Donahue Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Welcomes Jonathan Geanakos ’84

A man in a dark blazer holds a microphone while sitting in a chair and talking Image by Ed Brennen
Alum Jonathan Geanakos '84 discusses ethical dilemmas he's faced in his career during a recent talk hosted by the Donahue Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility.

By Ed Brennen

As senior vice president for a global real estate investment bank, Jonathan Geanakos ’84 moved his young family from Boston to New York 25 years ago to open the firm’s Manhattan office.

Each quarter, the Manning School of Business alum was asked to put together a “pipeline” report for the bank’s board of directors in Chicago showing deals that his three partners expected to bring in.

“I noticed ever more frequently that there were deals on the pipeline report that weren't matching up with our tracking systems,” he says. “Their pipeline projected that we were going to have $10 million or $15 million in annual revenue, but our pipeline was really probably only worth about $3 million.”

When Geanakos pointed out the discrepancy to his partners, who were essentially his bosses, he says they told him he was being “pessimistic and small-minded.”

Geanakos knew something was awry, so he decided to fly to Chicago and alert the board members.

“I have two young children and a mortgage, and I'm terrified,” remembers Geanakos, whose revelation caused the board to close the New York office. 

“I was there when they rolled out the copier at the end. I got all of my junior associates jobs and was unemployed,” says Geanakos, who recently shared his real-life ethical dilemma with students during a talk hosted by the Donahue Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility.

“Each one of you, at some point, will have to make a profoundly difficult decision that may not just affect your careers, but also your personal life and your friends,” Geanakos told nearly 200 students at Alumni Hall, where he was interviewed for the executive speaker series by Dean of Business Sandra Richtermeyer. “They were incredibly difficult times that led to tremendous financial hardship, but I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

Three students stand in front of a man and listen to him speak Image by Ed Brennen
Junior business major Khadija Mir speaks with alum Jonathan Geanakos '84 following his talk at Alumni Hall.
Geanakos went on to a successful commercial real estate and investment management career from which he recently retired, and he now serves on the boards of directors for the Urban Land Institute and Holland Partner Group, a multibillion-dollar luxury apartment developer. He is also a member of the advisory boards for the Manning School of Business and the UML Athletic Department.

“I get so much energy and joy out of seeing how profoundly motivated our young students are — and from their absolute lack of entitlement,” says Geanakos, who offered students a wide range of professional insight and personal advice, including:

  • The implications of artificial intelligence (AI), such as ChatGPT, on investing and finance: “AI and machine learning are incredible in valuing assets, in ascribing potential buyers to a company or to a large portfolio of real estate — using all of the data points within an offering and then matching that to the buying characteristics of buyers all over the world. But AI data is not based on the prospective findings of the human mind; it’s based on precedential research that has come in the past. So, if somebody is applying for a job or for a loan, or is looking to have the valuation on a home in a historically disadvantaged neighborhood, what is the bot going to tell you? It’s going to tell you that that is a dangerous investment, or an undervalued asset, or a questionable candidate for a job. So, is it good or is it bad? Ethics is partially art, but it's also partially science. I'm an advocate of AI, but if it's allowed to expand without control, some of these things could become societal issues.”
  • Discovering what matters: “I look at your generation, and it's unbelievable how many things come at you which will take you away from things that matter. At some point, the thing that matters most is being able to reflect on your own thoughts with absolutely no distraction or interruption. If I could urge you to do anything, it would be to shut off your phone, even if it's for an hour a day. Take a walk, have coffee with a friend, think about what you're doing here. Spend time with your professors; they're here to help you. Spend time with alums that come back to campus; we’re here to help you. This place is a gold mine for discovering what matters in life and preparing you for what’s next. And the best part of it is that everyone here cares about you and your success, so abuse the privilege.”
  • How to take the first step in your career: “I don't think there is a bad first job. No matter where you end up, you're going to learn something. People say, ‘You did all these amazing investment banker things and you're this global blah, blah.’ And you know what? I was willing to walk up to people who terrified me because of their stature in an industry and simply ask them how they were doing. So, take the first job. Think about all the things that you like doing, that you're good at. Think about the things that you don't care for and the kind of environments you don’t want to be in. Jump off thoughtfully, but with a bit of fearlessness.”

Geanakos’ advice resonated with students such as senior business major Nicole Wilson, president of the Beta Gamma Sigma international business honor society.

Two women and a man pose for a photo while standing in a room Image by Ed Brennen
Donahue Center Co-Director Elise Magnant, left, and Dean of Business Sandra Richtermeyer, right, welcomed Jonathan Geanakos '84 back to campus.
“The way he tied the humanistic aspect to the financial side was really helpful in terms of looking at future careers in a different light,” Wilson says. “And I liked the fact that he tied in ethics with real-life examples. It was nice to connect dots from things we’ve talked about in class before.”

Freshman Nick Pace, who switched majors from engineering to business this semester, appreciated the opportunity to hear from such an accomplished alum.

“I love hearing people’s personal stories,” Pace says. “It adds that human flavor to these discussions.”

Junior business major Khadija Mir had heard Geanakos speak before at a lunch hosted by the Real Estate Network Association and didn’t want to miss the chance to see him again.

“You learn something new from him every time,” says Mir, president of Joy Tong Women in Business. “I wrote down so many notes, especially about ethics.”

Geanakos is returning to campus for a talk about leadership on Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 4 p.m. at the O’Leary Library mezzanine reading room. The event is co-hosted by the River Hawk Scholars Academy, the Manning School of Business and the Athletics Department.