Berkeley Engineering sophomores Alex Montanez and Miriam Almaraz are part of the inaugural class of Hallac Scholars. (photo courtesy)

Introducing the Hallac Scholars

Berkeley Engineering sophomores Alex Montanez and Miriam Almaraz both got an early start on their STEM journey. By the time Montanez entered junior high in the northern California town of Clear Lake, he had already taken apart a few computers just to find out how they worked. Around the same time, in Los Angeles, Almaraz leapfrogged into an advanced math class as a sixth-grade student.

Now, after being chosen as part of the inaugural class of Hallac Scholars — a program sponsored by the global asset management firm BlackRock that’s a combined scholarship, mentorship and internship all rolled into one — the two 19-year olds will soon become immersed in learning how engineers can use their skills to develop innovative tech for delivering financial services.

The program was established by Sarah Hallac in memory of her late husband, Charlie Hallac, who was one of BlackRock’s first employees when he joined in 1988. Hallac rose through the ranks to become the firm’s co-president. One of his most visible accomplishments was to serve on the team that developed  Aladdin, an investment platform that was an industry leader when the software launched in 2000.

In addition to receiving scholarship money for their college education, Hallac Scholars — comprised of students at Georgia Tech as well as Berkeley — will get hands-on experience during an internship at BlackRock next summer, as well as access to mentors in the field.

“After Charlie passed away, [BlackRock CEO] Larry Fink, the management team and I talked about the importance of keeping his memory alive,” says Sarah Hallac, BlackRock senior advisor. “It was important to us that we honor Charlie with something he would appreciate. And what Charlie loved to do was to mentor and educate kids — especially in STEM subjects.”

Recently, Almaraz and Montanez reflected upon their path to engineering — and what they’re looking forward to doing as Hallac Scholars.

“I was intrigued by engineering because it combined math and science — and you could use it to help people,” says Almaraz, who grew up in the unincorporated town of Lennox, near Inglewood.

She was first introduced to the discipline during her high school years at Lennox Academy, a K-12 STEM school, when enrolled in the school’s engineering track. During that time, Almaraz and her classmates were introduced to AutoCAD, civil engineering and mechanical engineering — even robotics.

Currently, she is interested in the field of prosthetics. But while Almaraz is still exploring what she wants to do after graduation, the mechanical engineering major is sure of one thing — she wants to use her education to give back to both society and the community she grew up in.

“It’s a career I can use to give back,” she says. “Whatever I do, I would like to go back and talk to students and affect them the way my teacher, who is a former engineer, affected me by encouraging me to consider engineering.”

Like Almaraz, electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) major Montanez also liked math as a child. But Montanez discovered he was fascinated with computers as well.

“It was just the mystery of the computer,” he says. “I wanted to know how computers and electronics worked because they were everywhere. I’m interested in the impact computers have in helping people.”

But Montanez’s junior high and high school didn’t offer any computer science or engineering classes. There wasn’t a computer club either.

“I did go to one seminar about computer science during a career day,” Montanez says. “Everything else I had to learn on my own.”

When it came time for him to decide what he wanted to do as a career, he knew that he wanted to work with computers. Montanez says he’s currently interested in electrical engineering, artificial intelligence, the connection between computers and the physical world (as demonstrated through robotics, for example) and how computer engineering intersects with the finance industry.

He’ll get to take that on as a BlackRock intern next summer, when he’ll serve on the science team that works on Aladdin as well as on developing apps used by the firm’s clients. Almaraz will bring her engineering skills to BlackRock’s exchange-traded fund group during her internship.

Both Almaraz and Montanez say that thanks to the scholarship, they’ll be able to focus more on their studies, and as a result, explore what truly interests them within the field of engineering.

The Hallac Scholars Program is part of BlackRock’s Student of Technology Initiative, a company-wide effort that aims to make technology a key part of the company by, for example, equipping older employees with “reverse mentorships,” where younger colleagues who are more tech-savvy can share their knowledge.

The firm’s strong belief in the importance of technology was championed by Charlie Hallac, according to Rob Kapito, BlackRock co-founder and president.

“Charlie joined BlackRock to help us fulfill our vision of building a world-class investment firm deeply rooted in technology and innovation,” he says. “BlackRock is the firm it is today, in huge part because of Charlie. He saw how to use technology to transform our industry in unique and powerful ways.”

And Sarah Hallac is optimistic about the incoming group of scholars.

“The inaugural class is full of incredible students,” she says. “The entire program is a ‘win-win-win’ — the students win, Berkeley wins and BlackRock wins for being able to learn from these talented young people.”