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Leigh-Anne Walker ’09 M.A.R.: ethics for the business community at a time of financial crisis

By Marina Hayman ’09 M.A.R.

For Leigh-Anne Walker, a student in Yale Divinity School’s M.A.R. program in ethics, the continuing turmoil on Wall Street is a kairos moment – a time of great challenge but great opportunity as well.  A YDS student since 2005, this former JPMorgan/Chase senior vice-president now teaches ethics to the officers of a major U.S. regulatory agency in New York City, facilitates a think-tank of business executives at New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and teaches ethics in the graduate program at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. 

WalkerThe financial scandals and crises that followed the millennium, which reached a new level of severity this fall, were the beginning of Walker’s trajectory to YDS.  "There was a huge melt-down,” she noted in a recent interview.  “The stock-market crashed and there was a huge crisis of trust.”  Many people of faith had been involved in the scandals, and Walker’s minister, the Rev. Dr. Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian, saw that there might be a role she could play in the situation.  Her minister, Walker explained,  “saw that the clergy don't know how to talk to people who come with a problem like that” and suggested, “We need someone who understands business to go back and get a theological background.”

Walker heard her call and began the process that culminated in her arrival in fall 2005 at YDS, where she has extended her MAR to include courses in ethics in world religions.  This has included participating in the Faith and Globalization seminar co-taught by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and YDS theology professor Mirolav Volf, for which she was selected as one of 25 participants from across the entire Yale student body.

Walker ironically notes, “When I first came here, I thought I was too late, that they'd have all the scandals settled by the time I got out.  In 2002, they'd introduced the Sarbanes-Oxley Bill that was supposed to fix everything.”  Obviously, it did not, and Walker feels that her work in business ethics has taken on an added significance with the economic turbulence of 2008.

Her work at the federal regulatory agency, which she prefers not to identify publicly, is on a consultancy basis.  She teaches classes that each have about 15 students and last for two and one-half hours.

At Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Walker brings business executives together, she explained, “to understand what a Christian perspective on financial issues might be.”  As facilitator for the discussions, she “sets the direction, goals, research output and reports.”  The executives have taken up issues such as “what does usury mean, and the impact of the short-term perspective on Wall Street.”

“At the very root of the crisis is a crisis of confidence in the system,” observed Walker, “proving that capitalism cannot survive without a moral framework.”  She believes the time is finally ripe for ethics education.  “There is more of an ‘aha’ [now] when you speak about ethics.  People are really getting it.  It's getting to them personally.” As she sees it, the future will hold even more demand for the kind of work she does.  “There will be a backlash.  People will be angry at banks and regulations, which will lead to more regulation, more calls on Congress.  This will increase the demand for ethics consulting and training.”

Walker is optimistic about the economic future of the country but feels there will be significant changes.   "For the market to rebuild,” she noted, “we will have to relearn trust, thrift, stewardship and integrity.  Regulation is not enough.  A capitalistic system has to be fundamentally based on values.”

Being a person of faith is central to Leigh-Anne Walker. A graduate of Dartmouth College and the Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, she left her undergraduate years determined to hold onto the Christian faith she had so carefully nurtured during that time.  She knew it would take effort: “I saw people lost their faith.  I didn't want to be somebody who is a flash in the pan, when it was important to me in college and when the real world intruded, I suddenly had no time for it.”

As she climbed the corporate ladder, Walker was careful to keep questioning herself. “What is it my position enables me to do that can make things better? Why have I been given this responsibility? What is God trying to do through my life?”   One of her answers was getting summer jobs for minority students, which often took much campaigning, on her part, to change the attitudes of colleagues.  “I'd walk up and down the halls and say, ‘You need an intern, go hire this kid.’  I'd get 15 kids a job every summer.”  She did the same for hiring the handicapped. “Corporate America is very slow to hire the handicapped.  I found and hired a secretary who was a quadriplegic.” 

Her awareness of the crippling magnitude of student debt moved her to action. “I ran a student loan business for a while but was always coming at it from a Christian perspective. I was struck by students coming out of school and having no idea of how much they owed.”  She developed a system that, she said, “provides a website the student can access that gives easy-to-understand details about their financial aid situation.”  This system, called eAwards, was patented in July 2006 and interfaces with financial aid systems at colleges so students can know exactly the kind of debt they are incurring.

She believes the church has an important role to play in the arena of business ethics— not simply as critic but as facilitator as well:  “The Church spends time pointing fingers at business people instead of helping them figure out how they can get this internal control.”   With the education and skills Walker has acquired at YDS, it just might be that she is one of the people who can help the church move in the right direction.

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