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Under Pressure, CareGroup and Ascension Investors Shine

Facing high-profile board members prepared CareGroup managing director Valbona Schwab to field tough questioning and triumph in a competition with peers.

Allocators and asset managers voted CareGroup managing director Valbona Schwab as the most likely future chief investment officer — followed by Ascension Investment Management’s Michael Griswold — based on their performances at the nonprofits round of Institutional Investor’s Next CIO competition in Boston. 

They competed June 6 on a stage of five semi-finalists selected from a highly competitive pool of nominees. Anyone working for — but not leading — a North American endowment, foundation, or health-care organization’s investment team was eligible for the Next CIO showdown. 

From this universe of investors, II selected and vetted five semi-finalists: Schwab, Griswold, Mark Waite (director of endowment investments, University of Utah), Ryan Abrams (investment director, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation), and Elizabeth Jourdan, (deputy chief investment officer, Cincinnati-based Mercy Health).

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“The event made me realize how much talent is out there, and how the endowment world has evolved over the last 12 or 14 years,” Schwab told II by phone Friday. “Looking at the other names and faces there was just incredible. These are amazing men and women who could make a lot more money working at hedge funds, but instead are investing for all of these wonderful causes.”

Over three rounds of questions — none of which they knew in advance — the semi-finalists had two minutes each to impress the audience with their investment acumen, fiduciary sensibility, and quick wits. 

Contestants had to, for example, identify areas of the industry ripe for disruption, describe their own CIOs’ strengths and weaknesses, and make tough calls on hypothetical career situations.

Schwab fielded questions on compensation and her ethics around gifts from service providers, and impressed the audience with thoughtful and tough answers. 

She has worked at two major Boston-based endowments, beginning with Partners HealthCare, a roughly $14 billion pool of assets, from 2006 to the end of 2013. Since then, Schwab has worked at CareGroup, which manages assets for the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

Six of the eight Next CIO finalists have now been determined. Wei Xie — strategic director of Ontario’s C$20 billion ($15.5 billion) retirement system OPTrust — won the public funds round in Los Angeles this April. In close second was Sharmila Kassam, deputy CIO of the Employees Retirement System of Texas. 

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan investment director Waymond Harris triumphed at the corporate and insurance event, with Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. portfolio manager Phillip Titolo coming in second. 

The last semi-final round will feature emerging leaders from across the institutional spectrum at the Roundtable for Consultants & Institutional investors in Chicago, held October 2 - 5.  

Late this year, all eight winners will meet in New York City for the Next CIO finals at the Allocators’ Choice Awards. 

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