Register's Elbert: UI athletes go pro in finance, science

May 12, 2009

Editor’s note: The following was written by David Elbert and first appeared in May 10, 2009 editions of the Des Moines Register and was available first online at

DES MOINES – Meet Emily Hiza and Nick Kolegraff.

People might want to know them someday.

Both are seniors and played sports at the University of Iowa. Hiza, of Swink, Colo., was captain of the Iowa volleyball team. Kolegraff, of Milford, was a wrestling reserve.

To paraphrase an NCAA commercial from the March basketball tournaments, Hiza and Kolegraff are among 380,000 student athletes who will go pro in something in other than sports.

As graduation nears, they appear to be early leaders in a game of career management in what looks to be a rough rebuilding season for business.

Hiza will graduate with a 3.95 grade-point average in finance and marketing and will start a job this summer with St. Charles Capital, a boutique investment bank in Denver.

Kolegraff, who majored in computer science and statistics and had an internship last year with a New York hedge fund, has an interview next month with the National Security Administration.

Meet with leaders

The two were among 82 athletes honored recently at the 29th annual U of I Senior Student Athlete Recognition Banquet in Des Moines. The Polk County I-Club puts on the dinner at the Des Moines Club for Hawkeye athletes who are about to enter the work world.

The event is a chance for business and political leaders to congratulate the graduates and assess their employability.

It’s an opportunity for the graduates to get a leg up on the power structure by handing resumes directly to decision-makers and forging connections that could help them now or in years to come.

“It’s a unique experience,” said former Iowa football player John Mickelson, who attended the 2003 dinner as a graduating senior and was back this year on the other side of the table, as a businessman.

During the years, he said, chief executives of many of Iowa’s largest businesses, along with governors, former governors and other political and civic leaders, have attended the event to offer the job seekers constructive criticism as they enter a new arena.

Each graduate has a chance to make a brief presentation about what they want to do and then mingle with the business and political types and seek one-on-one advice.

When Mickelson attended six years ago, the evening opened the eyes of the academic all-Big Ten Conference football scholar. He talked that night with U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Longstaff and businessmen Bill Krause and Doug Reichardt, among others.

The discussions steered him back to Iowa, where he earned a dual degree in law and a masters in business administration, which led to his current job with First National Investment Banking in Omaha.

This year, about 200 people attended the dinner, said organizer David Fisher, chairman of Onthank Co., a longtime Des Moines distributor of floorings, countertops and window treatments. About 100 were Iowa business and political leaders, 75 to 80 were students and the rest were coaches and administrators from the U of I.

How dinners began

Fisher, a U of I alum and former member of the Iowa Board of Regents, started the dinners in 1980 with help from Fred Mims, Iowa’s longtime associate director of athletics.

“It’s remarkable how many people have come up to me years later and told me I got this job because of connections I made at that dinner,” Fisher said.

When Fisher and Mims put the first dinner together, they invited only graduating members of the football team. It wasn’t long, though, before then-women’s basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer wanted her players there, too.

They were. In fact, the event was quickly broadened to include graduating seniors from every intercollegiate sport at Iowa, Fisher said.

General Mills job

This year’s 82 athletes represent 14 sports.

A few, like softball player Erin Riemersma of Orland Park, Ill., who had a game that day, were unable to attend. She is a finance major with a 3.7 grade-point average and has a job as a financial analyst for General Mills that starts in July.

Playing sports was good preparation for a business career, Riemersma said. “You learn how to balance your life as a student and as an athlete. You learn how to work with superiors, like coaches, as well as your peers, your teammates.

“During job interviews, I was able to answer a lot of questions that had to do with experience by using examples from playing sports, such as how I overcame hardships.”

Projects in progress

Wrestler Kolegraff is still in the interview process. In addition to the National Security Administration, he is talking with trading companies in Chicago.

His resume has several eye-catching points, from starting his own business — running paint-ball tournaments in the Okoboji area when he was in high school and college — to writing computer code to different market trading strategies.

Plus, he’s working on two other interesting projects.

One involves writing computer software, with supervision from two U of I professors, to analyze risk behavior and suggest strategies for players of Ultimate Texas Holdem, a favorite card game of his teammates.

The other is a nonschool project in which he is creating a robotic cannon that responds to voice commands, like “fire” and “reload.”

Although volleyball captain Hiza’s investment bank job in Denver starts in July, she said she expects to move on to something else after a few years. She’s not sure what. “Everything I learned in sports is applicable in the business world.”

Like many new graduates, she knows that flexibility will be the key to success in this economy.

In fact, she’s shown she can do that. She started as an engineering major, and might have stuck with that, except that “since I’m in a team sport, labs conflicted a lot with practice. If I was in track or swimming, you can make up your workouts easier than if you are in a team sport.”

Because she was good in math, Hiza said, she switched to a finance major, which fit better with her training schedule.

Tip from ex-player

Mickelson, the former football player who is an investment banker, met Hiza at the dinner.

“When she got up and introduced herself to me, she said she was going to Denver with a firm that was similar to ours,” he said. “I wanted to talk with her and establish a connection. You never know, we might work on a deal with her down the road.”

It’s true. Many probably don’t know these people now, but they may want to someday.