Our most recent MBA spotlight features alumna Amy Knapp (’05). Today Amy is the COO and a partner at Corsair, a private equity investment company. Amy received her undergraduate degree in accounting from the University of Albany and completed her CPA requirements shortly thereafter. Upon graduation, Amy received an offer from PwC and worked in the firm’s capital markets audit and assurance practice. Amy was eventually able to parlay her Big 4 experience into a job at J.P. Morgan, a client with whom she had built a strong relationship. At that time her current firm, Corsair, was a subsidiary within J.P. Morgan, investing in financial services companies. In her new role at J.P. Morgan, Amy helped Corsair navigate a difficult SEC audit. Amy’s work on the project was so impressive that when the then-current Corsair CFO resigned, they offered her the CFO role at just 25 years old.
Amy held her CFO title for several years, including through the spin-out of Corsair from J.P. Morgan in 2006. Working with investors daily piqued her curiosity to understand the investment side of the business in more detail and ultimately inspired Amy’s decision to enroll in the NYU Part-Time MBA program. The goal was to demystify what Amy’s Corsair colleagues on the investment side were working on and bring more value to Corsair from the CFO seat. Amy had a positive experience at NYU and is glad that she attended, as it allowed her to learn more about different components of finance and business. She also candidly admits that the experience made her realize that operations is where her true passion lies.
“Valuation modeling often requires making broad assumptions, and I found I was less comfortable with uncertainty than I had appreciated. It turned out investing was less compelling to me than being an operator and running a business.”
This line of thinking is how Amy provides invaluable expertise to Corsair today and complements other aspects of the business so well.
“Being successful as a PE investor doesn’t always translate to being a successful entrepreneur or operator. PE firms need to show strong investment track record performance for their investors first and foremost, and create value for their own franchise. A strong COO can help the leadership team drive clarity of firm strategy and ensure that all functional areas in a PE firm are aligned to execute on that strategy.”
Amy was able to provide additional context as to which traits have made her successful in her role and in her career. She expressed a constant desire to learn, improve and collaborate, but stressed that even in a fast-moving industry such as private equity, skills like diplomacy, mediation, and patience are similarly essential. Amy further mentioned networking as a skill that did not come as naturally to her, but that she also believes to be vital to success.
“Originally, I thought this [networking] was a pain you had to endure when you first got into finance. It took me a while to realize that it is more than that. It is not just about having a network to call on when finding a job or making a change, but about cultivating a group of people you can call on to brainstorm and problem-solve. Over the years this has been extremely useful in both my professional and personal life.”
Another career hurdle Amy and I discussed was the ability to continue to expand scope and influence, especially while growing and scaling a team. Amy stated that in her 20+ years at Corsair she has continually made efforts to expand her scope. When Amy started at Corsair, she described her CFO role as narrow-focused. Now Amy’s COO mandate is much broader. Investor relations, financial reporting, legal and compliance and technology are all under her purview, amongst other aspects of the business. Amy was also quick to mention that this transformation does not occur overnight, and that credibility plays a fundamental role in expanding one’s responsibilities.
“It is not easy to reinvent oneself while working with the same group of people for over two decades. Learning to tactfully influence, sometimes without authority, and earning credibility are important factors to creating new opportunities to develop and lead.”
Amy continues to strive and grow every day. She noted her growth now is directly tied to attracting and developing the next generation of talent and that this is what she devotes a large percentage of her time to. Amy stressed that making sure hiring and development match the firm’s business objectives is a key component to the health of the business. She noted that Corsair’s focus on talent development extends to its portfolio companies and has been integral to its driving value creation objectives.
Not surprisingly, Amy’s biggest advice to current students is to continue to build their networks and stay ahead of where they think the industry is headed, (be that in alternative investments or another industry.) Amy also noted the importance of building a great team.
“I have been fortunate in that I have hired a lot of great people that I hope will go on to achieve great success in their careers. I would advise people to make themselves vulnerable as leaders, surround themselves with smart people, and support their team’s individual career objectives because doing so is personally satisfying and will come back to help you.”
Amy suggests that current students find good mentors who will champion their work. She emphasized that it is good to also find external mentors, as they bring a different perspective and can help level set other experiences. Lastly, Amy highlighted that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and that students should not ignore the need to improve skills where they feel less confident, even though they may only make marginal gains in those areas.
“As you progress, technical skills become less important than being able to collaborate, influence, and be a good thought partner. The ability to be well prepared and communicate effectively shouldn’t be overlooked.”
Upon reflection on her time at NYU, Amy said it was her fellow classmates that really made the most impact on her experience. She revealed that she is still very close with her red block cohort.
“When I think about business school, I think about this [red block] group of people and it brings a smile to my face. I really got such a good group of friends from this experience. Many of us work in different industries, and in very different roles. To this day we are still very close and now get together with all our kids.”
Amy spoke highly about her favorite class called Growing a Small Business. Amy stated that she loved learning about how founder-led businesses can scale beyond the next generation of the family. The premise of the class was how a significant portion of small businesses fail to exist once they move on from the 2nd and 3rd generation.
“It was all about the framework and keeping a clear vision. While it might not seem like it at face value there are a lot of parallels to private equity. Private equity as an industry is still relatively new, and many firms are still founder-owned. These businesses only survive with strong culture, vision and succession planning. The lessons I learned in that class are still applicable today.”
Amy currently lives in NYC but loves to escape the city when possible to her house in the Adirondacks on Lake George. Amy said in her free time she loves being outdoors, going on hikes and most importantly spending time with her 14-year-old daughter.