Profile: Professor Lemma Senbet’s Uncharted Journey

Dr. Lemma W. Senbet is the William E. Mayer Chair Professor of Finance at the University of Maryland, College Park. Beyond his academic career, Professor Lemma has been an influential member of the global finance community. He has advised the World Bank, IMF, the UN and other international institutions on issues of financial sector reform and capital market development. (Photo: UMD)

University at Buffalo

As the William E. Mayer Chair Professor of Finance, Lemma Senbet, PhD ’76, has helped transform the finance program at the University of Maryland into one of the best in the world.

He’s made such an impact that the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland recently named an undergraduate finance program after him—The Lemma Senbet Fund, which gives undergrads hands-on experience in portfolio management and equity analysis.

But Senbet never planned to earn a PhD. He came to the U.S. from Ethiopia to earn an MBA at UCLA, which he selected because they offered a fast-track program he could complete in a year and keep his expenses down.

Senbet had planned to go home after completing his MBA, but didn’t want to leave after just one year in the U.S. Determined to find a way to earn an income so he could stay another year, Senbet turned to a trusted professor at UCLA who encouraged him to pursue a PhD.

“I got accepted to the PhD program at UCLA, but there wasn’t much money for students,” says Senbet. “So, I went back to my professor and he told me that Governor Rockefeller was handing out tuition waivers to foreign students, and encouraged me to apply to a finance program in New York—particularly UB.”

He got accepted into Columbia University and the University at Buffalo, but decided UB was the better fit. Still, he wasn’t fully committed to spending three or four years in a doctoral program, since he had passion to go back home. But civil unrest in Ethiopia forced him to stay longer in the program.

“This path turned out to be the correct one,” he says. “I didn’t know it then, but UB had one of the best finance programs—better than the Big Ten schools at the time. But since the program was so small, we got very close mentorship. We were like colleagues with faculty.”

After earning his doctorate, Senbet joined the University of Wisconsin–Madison as an assistant professor of finance. There, he progressed rapidly along the tenure track, earning the rank of full professor after just seven years, followed by the Charles Albright Chaired Professorship, before joining the University of Maryland.

Beyond his academic career, Senbet has been an influential member of the global finance community. He has advised the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and other international institutions on issues of financial sector reform and capital market development. He is a past president of the Western Finance Association and a two-time director of the American Finance Association.

He also took a five-year leave from the University of Maryland to serve as executive director and CEO of the African Economic Research Consortium, the largest and oldest economic research and training network in Africa. He is succeeded by the former governor of the Central Bank of Kenya.

Senbet has received numerous recognitions for his impact on the profession. In 2000 he was inducted into the Financial Economists Roundtable, was named a Fellow of the Financial Management Association International in 2006 and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Addis Ababa University in 2005. In 2012, he was awarded the Ethiopian Diaspora (SEED) award for exemplary lifetime achievements and community service.

Throughout his career, Senbet has mentored a generation of doctoral students who have become distinguished professors around the country, including at Carnegie Mellon University and Vanderbilt University.

“So, UB has PhD ‘grandchildren’ so to speak,” he says.

When his students come to him seeking advice about what to do in their life, Senbet offers a simple response: Do your best.

“You don’t know where an opportunity will lead or who is watching you,” he says. “This uncharted journey has defined my life—from my college major to Wisconsin to Maryland to Africa. No matter what path is given to you—whether by luck or by plan—give it your all.”


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