Alumni Focus: Bethany McLean ’92

Not even the infamous “Purple Bubble” could prevent a Williams student from having heard of the Enron scandal. Stories emanating from the failure of the Houston-based energy giant have dominated the media recently – The New York Times has written 628 stories on the subject in the last month.

The name Enron, however, was not always fraught with negative connotations. A year ago, Enron was the darling of Wall Street, with shares returning nearly 89 percent. If you weren’t talking about Enron, the blue-chip stock, you were referring to Enron Field, the Houston Astros’ beautiful new ballpark.

None of this scared off Fortune magazine senior writer Bethany McLean ’92 who, in a Mar. 15, 2001 piece, asked if Enron – “the Jennifer Lopez of Wall Street,” as she called it – was overpriced. Enron was, according to McLean, a shaky stock that could very well be heading towards disaster.

With the sudden collapse of the energy firm, McLean, who last year saw her ethics challenged by top-ranking Enron executives, now finds herself the star of the Maureen Dowd column “Barbie Loves Math” (McLean majored in Math and English at Williams) and a recipient, along with her colleague Peter Elkins, of a $1.4 million book deal about Enron.

“It’s a little strange,” said McLean. “I feel like my story might get too much credit. I had no idea when I wrote the story that something this drastic could happen. It turns out I didn’t even know the half of it.”

And though McLean may now find herself living on the West Side of New York City and one of the shining stars of business journalism, it was far from a preordained path for the Hibbing, Minn. native. McLean came to Williams at the recommendation of her mother, who had gone to Smith, on the hope of meeting a more diverse group of people than she had encountered in Minnesota.

She was also following in the footsteps of her sister who, a year before, had left home to become a first-year student at Amherst. Would a sibling rivalry as well as a Little Three rivalry be too much for two people to handle? Not at all. “We both played water polo and it would be so much fun to play each other each year.”

McLean came to Williams hoping to eventually pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics, but as she followed the path towards her math major, she realized that a career in mathematics was not for her.

“The best classes I took at Williams were actually Religion classes taught by Prof. [Binks] Little [professor of religion emeritus],” said McLean. “The ten page papers were terrifying, but doing them really helped me grow in ways I could never have imagined.”

Little, with whom McLean has stayed in touch over the years, is equally as complimentary of McLean as she is of him. “As we all now know from the Enron story, she is a very bright young woman,” said Little. “I had her in two classes at Williams, both of which were known for being extremely demanding courses – she was among the best and the brightest at Williams in those classes. She was one of the more capable and thoughtful students.”

Though McLean had always found journalism to be intriguing and clearly has the mind for it, it was something that she never got into early in her life. “I could never really afford to spend a summer without earning money, so I didn’t have any clips to apply for a job coming out of college.”

Instead, McLean joined Goldman Sachs and worked for three years at the investment bank. She then applied to business school and was all set for her first year as a graduate student. “I was ready to go. I had a roommate and everything,” said McLean. At the last minute, however, she began to question whether she was really interested in a career in investment banking.

McLean decided to put off business school and took on a job as a fact-checker at Fortune, a position that did not require experience in journalism. After a year, she became certain that journalism was what she was interested in doing professionally.

“It’s fun to enter a world that I know nothing about and talk with everyone involved and find out what’s going on,” said McLean.

McLean got on Enron’s trail based on a tip she got from a good source. Though the company was showing unbelievable returns, McLean noticed that there were many disconcerting signs in the firm’s financial statements.

“The problem [with Enron], as we know from innumerable failed dot-coms, is that the [anticipated] enormous market doesn’t always materialize on schedule,” McLean wrote in her article. “And Enron isn’t leaving itself a lot of room for the normal wobbles and glitches that happen in any developing business.”

To McLean, the Enron collapse is one of the defining moments of the 1990s – a theme she plans to base her book on. “We see Enron as a real turning point,” said McLean. “It really represents the loss of fundamental morality in a lot of the success stories of the 1990s.”

As she moves forward with her career in journalism, McLean also has some advice for students getting ready to leave Williams: “You have to always be moving; you can’t sit still and get paralyzed. As long as you’re learning from every experience, you’ll eventually end up in the right direction. Investment banking really wasn’t for me, but without it I wouldn’t be at Fortune.”