Samantha Kappagoda, Chief Economist and Co-Founder of Risk Economics, Inc. in New York City, loves puzzles. She sees equations and hidden patterns woven throughout all aspects of life – from the Fibonacci sequence in a nautilus to the socioeconomic trends of an aging workforce – and feels compelled to solve them.
For Kappagoda, who is also the Co-Lead Investigator at the RiskEcon Lab for Decision Metrics and a visiting scholar at Courant Institute for Mathematical Sciences at New York University, analytical problems are the fuel driving her dedication to her profession. An occupation she sees more than just a career, but a perpetuation of the legacy of all female mathematicians and statisticians.
“There have always been women scientists, but the current perception is not necessarily accurate, in that their contributions are under-represented,” said Kappagoda, recently named the 2013 Women of Distinction by the Girls Scouts of Greater New York.
Kappagoda explained that women have always had significant scientific influence, although the archetype of the profession often tends to be misleading.
“One of the main barriers to success for women in STEM is that the world does not tend to have the complete picture of these women’s great accomplishments and contributions to their fields,” Kappagoda said. This includes women like Ada Byron King, metaphysician and founder of scientific computing, as well as actress Hedy Lamarr, who patented an idea in 1942 for frequency hopping, which later supported secure military communications and mobile phone technology.
This is why Kappagoda encourages women pursuing economics, statistics, and mathematics to develop skills and build camaraderie.
“Establish a peer network of support. It’s important to have these dialogues. And think outside the box. If there isn’t an opportunity, create your own, and now more than ever, it is more straightforward to launch your own initiative or venture, pursue your own research, or introduce your own innovation,” Kappagoda advises peers and recent graduates.
A Problem-Solving Career
Growing up in Sri Lanka, Kappagoda felt empowered by the nation’s progressive society, inspired by the country’s prominent female leaders, and supported by her parents, her mother a physician and her father a Rhodes Scholar economist. From a young age, she established a love of learning from her older brother.
“Bubbling with enthusiasm, he was happy to share all he learned with his captive audience – me. As a result I learned early and quickly, and it came as something of a surprise to my parents, when they discovered that I could read at the age of two and could do basic arithmetic with an abacus shortly thereafter,” Kappagoda said.
After the family relocated to England and Kappagoda graduated from high school, she pursued mathematics at Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London. Having the opportunity to learn from award-winning Fields Medalists she expanded her focus of study, seeing the endless possibilities for algebraic resolve on a global scale through finance and economics and graduated with a M.A. in Economics, Monetary Economics, and Industrial Organization from the University of Toronto in Canada in 1991.
For two years, following graduation, Kappagoda worked as an economist for World Bank in Washington D.C. and it was there she worked with mentor William Branson, consultant to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and Professor of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Influenced by his expertise in the field of macroeconomic policy and financial structure in developing countries and her growing interest in financial markets, Kappagoda returned to graduate school to receive a second masters – an M.B.A in Analytical Finance, Statistics and International Business from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. It was while she was still in her second stint in graduate school that the budding economic analyst was approached by global macro hedge fund Caxton Associates.
“They offered me the role I couldn’t refuse,” Kappagoda explained, accepting the position as Senior Economist. She commuted from Chicago to New York City for the first six months of her thirteen years with the international trading and investment firm, while simultaneously completing her second master’s degree.
“It was the global interaction and interconnectedness that was fascinating and challenging,” Kappagoda said about her tenure at Caxton, where she explored fixed income, commodities, and equities through macroeconomic and demographic analytics. “There was always a new problem to solve, a new puzzle. I was never presented with an identical situation; there was always a new wrinkle.”
As experience prevailed, Kappagoda was able to parse the pieces of Caxton’s global investment puzzle. She saw her career, no longer in individual fragments, but rather as a whole and could capitalize on her expertise, research, and interests as founder and managing editor of the Journal of Risk Finance, publication that, for both academics and practitioners, provides a rigorous forum for the publication of theoretical and empirical research related to the financing of diverse risks.
“I was able to take this interest in long-terms patterns and transition it into our boutique advisory firm Risk Economics, Inc.,” Kappagoda said. Co-founded with her husband David K.A. Mordecai, the firm applies research and development of rigorous analytics involving population, demographics, and macroeconomics. “This has allowed me to continue to research and problem-solve, and I have been able to take advantage of new sources of data and analytical technology,” she said.
Today, the changing environment of economics continues to require Kappagoda to build mathematical models and find complex hidden patterns. Her personal focus at Risk Economics is on developing a deeper understanding of changing spending patterns and how the current recession will influence trends in decision-making for 20-somethings in the long-run, as well as a focus on the effects of urbanization on food, water, and other scarce resources.
Her Own Time
Kappagoda has resided in New York City for the past 17-years, and has taken up the recent hobby of exploring the city that never sleeps.
“I realized I haven’t seen nearly enough of New York City and I’m trying to learn more about it,” she said. Kappagoda recently explored the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, which highlights immigration and urbanization in New York City across different time periods.
The chief economist says she feels most at home in the Hudson Valley, where she and her husband spend a majority of their leisure time. There, Kappagoda is a member of the Board of Directors for Glynwood, an organization that promotes sustainable agriculture and regional food systems, and the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, the premier Shakespeare Company in the region. She is also a Leadership Council member of the field-based scientific research and education program, Black Rock Forest Consortium.