Q&A with DFE Leadership Award Winner Itamar Barak ’21

Headshot of Itamar barak '21 in suit and tie
Itamar Barak '21, 2020-2021 DFE Leadership Award winner

At the end of every spring semester, the Duke Financial Economics Center (DFE) selects seniors to receive the DFE Leadership Award, which honors students’ initiative in finance-related activities and dedication to mentorship. The 2020-2021 recipients of the DFE Leadership Award are Itamar Barak, Noah Karpel, Eric Little, and Hannah O’Sullivan.

Despite the challenges of the 2020-2021 academic year, these seniors continued to step up, making themselves available to younger students for advising, organizing events to help their fellow students stay engaged, and rounding out their Duke experiences with other activities that ignited their passions.

We are featuring the award winners in a series of Q&A profiles. In this installment, Itamar Barak talks about engaging his analytical mind as a Duke student while making the human connections that helped him see his potential. Itamar is graduating in May with majors in electrical and computer engineering (with a concentration in signal processing) and minors in finance and mathematics. He is heading into an investment banking position at PJT Partners.

Itamar arrived at Duke more mature and experienced than many of his peers as he had just completed his required national service,” said Professor Emma Rasiel, DFE teaching director. “That extra experience gave him a team-focused attitude from a very early stage in his undergraduate career. It has been a pleasure to watch him bring his unique talents and sense of inclusiveness to other students through mentoring and collaborative teamwork.”

How did your interest in finance develop?

Before coming to Duke, I served as a software engineering and intelligence analyst at the Israeli Intelligence Forces Unit 8200. I was looking for a field that combines strong analytic skills with a strong foundation in human interaction. Finance is the exact embodiment of these two facets: you are constantly surrounded by smart people, which means you are always learning and improving your analytical thought process.

How did you become involved with DFE?

My first interaction with DFE was through Econ 256 Practical Financial Markets, followed by the incredible January Networking Days program. I have since utilized DFE’s vast offering of resources to navigate my pursuit of a career in finance.

What events, programs, classes, and people have had the most impact on you as you’ve pursued finance? In what ways have they helped you grow?

Finance is a people’s business, and the most impactful component in my pursuit of a career in finance was mentorship. Looking back over these incredible four years, Professor Emma Rasiel stands out as a mentor, a role model, and often times, an anchor. When deciding on which path to take, it is paramount to consider your personal qualities and passions and cultivate those attributes to make sure you are pursuing a career that will make you feel challenged and fulfilled. Emma has been there for me every step of the way, getting to know me, supporting me in identifying my passion, and helping me refine my interests as I was exposed to a vast number of possibilities coming out of Duke.

As an engineering student, my pursuit of finance was less than trivial, and Emma, who comes from a robust mathematics background, pointed out how the intersection of engineering and finance is a powerful tool for me to be able to succeed in the recruiting process. The recruiting process can be challenging and exhausting, and I would often seek Emma’s advice in times of difficulty. Emma’s thoughtful feedback, along with her encouragement, gave me strength and reminded me to believe in myself and continue to work hard to achieve my goals.

Of all of the contributions you’ve made through finance-related activities (both DFE and non-DFE), of what are you the proudest?

The mentors I have had along the way, both at Duke and at PJT, encouraged me to pay it forward as much as I can. Since I come from a non-finance background, it was of great importance for me to identify students who possess potential but may not be familiar with the recruiting process. Through the DFE’s Eichel Advising Network, I was able to offer office hours to students going through recruiting and share my insights and advice on how to navigate the process. Being able to contribute to the success of the next generation of Duke students is one of the greatest impacts we as seniors can have.

What other interests have you explored at Duke?

I am extremely passionate about the intersection of finance and engineering, and through Econ 472S Goodner Equity Research Project, I was able to further explore mathematical tools that allow managers to evaluate the public markets in a way that would otherwise not be possible manually. I find it fascinating to explore how concepts in machine learning can be adapted to analyze the behavior of equities and try and identify underlying factors that may impact the markets. At the end of the day, the public markets are essentially a collection of investors’ psyches, and machine learning aims to develop algorithms that behave like the human brain. Duke is at the forefront of finance and engineering, and I am excited to see what the future holds.

What advice would you give first-years and sophomores, in terms of pursuing finance and in general? What advice would you give students who will be upperclassmen in the fall?

Itamar Barak offers advice to fellow Duke students on pursuing finance.

More advice from Itamar: I know the recruiting process can be scary, and it is totally normal to feel confused and overwhelmed. Duke is a place full of smart, driven, and high-achieving individuals, and often times we feel like we are making the wrong choices. Take a deep breath, remember that you are at Duke for a very good reason, and most importantly strive to build relationships. When deciding on where to go professionally, the excess amount of information may be daunting.

Looking back, I would reiterate that the most important factor in your decisions should be the people you will be working with. If on the surface it seems like one role or firm may be perceived as “better” than another, but you have a strong and meaningful connection with the other team, go with the latter and don’t look back. Obviously, always rely on your fellow Dukies to help you along the way. The Duke alumni network is one of the strongest and kindest in the world.