Cindy Ma on Navigating the Finance Industry and Supporting Public School Students
Dr. Cindy Ma is a known name in the financial industry. Most recently, she was featured in the “50 Leading Women in Hedge Funds 2020” list. But aside from her contributions to derivatives, risk management, valuation, and corporate governance, Cindy also sits on PENCIL’s board.
We recently spoke to her about her support of public education, why businesses should support organizations like PENCIL and her experience as a woman of color in the financial sector.
How did you first learn about PENCIL?
I learned about PENCIL from John Fosina, a fellow board member. John has been my client for several years, and we have regular lunches to catch up on business. One day, over lunch, I told him about my interest in joining charitable initiatives, and John said, “why don’t you consider PENCIL?”
So, what about PENCIL stood out to you?
I met these exceptional students who told us their stories of overcoming disadvantageous situations and building their careers through PENCIL’s support.
We heard students visited you at Houlihan Lokey’s office! Can you tell us more about that?
So, you know, we invited close to 30 students to see our office. It was amazing to see the curiosity on their faces. We have five different floors, and they got to walk through all of them and meet people from various departments. It helps them identify more career pathways and make connections. For some of them, it’s their first time seeing an office building from the inside.
That was last year before everything went virtual. I cannot wait to see the students again and visit their school this time around.
Why is it so important for you to support student success?
I firmly believe that education is the key to changing one’s life. Take my situation, for example; I grew up in a poverty-stricken family. My parents were both uneducated, but they believed in providing good education to their children. They worked extremely hard to put us through school. I went to public schools in Hong Kong and worked very hard to make my way to the U.S.
Of course, there are many other charitable activities that you could partake in, but to support young people’s growth is of utmost importance, especially those who attend public schools. Like myself, most of these students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and can use mentorship and guidance to succeed in college and career.
What was your experience like in school as an immigrant and person of color?
I was one of those students who went to office hours and asked many questions and asked for career guidance. Even though I have been in the U.S. for several years, I speak with an accent. In the early stages of my career, it mattered a lot. So, I used all the resources I could find to compensate for that.
The financial sector, as it currently stands, is highly exclusive. Did you face any hurdles getting to where you are today?
As I mentioned, English is my second language. As an immigrant, the hardest thing to assimilate to is the culture. I still have a tough time relating to my colleagues when they talk about American football or boxing. Secondly, me being Asian, many people assume that I work in technology. They believe that I can do computing and quantitative reasoning but that I can’t be a manager. Then there’s hitting a glass ceiling (a metaphor used to represent an invisible barrier that prevents a given demographic from rising beyond a certain level in a hierarchy).
Because of my language barrier, people assume that I am not a good communicator. They have to pay extra attention at times to understand me. So, I try to add humor to my presentation to keep their attention. And then, I use the skills I learned during my PhD to impress clients.
Why should NYC businesses support PENCIL?
Everybody now is focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion. Companies are chasing young people of color to bring to the workforce. But they seem to be lost because they think they are chasing a small subset of people. Organizations like PENCIL have direct access to a young and diverse workforce. PENCIL trains hundreds of students each year. Investing in PENCIL would save companies money and the time they invest in training students.
I am also really concerned about students, especially in public schools, who may be missing out on opportunities due to the pandemic. Remote learning is complex, especially for them because they may have Wi-Fi issues, too many people living in small spaces, making it difficult to focus. The pandemic has widened the gap between public and private school students. Businesses in NYC need to step up and increase funding for organizations like PENCIL who support these students if they want to continue to have a diverse workforce pipeline in the long term.
Last year, you biked more than 100 miles to raise funds for PENCIL. Tell us more about the experience?
I ended up riding for 132 miles! Even though I’m an avid cyclist, I had never ridden that kind of distance. I was happy to use what I am passionate about to raise funds for PENCIL and the students they support. I never really thought I would be able to finish. But then I thought about all the people who were counting on me and helping me raise funds. Honestly, I had a great experience, and I plan to do it this year again.
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Our readers are interested in learning more about you. What have you been reading recently?
I’ve been reading several articles focused on Asian American and Pacific Heritage Month. I am learning about how Chinese people have contributed to American history, Japanese American history, Korean and Hawaiian history!
Wow! Who is your biggest inspiration?
It is my mother! My mother was born in China and never went to school because she was born during World War II and lived in a village. She started working when she was seven to provide for her family. At a very young age, she told me that education is the easiest way of escaping the poverty trap. She gave me the confidence to create my path. And she never had a day off. She worked 24*7 to provide for us. I owe everything to her.
That’s why it’s even more critical for me to support students and young adults.
That’s a great reason to support PENCIL! Thank you for taking the time out to speak with us today, Cindy.