and then moved to E.C. Farnsworth & Co.
But there was always a voice whispering for him to use his circumstances to help others. Growing up in Queens, Wertman says nobody in his neighborhood had a lot of money. Most of his friend’s parents were assembly members and judges. “Public service was sort of what the successful people in my neighborhood did,” he says.
So after four years, Wertman grew tired of Wall Street and desperately wanted out. “I wanted to go work in the White House,” says Wertman. But competing forces perpetuated. A supervisor suggested Wertman snag an MBA. Wertman obliged and was accepted to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Despite the heavy finance and banking culture, Wertman stayed true to his government passions.
During the summer between MBA years, while “everyone was going to Wall Street,” Wertman tried again to get away from it, taking a position in New York City government. He hated it, as much or more than Wall Street.
CITY GOVERNMENT WAS ‘TOO MUCH ABOUT GETTING THE TRASH DELIVERED’
“It was too much about getting the trash delivered,” admits Wertman. “I was offered the number two job in the Department of Finance for the City of New York to be the director’s right-hand man. But it wasn’t the issues I wanted to deal with. And in my head, I was going to work in the West Wing.”
Except Wertman never ended up in the West Wing. Instead, he missed out on virtually all on-campus recruiting and was left scrambling at graduation again. And if you’re trying to rid of Wall Street, getting your MBA from finance-heavy Wharton in the mid-80s was probably the last place to go.
Sure enough, Bear Stearns, the former investment bank that was gobbled up by JPMorgan Chase in 2008, came calling with a relevant offer. They wanted Wertman to work with their government finance clients.
“I was the first MBA hired straight out of grad school by Bear Stearns in 1986,” says Wertman. “And I have a memo to prove it somewhere. I actually do, it’s weird.”
FALLING BACK INTO THE MISERABLE WALL STREET TRAP
Instead of a pivot, Wertman ended up in the exact spot he tried to escape. But this time, realities of life kept him there. His new bride, a corporate lawyer, was making moves in Big Law. They started a young family. And Wertman’s plan to leave after a few years turned into a decade. “Nobody leaves Wall Street voluntarily,” insists Wertman. “Some can’t hack it, get fired, or quit. But, it’s Wall Street, man. You’re the investment bankers. You’re the kings of the universe. Nobody leaves. But I always assumed I was going to leave and do community work. It was just a matter of when.”
It took a long while for that ‘when’ to come. After two years at Bear Stearns, Wertman moved to Chase Securities. Two years later, he hopped to Prudential Securities, where he spent a decade. As a managing director, Wertman managed nearly $25 billion in debt financing and oversaw offices in Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. He also despised his job.
“For me, going to Wall Street was a mistake,” explains Wertman. “I never should have done it. You can ask my wife, I barely had a happy day in 18 years on Wall Street. I just happened to be good at it. But I was pretty miserable.”