Sindi Banaj and Maryem Bouatlaoui became best friends in high school, but the Stevens Center for Innovation in Finance is where they became leaders.
Before enrolling at Wharton, the two women were among other underrepresented teens from Philadelphia area high schools, both competitively selected to work as interns on a special project at the Center.
Their assignment? Building an app from scratch.
An app that strengthened resumes and their community alike
The app is a loan debt calculator designed to help college-bound students figure out the real-life costs of borrowing to pay for school and how that debt will follow them into the future. Users can calculate their financial risk by simulating scenarios they may encounter after graduation – not completing the degree while still owing money, not getting a high-paying job, buying a house, and other situations.
The app was conceived by Wharton finance professor and center director David Musto as a project that could serve the Philadelphia community. About 35 to 40 high school juniors and seniors have worked on it since last year, with some staying on longer than others. Wharton senior associate director Gillian Bazelon recruited all the interns in the program and said Banaj and Bouatlaoui have been standouts among their peers because of their growth and leadership.
“It’s been incredible to watch Sindi and Maryem working together on this app, which has not been an easy project. It requires a lot of collaboration and a lot of humility because things don’t always go right for the students on the first try,” Bazelon said. “But Sindi and Maryem don’t give up. They are intellectually curious, and they really are role models for other students – especially young women.”
Banaj and Bouatlaoui credit their work at the Stevens Center for strengthening their friendship. Not only did it give them a reason to meet up regularly since they live in opposite directions of the city, but it also helped them understand each other better.
“It came naturally. I never saw it as a competition between us,” Banaj said. “We saw it as an opportunity to grow and to improve our skills.”
Both interned on the research team, writing formulas to be plugged into the app. They agreed that Banaj is better at statistics and analytics, while Bouatlaoui is better at product development.
“Doing the financial aid formula derivations has come from doing a lot of qualitative and quantitative research, so we’ve both been able to put our best skills forward,” Bouatlaoui said. “The project needs both these types of people, and that’s why we’ve been able to work really well together.”
A rocky start to a beautiful friendship
Banaj and Bouatlaoui have a sweet kind of shorthand that comes from years of being close, but the two didn’t start out that way. When they met as freshmen in a math class at Central High School, Banaj asked Bouatlaoui for help and found her to be less than friendly. It wasn’t the greatest first impression for Banaj, who immigrated to the U.S. from Albania in middle school and was still shy about talking to others.
“I honestly don’t remember that happening,” Bouatlaoui said, laughing heartily at Banaj’s retelling of their first encounter. “I don’t remember that initial story at all, and she still holds it against me!”
It’s only a playful grudge between the women, now both second-semester sophomores at Wharton. Bouatlaoui is majoring in business marketing and international studies as part of the Hunstman Program, and Banaj is majoring in finance.
Despite the rocky start, they began chatting and realized they had a lot in common. Bouatlaoui is also an immigrant who moved with her family from Morocco when she was just 1 month old. Both women are Muslim, although Banaj doesn’t consider herself observant; both come from family-oriented cultures steeped in tradition and expectations; and both are whip-smart.
“We have been able to bond closer because of our similarities,” Bouatlaoui said. “We bond a lot about being immigrants and we have similar experiences, even though it’s different with Sindi coming here much later in her life. We have similarities in the way our parents talk to us. And we see the different opportunities here in the United States.”
Bouatlaoui said she loves that Banaj is direct and honest. “She’s not going to make it flowery for you. She is going to tell you how it is, and good friends need to do that. You need that in your life.”
Banaj said Bouatlaoui gives her unconditional, unwavering support.
“We’ve had a lot of classes together this year, and she is always supportive and understanding,” she said. “I can go to her and ask her for help, and she will provide it. She’s not just one of those friends who is like, ‘You got this, you can figure it out.’”
Both women are unsettled on a specific career path, but they know they want to do something in business that helps others — much like their work on the app. Whatever the future holds, they plan on being besties through it all.
“Yeah, unfortunately,” Bouatlaoui teased. “It’s very reassuring and comforting to have someone who can support you not only as a friend but as a peer.”
“Me, too,” Banaj added. “Penn is a competitive school. I feel like with us, we’re always willing to talk to each other and get through this together.”
– Angie Basiouny
Posted: January 11, 2024