GW English Alums on the Move: CJ Powell

GW English Alum CJ Powell

GW English Alum CJ Powell: “Two of the investment banking managing directors in Project Finance with whom I worked had Bachelor of Arts degrees in Art History and Dance

Like a lot of our department’s majors, CJ Powell (she was then CJ Hall) headed for New York City with an interest in writing and editing.  Her journey through the worlds of art and business is an inspiring and instructive one.  She shares it with us here.

 First, tell us something about your time in the department.  You were a student of David McAleavey’s.  Were you an English major?  Did you focus on Creative Writing?  Were there other professors who made an impression on you?

I enrolled at GWU in the Fall of 1979 to study Political Science, win an internship on the Hill, and change the world. Early Poli-Sci course requirements — Intro to Statistical Social Science;  Intro to Computer Programming;  Scope & Methodology of Political Science — dampened my enthusiasm, while I was energized by the English Department offerings of  Intro to Creative Writing and The Short Story.  In the Spring of my sophomore year I declared my major in American Literature.  It wasn’t a completely unexpected turn of events.  I had always written short stories and poetry and was the editor of my high school poetry magazine.  I loved being part of the poetry crowd on campus, participating in open poetry and fiction readings in the 5th Floor lounge of the Marvin Center every Friday evening and hanging out with other writers.   I had the honor of being a member of the editorial staff for Volume 1 of  the G.W. Review’s 1980 founding issue, associate editor for fiction and poetry for Volume 2, and editor-in-chief for Volumes 3 and 4.  The campus literary magazine featured a Po’ Biz Calendar with listing of poetry and fiction activities in the DC area that kept me active in the thriving DC literary scene.  My writing appeared in campus publications The GW Hatchet, The Current, Wooden Teeth and George Mason University’s The George Mason Review.  During my years at GWU, a full-time employee could take classes for free.  I landed a secretarial position in the School of Business Administration and finished my studies tuition free in 1984 with a Bachelor of Arts in American Literature.  I obtained the American Literature degree through a Proseminar in American Literature that was offered at the time.  David McAleavey taught the creative writing classes I took, A.E. Claeyssens taught the Writing Fiction – The Novel course, and Robert Ganz taught American poetry.  These and all the other professors in the English Department deepened my knowledge, love and respect for American Literature.
You have clearly had an impressive career in banking.  What did you study after you graduated from GW?  Were you ever tempted to study further in the humanities?

My first job out of college was as a production assistant for The Living Stage, a non-profit professional improvisational theater company that was part of Arena State for over 30-years.  I responded to an ad in The Washington City Newspaper, and my GWU BA was an important credential in winning the position. Under the direction of Robert Alexander, Living Stage performed with men, women, children, teens, prisoners, disabled and disadvantaged people from all walks of life, teaching the importance of self-expression.  I was privileged to be a part of that artistic team for three years.  After I left Living Stage, I decided to return to my literary roots and enrolled in the 6-week Radcliffe Publishing Course.  I can’t remember who told me about the Radcliffe Publishing Course, but I’m very grateful to have learned about it.  It turned out to be an important credential; it got me both a job and an apartment in New York. My roommate-to-be previously took the course and was working in publishing.  She posted an ad for a roommate on the bulletin board at Radcliffe, knowing new graduates would be flocking to NYC.  She had a two bedroom 4th floor walk-up in Park Slope.  I called her and rented it sight unseen.  I was able to land a job as an editorial assistant at G.P. Putnam’s Sons. The position was advertised in The New York Times and the editor who hired me was familiar with The Publishing Course, and when she saw I was a GWU grad, she remarked, “Good school!”   It was a refrain I was to hear throughout my career.  I worked with Lisa Wager, editor to a variety of writers: detective, fiction, self-help, romance.  I read unsolicited scripts, did some copy editing and maintained her books’ production schedules.  After some time working for a publishing house, I found my sympathies for writers growing, and was able to work instead for a literary editor, the great Elaine Markson at Elaine Markson Literary Agency in Greenwich Village.  My good friend Lisa Callamaro, whom I’d met at Radcliffe, worked there and had told me about the literary assistant position. Lisa has since opened her own film and television agency in Beverly Hills.  I had fantastic exposure to all kinds of writers and literary events in and around the city.  Unfortunately, the pay as editorial and literary assistant was so low I had to get a second job to afford life in NYC, even sharing an apartment.  While I enjoyed moonlighting at Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore on the Upper West Side, a job advertised in The Village Voice, I grew tired of feeling overworked and poor.   My own writing had long since fallen away under the strain of two jobs.  I decided to look for a better paying position.
  In what ways did the literature grounding you got at GW contribute to your further education, and then your career?  Was there a big disconnect between literature and business?

In the early nineties in NYC, I figured the highest paying fields were investment banking and law.  I had a friend who worked as a paralegal for a NYC law firm and had heard stories about the long hours and crazed attorneys, so I went for something in finance. It was never my intent to sell out.  I hoped to find a decent paying 9-5 job that would finally leave me time to write. I took a job as a secretary at First Boston (the company has since merged with Credit Suisse).  While the position paid substantially more than the two jobs I’d been working combined, I remember my father being very disappointed that I wasn’t using my college degree, although I’m sure it was an important factor in being hired And he was right; none of the other secretaries had degrees.  However, I was surprised and delighted to find myself working with the highly intelligent and cultured men and women who bought and read the books, paid for the theater tickets, and talked about literature, art, history.  My characteristic hard work, writing, and organizational skills were very much appreciated. I was given the opportunity to work on reviewing, doing graphics and editing presentations.  After a couple of years I moved to a position at UBS (also through a newspaper ad), in the investment banking project finance department, my GWU degree once again keeping me in good stead.  Project finance is the financing of power plants, mining projects, infrastructure like toll roads and airports, telecommunications, and the projects are all over the globe.  I found the subject matter of the work varied and interesting and have worked in Project Finance ever since.  I found that, by taking on administrative projects that no one else wanted to do, I gained recognition and moved from secretary, to administrative assistant, to project manager, to associate.  I was able to work in the portfolio administration group where I was introduced to the voluminous documentation necessary for project finance deals.  I loved reading the credit and agency agreements, piecing together the operational and business duties of the banking work like a jigsaw puzzle. I worked for UBS for 7 years and in the last year my manager recommended me for credit training, a fantastic opportunity.  There was a reorganization at UBS and some of the managers I worked for moved to Deutsche Bank.  They looked me up and I moved to DB as an assistant treasurer in project finance doing portfolio administration.  Once at DB, I moved within the company and learned more about loan operations and management.  I moved to the  Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas project finance team where I became expert in reading documentation and eventually became Vice President and team leader of their transaction management team, responsible for negotiating and implementing new deals.  I’ve been at Citibank for the last four years, in their corporate trust shop, reviewing documentation and implementation of new deals as they relate to agency roles.  So many of the people I work with have a business or finance background, are expert in spreadsheets and analysis, and would rather poke a stick in their eyes than read a 400 page credit agreement word for word.  Basically, for the last several years I have a job where I read for a living, and I love it. 

What advice do you have for our majors who may be thinking of entering the business world?

Don’t be afraid to move around and try new paths.  I would never have as much appreciation for where I am today if I hadn’t tried different careers.  If you really have your heart set on doing creative work, it’s better to work hard and struggle than to work in a corporate environment for 75% of your life and think you’ll have brainpower left for imagination.  Business needs creative thinkers who can problem solve.  

 Is there anything in particular you miss about GW?  About college in general?

I loved being at a university that was in an urban environment, where you could experience the culture of the city, with professors like David McAleavey to guide you.  I loved the nurture and support of the Poetry Crowd, Lilian Weber, Ron Weber, Richard Flynn, A.L. Nielsen, Hugh Walthall, Paul Brucker and many others.  While I’m happy with my story and where I am today, I think if I was going to do anything differently, it would be to understand and appreciate the importance of being in a creative community.  I think if I had continue to seek out other people who were working to write, and tell stories, I would have been able to take my writing further than I did.  At the end of the day, I don’t think I had the courage and devotion for the sacrifice necessary to live the life of a writer, but the background I experienced provided me with the skills that have made me a success in where I am today.

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