World-class teacher and world-class athlete
The HBS professor differs from his business school colleagues in one big, if unusual, way: his passion for powerlifting. The broad-shouldered Cohen is a world-class amateur powerlifter. The 2001 U.S. Powerlifting Federation Collegiate National Champion has won numerous national and world powerlifting tournaments, and in 2014 he broke the All-Time World Record in the squat in the 181-pound drug-tested division with a squat of 630 pounds.
Cohen's journey is both an inspiring and entertaining story: from a short, chubby kid who was the head tuba player in the school band and a lineman on the football team in the small farm town of Waverly, New York, to the upper reaches of academia.
Son of an orthopedic surgeon and a nurse, Cohen knew he was destined for a career of some kind in business. As a third grader, he dressed up as a stockbroker for Halloween, complete with blazer, briefcase — and sweatpants (it was, he explains, during his "sweatpants phase"). More significantly, he distinguished himself at Waverly High School, which is some 40 miles from Ithaca, N.Y., teaching himself AP calculus and earning valedictorian status in his graduating class. He was both co-captain of the school football squad and a member of the marching band, changing uniforms at halftime to play tuba and changing back again to get back on the field.
'If I can lift 350 pounds today and 375 tomorrow, I've gotten stronger'
It was Cohen's high school football coach who first recommended that he lift weights as a way to build physical strength, and as a way to get into a college, where he could play ball. But after he won admission to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in 2007, Cohen, at just 5 feet, 8 inches tall, decided against playing football in his first year.
He didn't stop powerlifting, though.
"It is incredibly objective," he says of the sport. "If I can lift 350 pounds today and then 375 pounds tomorrow, I know I have gotten stronger. You just know you did or you know you didn't. I like things that are measurable, and in powerlifting, things are very measurable."
As an undergrad at Wharton, Cohen initially entertained the idea of becoming an I-banker. "I was sure I wanted to go into investment banking. The classic path is to go to Wharton, get a job at Goldman Sachs, and then three years later you come to Harvard Business School. With your MBA, you go back to Goldman, become a partner, get a place in the Hamptons, and life is good."
Chicago was 'cutthroat, competitive, and I loved it'
Except Cohen wasn't so sure about that path. At Wharton, he fell in love with the academics, so much that he went straight to graduate school at the University of Chicago. "I wasn't sure I wanted to be a professor," he recalls. "That first job is hard, and not in a way that is intellectually challenging. There is nothing I can do 20 hours a day and be good at — not even watching TV. So instead of going into investment banking, I decided to get a Ph.D. at Chicago and then get my MBA as well."
After graduating from Wharton summa cum laude with a concentration in finance, statistics, and accounting, Cohen packed his bags in Philly and headed to the Windy City in the fall of 2001. "I loved Chicago. It was a sink-or-swim environment. The school kicked out 50% of the students in the Ph.D. program and out of the nine students they took in my year, only four students made it through. It's cutthroat. It's competitive, and I loved it. You feel like you are walking with giants, with brilliant scholars like Gary Becker and Eugene Fama on the faculty."