Ken Monahan

Investment banker Ken Monahan discusses Rockefeller, the Core, and why he loves UChicago.

Class of 1995 | AB in Economics

“You have to understand, I intensely love the University of Chicago,” says Ken Monahan, AB’95. “Intensely.” Monahan’s gifts to the College include endowing a Foreign Language Acquisition Grant (FLAG) for the study of Arabic and a pledge to the Odyssey Scholarship Challenge.

An economics major at UChicago, Monahan began his career in derivatives trading: “My career was beaten to within an inch of its life several times,” he says. During his 12 years at Deutsche Bank, he helped to set up the first all-electronic options exchange in the United States; to establish a stock exchange in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and to legalize foreign investment in Saudi Arabia. In 2010 he founded his own advisory company, Vizier Ltd., in New York.

Monahan spoke with the College Newsletter about philanthropy, anonymity, ethnomusicology, and more.

Who were your most memorable professors at Chicago?

My favorite class was Econ 271, Introduction to International Finance, with Mike Woodford [AB’77]. It used to take me 40 hours a week to do his problem sets. Just the homework for this class was a full-time job. I loved the guy. I worshipped him.

A friend of mine, Mark, and I sat in the very front row. We were in the coffee shop in the Social Science Research Building one day, arguing over a Woodford problem set, and Robert Lucas [AB’59, PhD’64] walks by and says, “Oh look, it’s the Woodford protégés.” We all knew he was going to win the Nobel Prize someday—of course he did. We were like, wow. Not only does he know who we are, he knows what we’re doing!

Any particularly memorable Core classes?

I took Western Civ from Karl Weintraub [AB’49, AM’52, PhD’57]. One day we were talking about the Reformation and predestination. I said, “Predestination? That doesn’t make any sense. How could anyone believe in that?”

And Karl Weintraub says, “Mister…Monahan...how dare you try to read the mind of God? Just shows how presumptuous you are.”

When I was walking out of Rockefeller Chapel after graduating, I remember thinking to myself, I will never work this hard again.

Has that been true?

Hell yes. Keep in mind, from 2004 to 2008, I boarded an international flight every four and a half days. And I’ve never come close to working as hard as I did as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.

When did you make your first gift?

I made my first real gift in 2000, when I was the five-year reunion chair. I had recently read the book Titan, about John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller gave a fixed percentage of his income to charity every year, even when he was a 14-year- old grocery store clerk making 13 cents an hour. His commitment to philanthropy was lifelong.

He was also unbelievably ruthless. He was simultaneously a sincerely devoted Baptist and an unbelievably ruthless killer—commercially I mean. Though if you’re related to anyone in the coal miners’ union, you might look at things more literally. I actually am related to coal miners, and my dad told me they would have thought I totally deserved to go to the University of Chicago. It evened the score a little.

After I read that book I thought, Rockefeller gave a fixed percentage to charity every year—I respect that, I should do that.

Why did you decide to sponsor a flag grant?

Before I went to the Arab world, I had a lot of strong opinions about it, as many Americans do. I was a huge supporter of the Iraq war. Then I got to the Arab world and I thought, what were we thinking? The kinds of problems that we had in Iraq were totally knowable, but apparently, not enough people knew them.

The American understanding of the Arab world leaves a lot to be desired—and it’s a tragedy for both us and them. I wanted to do something, in my small way, to bridge this gap that I see as huge and yawning.

I didn’t want to put my name on the grant, so I named it after Ibn Rushd, an Arab scholar who translated Plato and wrote a bunch of treatises on his work.

Have you met any of the grant recipients?

A couple of years ago I had a milkshake on Shake Day with two of them. One had gone to Damascus. She found out that in the 1950s the United States sent a bunch of jazz musicians to Syria for a cultural exchange. So since the 1950s there has been an underground jazz scene in Syria. She actually changed her whole degree around to study the ethnomusicology of Syrian jazz. Then she won a Fulbright to study it some more.

That is what I’m trying to do here. And I learned something. I’ve never even been to Syria. Syrian jazz—who knew? And ethnomusicology— I had never even heard that word before I met her.

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