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Jefferson Betancourt

Cornell MBA Jefferson Betancourt Is on a Mission to Show Disadvantaged Youth They Have it Within Themselves to Succeed

As a first-generation American and a first-generation college graduate, Jefferson Betancourt has learned much about the American dream. 

In 1986, concerned about the escalating drug wars, his parents left Cali, Colombia, in search of a better life in the United States. 

“They decided to take the biggest risk of their lives at the time and move to the U.S. This was a big move for my parents and my older brother, who was 6 at the time, because they didn’t know the language, they didn’t have any financial resources,” he says. “But they thought moving to the U.S. would give them the best opportunity to provide a better life for their family.”

Two years after his family landed in Massachusetts, Betancourt became the first person from both his mom’s and dad’s side of the family to be born in the U.S. “My parents named me after Thomas Jefferson because they felt that it was very American and would be fitting for their first American child,” he says.

Jefferson Betancourt
Jefferson Betancourt

But it was in Florida, Orlando specifically, that Betancourt’s life — and education — really began. Growing up in a household of modest means, he was taught by his parents from a young age that education is critical to achieving your dreams. “[My whole life, they told me,] ‘Getting a college education will give you opportunities that we were never afforded. Take advantage of the educational system this country has to offer that your cousins and family members in Colombia do not have access to.’” Betancourt says.

Although he attended a “pretty rough high school,” one where he says the majority of students were economically disadvantaged and from minority communities, Betancourt made the most of the experience and defied the odds by going to college.

“I graduated with a class of 850 students, of which maybe 100 went on to college and everyone else continued to work or do one or two years of community college,” he says. “It just wasn’t a focus.”

It wasn’t until he was studying finance at the University of Florida (UF) that he began to realize how little he knew about the variety of career paths, resources and guidance out there to help people like himself succeed. Through a program called INROADS, Betancourt learned about the importance of a resume and how to create one, how to interview, what a career in business might look like, salary ranges and much more. 

“It really instilled a lot of confidence in me, and I realized that I always had what it took,” he says. “But it’s this mindset growing up and not being exposed to this type of information or being in those types of circles that deters a lot of individuals from even attempting to pursue more.” 

Although he says he may have done things a little differently if he could go back, knowing what he knows now — namely, applying to out-of-state universities and pursuing a career in investment banking instead of commercial banking — Betancourt credits his experience at UF and INROADS with getting him where he is today. In 2018, after graduating with a master of science in accounting from the University of Connecticut, and on track for a vice president promotion at Bank of America, he felt he had accumulated the right combination of education and experience to apply to business school. Now about to graduate with his MBA from Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, this Consortium member is focused on doing what he can to help young people not unlike himself. 

Through the Betancourt Scholarship Fund, he is helping students from his high school — Colonial High School in Orlando, Fla. — pursue higher education. Now in its fourth year, the fund is for graduating seniors who will be the first in their family to go to college. 

“I consider myself very fortunate that I was able to graduate from a great university and pursue a career in finance. I always felt indebted and responsible to help people with similar backgrounds,” says Betancourt. “I thought, ‘What better way than to start a scholarship foundation that’s geared specifically toward my high school, which needs a lot of help and resources?’”

But more than providing financial assistance, he strives to instill in these young people that they have it within themselves to go to college and lead successful careers. Betancourt remains heavily involved in INROADS, as well as organizations such as Junior Achievement and The Posse Foundation, and says he is always quick to point out to the youth he works with that “you don’t have to be the smartest in the room, you just have to put in the effort.”

“I think in communities across the country that are similar to the one my high school is in, there’s a lot of high-potential, highly talented students who deal with impostor syndrome,” he says. “They think that all of these colleges that people are talking about — really big, prestigious universities — ‘those are for other people, not me.’ That’s the culture that permeates in neighborhoods like the one where I grew up.”

Jefferson Betancourt and Melanie Tarabay
Jefferson Betancourt and his wife and Cornell MBA classmate Melanie Tarabay

For Betancourt, this myth was further dismantled by his experience getting into Cornell and The Consortium. “I very much thought all of these schools are meant for the elite, not someone who went to Colonial High School or UF. I thought that elite business schools were meant for a very specific demographic of individuals, which is those who went to a very prestigious undergraduate school and who’ve had a very prestigious job,” he says. “But The Consortium really defied this mindset. For me, that was the biggest push to think there’s a place for me in these schools, and The Consortium is an organization that really promotes that.”

When researching The Consortium, one blog post in particular really drew Betancourt in and solidified his decision to not only apply to MBA programs through The Consortium but to also pursue investment banking. The article featured Consortium alums Peter Ferrara and Jorge Garcia. “They both went to Cornell, and they talked about how that helped them get into banking,” Betancourt says. “It was great to see two individuals with a similar background as myself — Hispanic and from the financial services industry pre-MBA — featured on The Consortium website and talk about being in the exact place I wanted to be. Ironically enough, I interviewed with them during the fall 2019 recruiting season.”

He had the opportunity to interview with Ferrara for an internship at Credit Suisse and ended up working with him in summer 2020. Following his graduation this May, Betancourt will be working alongside Ferrara on the same investment banking group at the company. 

“Although I had over 100 interviews during the recruiting season, ironically and interestingly, I am going to work on the team with a person I researched prior to applying to business school,” he says. “To me, that is a testament to the MBA network, the Cornell Johnson community and The Consortium [network]. I plan on paying it forward and can hopefully recreate this situation for someone else with a similar background.” 

Betancourt is grateful for what he has been able to achieve thus far and excited to use his position to empower others to go after their dreams. 

“I’m going to use that as a platform to further promote the idea that it is 100 percent possible for anyone to get to this point,” he says. “You just have to be convinced that it’s in you, and I think being an example is the best demonstration of that.”

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