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Uruguayan internship leads to corporate leadership program

As one of the world’s largest financial services firms, Principal Financial Group will likely hire many new college graduates in 2012. But only three of them will be enrolled in their prestigious Leadership Development Program. And Diego Verdugo ’12 of Douglas, Ariz. will be the only one of this select group to have begun his career path in a small border town in Mexico, the son of manual laborers with elementary school educations.

Diego Verdugo

Diego Verdugo at Principal Financial Group

Diego Verdugo during his internship with the Southern Cone Group in Uruguay.

During the Leadership Development Program, Verdugo will rotate through a variety of positions and business units over the course of two to three years. He’s especially excited by his first assignment as a member of Principal’s Hispanic marketing team, which will focus on products designed to serve the growing Latino population in the U.S. and possibly emerging markets in Mexico, Chile, Brazil, and other countries.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Verdugo interviewed for the Principal position by telephone from Montevideo, Uruguay, where he spent two months interning with the Southern Cone Group investment and advisory firm. Verdugo said that many of the other applicants for the Principal position had completed two or three internships, but some of his interviewers were impressed by the real-world assignments and cultural immersion that he experienced with Southern Cone, an opportunity funded by Cornell’s Berry Center for Economics, Business and Public Policy.

“It was a wonderful experience—not just for my own professional development, but also because it was my first chance to travel abroad,” Verdugo said. “I got to meet amazing people, make great professional connections, and see some beautiful places in both Uruguay and Argentina.”

Verdugo said he benefitted from the small size of the leadership group at Southern Cone’s headquarters, where his bilingual skills allowed him to quickly become an integral part of the team.

“Ninety percent of the work was in Spanish, and I was given many different random projects,” Verdugo said. These included translating financial documents and important emails from Spanish to English; fine-tuning project presentations; and developing two articles introducing farmers to hedging price risk related to Uruguayan farm land development.

“It may sound strange since I’m a native Spanish speaker, but one of the most challenging aspects of writing the two hedging articles was that I had to take economics and finance concepts I learned in English at Cornell and think about how to say them in Spanish,” he said. “This really helped me to develop my ability to work productively in both languages.”

In addition to his fellowship experience, Verdugo cites the array of finance-related courses taught by Chris Conrad for sparking his interest in the field. In particular, he enjoyed a week-long trip to Chicago during Conrad’s Financial Management Seminar, during which the class met with professionals at places like the Board of Trade, Bank of America, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, as well as with influential Cornell alumni, such as Berry Center founder Jim McWethy ’65.

During his time at Cornell, Verdugo complemented his major in economics and business with a second major in Spanish, deepening his understanding of Hispanic culture and history while honing his bilingual communication skills. And his acceptance into Principal’s leadership program would have gone nowhere had he not established himself as a leader on campus, including serving as president of Zeta Tau Psi multicultural fraternity, executive board member of Cornell’s Diversity Committee, and three-year work study student for the Office of Intercultural Life.

“I am very fortunate to be joining Principal’s team,” he said. “Without the knowledge that my professors have bestowed on me, the invaluable lessons that my peers have given me, and the extraordinary opportunities that Cornell has extended to me, my professional future would be highly uncertain.”