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Headshot of Shaw Wagener.

Shaw Wagener

Chairman, Capital Group International, Inc.

As an international relations major at Claremont McKenna College, Shaw Wagener studied abroad as a sophomore in Freiburg in 1979. Traveling throughout East and West Europe, the experience instilled in him a sense of flexibility and a sensitivity to other cultures that he has continued to use in his career as an international investor at Capital Group, where he now serves as Portfolio Manager and Chairman of Capital Group International, Inc. In our interview, Shaw reflects on his study abroad experience and why he supports study abroad scholarships for students today.

IES Abroad: As a student at Claremont McKenna College, what led you to study abroad in Freiburg?

Shaw Wagener: CMC had just started an international relations major, which had a language requirement and a study abroad requirement. The German program at CMC was small and intimate, so I chose German beginning my freshman year. I also did a summer course at University of Colorado, as I’m originally from Boulder. I studied abroad my second year of college. Today, I don’t get to use my German. I wish I did!

IES Abroad: What are some of your greatest memories from your time in Freiburg?

SW: Two immediately come to mind. One is all of the traveling around we did. During those days, the Berlin Wall still existed, so we had the division between East and West Europe. The easiest and cheapest way to travel was by bus, which we did quite frequently. My friends and I went to places like Prague and Budapest. Before traveling, we’d exchange money on the black market, and then we’d be like kings and queens. We’d eat wonderfully because it was so inexpensive. I remember one time being in Budapest and eating at the best restaurant there. Here we were, basically backpackers – we had exchanged our money at a really attractive rate, and we’re eating Chateaubriand.

On the academic side, we took a course on political party development in Germany. For the last seminar, we went to an inn in the Black Forest. It was owned by Freiburg University, I believe, so it was more like a dormitory. For that period, we each had to represent a political party. Mine was the Communist Party. I had to describe how the Party had developed and evolved and what their platform was. We are doing this in German, of course. I was totally panicked. At that time, the Green Party, Die Grünen, had literally just begun in Germany, and the Communist Party reflected more of what Die Grünen wanted for social policy. The Green Party then took on the environmental aspect, which the Communist Party didn’t do. The Communist Party had representation in the Parliament at that time because they had enough votes on their platform.

Die Grünen would organize protests in various cities, primarily in Bonn against nuclear power. They would have trains that would collect people. It would start in Basel, and then make its way to Freiburg, up the Rhine, and then to Bonn. Other trains would come in from different directions. The train would stop in the outskirts of Bonn, and you’d have to get off and march into town. In the middle of Bonn, there would be a rally. Again, my friends and I would use this at a great way to travel. We’d get a free ride up to Bonn. It was a lot of fun because everyone on the train was there to celebrate this protest. It was just like you’d think…people playing guitar. It was crazy!

IES Abroad: What were the most formative classes you took while studying abroad? 

SW: My father was an architect, so I’d grown up around building. I took an art history class, which was mostly about architectural design in Germany. We spent a lot of time in Freiburg at the münster looking at how the church was designed and built. It was a beautiful building. Freiburg was relatively unscathed by the bombing in WWII. “Relatively” is a factual statement because they did have some bombing. The Allies were careful about not bombing old parts of German cities because they wanted to retain the history, with some obvious exceptions, like Dresden. Because of that, there was some interesting architecture that existed over three or four hundred years in Freiburg. Our teacher was a young guy, probably a post graduate student from the University. He was really passionate about it, so it was a “good deal” to go around with him. It was formative since it pulled together much of what I had learned growing up with a much more traditional view of architecture that they have in Germany.

IES Abroad: What inspired you to become an international investor? Did your experience in Freiburg influence your career path?

SW: I’ve been with Capital Group for 35 years. I came here directly from CMC. At that time, investment houses were recruiting from all the same top-ranked MBA programs. Our management in the 1970s looked around and said, “Why are we recruiting from these programs?” Like nearly all senior investment people at that time, they all had undergraduate, mostly liberal arts degrees, and they were successful. “We’d have more variety if we didn’t recruit from the same business programs as our competitors,” they said. So, they started a program in 1981 to recruit from undergraduate programs, when I graduated from CMC. I was in the first class of a program, which we still do today. It was brilliantly designed. Instead of immediately locking someone into a role, they rotated new hires to six different locations in two years. In fact, we’ve added a seventh: a rotation at a non-profit. We continue to pay the new hire, but they work for a non-profit organization. This gives a young person a broad sense of what we do and what the world offers. At the end of two and a half, or three years, the individual has a better sense of what they want to do and whether they fit with us. It is a very robust career starter. So, I did that. The reason that I came here with my international relations degree is that we had just opened up a London office, a Geneva office, and were about to open a Tokyo office. This was pretty unique for an investment management firm. And I have been interested in the stock market since I was about ten years old.  Capital Group was a natural fit for me.

IES Abroad: The investment team at Capital Group represents thirty nationalities with accompanying language abilities. How has this spectrum of cultures influenced the work environment and success of Capital Group?

SW: We recruit internationally now. We look at people who have studied abroad or are looking to move to another country, and we appreciate that they are willing to take a calculated chance…that they are well prepared to take a chance AND they do it! Sensitivity to different cultures is really important. We feel that we have one culture at Capital that is independent of geographical region. In our culture, we like initiative; we like collaboration; we like integrity. These qualities are omnipresent regardless of where you come from. Below that, obviously, how you execute can be different in Singapore or Hong Kong vs Indianapolis or San Antonio. You want to be consistent with the overriding cultural characteristics. How you execute them in a particular location can be very different. It is a challenge, particularly in a service industry, to have enduring characteristics of culture that are important to your organization, yet at the same time, be flexible and sensitive to what is happening in a local culture. We are true to our associates. We are true to our clients. It is a complex thing to really do it! It is an interesting challenge, and study abroad helps because you then automatically see that they are just people. You can identify integrity when you see it, even if it is expressed differently than the way you’d see it in the United States.   

IES Abroad: What skills have been most important to successfully navigating your global career?

SW: Curiosity is the most important skill set. It is amazing to me how many people are just not that curious about how others are organized or how others go about doing things. In the investment business, you have to be really curious because it is all about trying to understand why people do things in a particular way, and is it durable and will it lead to a numerical thing, which is profits, generally. There is a heavy dose of willingness to be curious, taking calculated risks, and being flexible enough to change if things move in the wrong way.

IES Abroad: You and your wife have established the Wagener Family Global Scholars Fund at Claremont McKenna College for students at your alma mater to study abroad, with a preference for students enrolling in an IES Abroad program. What led you to direct your philanthropy to establish this scholarship fund?

SW: CMC is a bit of a microcosm of U.S. higher education today. When I was in school, there was definitely a European focus. This is natural when you consider that American political history has such a basis in European thought and philosophy. People are naturally inclined to look at what is going on in Europe, in particular the U.K. When I became re-engaged with CMC after living for a long time in Singapore, my passion was to say we have to break this Anglo-Saxon bridge. It is a very safe and natural bridge between English-speaking countries and ourselves. I felt pretty strongly that for CMC, I wanted them to turn more towards Asia. They have done this, not just because of me but also because of the direction CMC leadership wanted to take. When it came time then to think about helping the school, and given the experience I had had with IES Abroad and how important I think study abroad is, we started to design a program. Going back to the issue of curiosity and risk taking, we thought, let’s find these kids who are willing to step outside of their comfort zone to speak another language, and let’s support that. We’ll see how this develops. It is brand new. The concept behind it, considering the breadth of program offerings and that the expansion of IES Abroad has been so significant, it is much easier to say, “This is going to work!” We are excited about it!

IES Abroad: What is one thing you learned while abroad that remains a constant in your life today?

SW: It is scary when you get on that plane to study abroad. You learn that laughing together with your classmates and doing crazy things, like eating Chateaubriand and going to a protest in Bonn, and as hard as it was to take classes in German, laughing about it is important. This whole idea of having fun is an important factor. Not getting overwhelmed by circumstances and being able to laugh at yourself comes home in spades when you study abroad. You have to have fun in everything you do. Even if it is difficult, you have to find some element of fun.  

IES Abroad: What advice do you have for students who are considering studying or interning abroad?

SW: Do it! I can’t imagine any downside. If the hurdle is getting course credit, take classes in the summer or an extra heavy load during a semester. If the hurdle is cost, look for support like what is provided by IES Abroad alumni to current students. There are all sorts of reasons to say “no.” Just do it. The payoff will be huge!