The Cornell story of Alex Ponomarenko ’94 is one of pluck and determination. Ponomarenko was a 21-year old Ukrainian student wanting to study in America when he heard about Cornell. Today, he’s retired from a successful career in finance and now is giving back to his alma mater by helping to make a Cornell education more accessible for international students.
He is a new board member of the Cornell Club in Miami and is getting more involved with the College of Arts & Sciences, volunteering his time as a mentor with the College’s Career Development office and giving funds to support scholarships for international students.
“I’ve fulfilled a lot of the things I’ve wanted to do,” he said. “But when I was younger, I struggled to raise money for my education. And having gone through that, I want to do something for kids who are in the same position. There are lots of foreign students who come and are hungry and want to do well. I think we should support them.”
Ponomarenko, right, at Sigma Phi in 1993, with Richard Shriver '55.
Ponomarenko’s story starts in the late 1980s, when he met Cornell alum Richard Shriver ’55, who was teaching in the Ukraine and agreed to invite Ponomarenko to visit. Ponomarenko, who paid for the visit by joining an indoctrination trip with the Moonies, met up with Shriver and was able to attend community college in the states. During the summer, he found an internship on Wall Street and applied to Cornell to study economics. Although he was accepted, he still had to come up with tuition money, as financial aid wasn’t available for international students.
Not deterred by that prospect, he convinced some of his Wall Street connections to take out a bond on his education, promising to repay them with interest when he graduated. He worked hard during his time at Cornell, at one time sleeping on the couch at Sigma Phi and waiting tables there.
“In two years after graduation, I had paid back the $35,000 that I had borrowed,” he said. “I paid everything ahead of schedule, and sent everyone a bottle of Dom Perignon with my last payment because I was very grateful.”
Ponomarenko said his economics classes at Cornell prepared him well for his careers and that his experiences at Cornell with people from all backgrounds and interests always paid off for him during job interviews.
After working with Credit Suisse for two years, Ponomarenko took a job with Lehman Brothers in leveraged finance, where he worked crazy hours, completed a lot of lucrative deals and was offered a position as an associate after one year. He relocated to London to be closer to family, worked with Goldman Sachs in London and then decided to explore the area of real estate, so he went back to school for his MBA at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA.
“I learned skills of managing and acquiring real estate, so that when the market went down, I was able to buy properties that turned out to be great investments,” he said.
A move to Moscow with Deutche Bank was next, so that Ponomarenko and his wife could be closer to her mother.
“Moscow was a wild place, with a completely different set of rules,” he said, adding that he inherited the portfolio there just before the financial crisis of 2008. Ponomarenko has lots of stories from those days, of run-ins with government officers and threats from prosecutors.
After being interrogated a dozen times and with a feeling that things were only going to get worse, Ponomarenko asked for a transfer back to London, where he worked for two more years until he decided to retire to Miami to spend more time with his young family and focus on his real estate holdings in Chicago.
Today, with a little more time on his hands, Ponomarenko has seriously taken up Taekwondo, holding the current top spot in the world and becoming U.S. and Pan American champion for his age group. He heads to the world championships in July.