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Economics

Natalie Nicolaou ’03

Assistant to the Chairman, Piraeus Bank (Cyprus) Ltd.

Rather than choosing the economics department, I believe it chose me. From the first time I attended an introductory microeconomics class in the first semester of freshman year, there was an instant click. I was blown away by the quality and caliber of the professors teaching the introductory courses. Even 10 years later, I still believe the introductory courses were the most fascinating and taught the basic fundamentals that would be with me forever.

Initially, I didn’t spend that much time thinking about potential majors, which was probably a mistake. I knew I wanted to major in a department that required the use of the calculator more than the use of the pen and that was also practical and versatile. With that mindset, I enrolled in the B.S.E. program immediately upon registration, as B.S.E. students have to fulfill a great many requirements and I thought it would be best to do that as soon as possible while retaining the option to change departments later on. At the same time, I took advantage of Princeton’s liberal arts tradition and took a wide range of classes in fields including economics, Romance languages, and mathematics.

During the second semester of my sophomore year, I was struggling with the dilemma of switching to the A.B. program to study economics or staying in the B.S.E. program to study operations research and financial engineering (ORFE). Despite the apparent similarities between the two, the choice was tough. I thought the B.S.E. program was more “serious” as a major, influenced by a cultural proclivity toward technical subjects. ORFE was more mathematical, which, I thought, would be a better preparation for Ph.D. programs, if I was interested in that. Also, by that time, I already had completed all B.S.E. requirements and had taken several ORFE courses, so the grunt work was over. 

In the end, economics won me over. I was captivated by economics and the variety of elective courses in the department. Within the department, I took courses that straddled economics, psychology, business, politics, and history, which exposed me to a wide spectrum of academic fields. At the same time, I valued the greater flexibility offered by the A.B. program in general because I was able to continue my language studies and pursue certificates in finance and applied and computational mathematics. 

Integrating and applying skills

After graduation in 2003, I joined J. P. Morgan, where I worked as an investment banking analyst in the Latin American Debt Capital Markets Division in New York. In that capacity, I contributed to the execution of bond and loan issues and liability management for corporate and sovereign clients in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. My first job out of college was particularly rewarding as I combined my background in economics with my love for Spanish. In the following year, I transferred to London, where I covered emerging markets in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. 

In 2005, I entered Harvard Business School for a two-year M.B.A. program. During the program, my undergraduate degree gave me the opportunity to teach introductory economics at Harvard College—an exceptionally enriching experience, which opened the door for teaching in the future.

Upon completion of my M.B.A., I worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company, where I provided strategy recommendations to clients around the world primarily in the retail, consumer goods, and health sectors. 

Recently, I have relocated to my native Cyprus, where I am serving as the assistant to the chairman of Piraeus Bank Cyprus, a subsidiary of a Greek-based regional banking group, in addition to teaching negotiations to M.B.A. students at a local business school. I also am undergoing training to teach economics as part of the Chartered Financial Analyst examination around the world.

One major, many paths

I often think about all the possible academic areas I could have focused on and my subsequent career path in an alternate universe but the answer is always the same: I would not change a thing. I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy the excitement and diversity offered by my studies at Princeton in general, and economics specifically.

My studies in economics have engrained in me a practical and analytical way of solving problems and optimizing. The value of this way of thinking about problems, both in business and in life, has been extraordinary. I have become a more structured thinker, a better decision maker, and a more educated risk taker as a result. 

Furthermore, economics is situated in the “fault line” between the sciences and the social sciences on the academic spectrum. This unique positioning means that economists have a broad array of lenses through which to look at the world. In management, this ability to combine “hard” and “soft” skills is essential—my studies have provided me with a solid background for understanding both theoretical and technical concepts, as well as sales and marketing, and human resource management.

Finally, economics has opened many doors for me—doors that would have otherwise been closed. There are very few things an economics major cannot do—from finance to industry, from academia to management, from government to the not-for-profit sector, the versatility of economics cannot be overestimated. As I look into my potential next professional steps, I am eager to experiment with entrepreneurship, a path my background also has prepared me for.

Nicolaou-Natalie