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Lauren Cohen: Harvard’s Powerlifting Finance Prof

When HBS Professor Lauren Cohen wears a suit, the only muscles apparent are in his brain. Courtesy photo

Lauren Cohen can remember the precise moment when he realized he wanted to be a business school professor. Just before graduating from the University of Chicago in 2005 with both an MBA and a Ph.D. in finance, he began interviewing at a number of hedge funds in Chicago — and it didn’t take him long to make a rather startling discovery.

“Every meeting I had, they said, ‘You now have to meet the boss,’ and it was always the least-impressive person,” Cohen recalls. “I left those meetings and decided I wanted to be in a meritocracy. I wanted to be in an environment where the boss deserved to be the boss.”

Cohen, now 37, made a career detour, choosing to become a teacher. Clearly, it was the right choice. The chaired professor of finance at Harvard Business School is among the world’s most admired and respected young faculty members at any school, nominated by his MBA students to Poets&Quants’ list of the world’s 40 most outstanding professors under 40. In fact, Cohen was among the top dozen vote-getters this year.

WORLD-CLASS TEACHER AND WORLD-CLASS ATHLETE

The HBS professor differs from his business school colleagues in one big, if unusual, way: his passion for powerlifting. The broad-shouldered Cohen is a world-class amateur powerlifter. The 2001 U.S. Powerlifting Federation Collegiate National Champion has won numerous national and world powerlifting tournaments, and in 2014 he broke the All-Time World Record in the squat in the 181-pound drug-tested division with a squat of 630 pounds.

Cohen’s journey is both an inspiring and entertaining story: from a short, chubby kid who was the head tuba player in the school band and a lineman on the football team in the small farm town of Waverly, New York, to the upper reaches of academia.

Son of an orthopedic surgeon and a nurse, Cohen knew he was destined for a career of some kind in business. As a third grader, he dressed up as a stockbroker for Halloween, complete with blazer, briefcase — and sweatpants (it was, he explains, during his “sweatpants phase”). More significantly, he distinguished himself at Waverly High School, which is some 40 miles from Ithaca, N.Y., teaching himself AP calculus and earning valedictorian status in his graduating class. He was both co-captain of the school football squad and a member of the marching band, changing uniforms at halftime to play tuba and changing back again to get back on the field.

‘IF I CAN LIFT 350 POUNDS TODAY AND 375 TOMORROW, I’VE GOTTEN STRONGER’

Lauren Cohen as his Harvard MBA students often see him. Courtesy photo

It was Cohen’s high school football coach who first recommended that he lift weights as a way to build physical strength, and as a way to get into a college, where he could play ball. But after he won admission to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 2007, Cohen, at just 5 feet, 8 inches tall, decided against playing football in his first year.

He didn’t stop powerlifting, though.

“It is incredibly objective,” he says of the sport. “If I can lift 350 pounds today and then 375 pounds tomorrow, I know I have gotten stronger. You just know you did or you know you didn’t. I like things that are measurable, and in powerlifting, things are very measurable.”

As an undergrad at Wharton, Cohen initially entertained the idea of becoming an I-banker. “I was sure I wanted to go into investment banking. The classic path is to go to Wharton, get a job at Goldman Sachs, and then three years later you come to Harvard Business School. With your MBA, you go back to Goldman, become a partner, get a place in the Hamptons, and life is good.”

CHICAGO WAS ‘CUTTHROAT, COMPETITIVE, AND I LOVED IT’

Except Cohen wasn’t so sure about that path. At Wharton, he fell in love with the academics, so much that he went straight to graduate school at the University of Chicago. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a professor,” he recalls. “That first job is hard, and not in a way that is intellectually challenging. There is nothing I can do 20 hours a day and be good at — not even watching TV. So instead of going into investment banking, I decided to get a Ph.D. at Chicago and then get my MBA as well.”

After graduating from Wharton summa cum laude with a concentration in finance, statistics, and accounting, Cohen packed his bags in Philly and headed to the Windy City in the fall of 2001. “I loved Chicago. It was a sink-or-swim environment. The school kicked out 50% of the students in the Ph.D. program and out of the nine students they took in my year, only four students made it through. It’s cutthroat. It’s competitive, and I loved it. You feel like you are walking with giants, with brilliant scholars like Gary Becker and Eugene Fama on the faculty.”

Cohen’s first effort at teaching a math class as a TA at Chicago was humbling. “I had my fair share of fumbles,” he concedes, “and the biggest ones came from not having all the tools I needed. I came with a pot and ladle and you need more than that to cook a three-course meal. I have a well-equipped kitchen now.”

GAINED HIS MBA AND PH.D. AT THE AGE OF 25

Cohen gained both his MBA and Ph.D. in just in four years at the age of 25, graduating in 2005. (He also met the woman who would become his wife, Nicole, at a local synagogue in Hyde Park.) His first teaching job was at Yale University’s School of Management. After two years at Yale, he landed an assistant professorship at HBS in 2007 when his wife got into the Ph.D. program at Boston University.

He’s never looked back. Cohen became an associate profesor at HBS in 2011, a full professor in 2014, and a chaired prof in 2015. He gained what has to be one of the last great gigs in America — tenure — in eight years at the age of 35. And from all accounts, it would be hard to find a more passionate or enthusiastic professor.

“This is the best job in the world,” Cohen says matter-of-factly. “I get to wrestle with ideas with these bright young people and they pay me to do this! It is awesome. I get to reinvent myself with every project. In this job, you can be someone different every day. You walk into a class or start a new project and it’s a new beginning. That keeps me young, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love coming to work every day.”

Cohen’s work in behavioral finance has been featured in stories in The New York Times and The Economist, and he won the Smith Breeden Prize in 2008 and 2010 for the best paper in the Journal of Finance, published by the American Finance Association. Many other academic prizes fill his CV, along with scholarly publication in the Journal of Finance, the Review of Financial Studies, and the Harvard Business Review. Of all his academic achievements, though, he is most proud of being awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER Grant, among the most prestigious grants given to the most promising young economists.