When Vivian Lin Thurston began her American career there weren’t many other Chinese nationals working in the US investment industry, especially in her adopted home town of Chicago. “That was in 1998 and no one really cared about China as an economy or investment opportunity," she recalls.
Case in point: Although her first US role at Brinson Partners (later merged into UBS Global Asset Management) was as an emerging-markets analyst, China coverage wasn’t even in her job description. “Having an international background helped in a broad sense, but I was hired not because I was from China and had worked there for two years, but because of my analytical skills.”
Lin Thurston, who founded the Chinese Finance Association of America (CFAA) in 2009 and is currently its president, says the more recent crop of US-based Chinese finance professionals enjoy better career prospects – both in America and the PRC – than their 90s predecessors. “For me, 2009 was the perfect time to set up the CFAA because it was clear that, post-financial crisis, China would play a more important role in the financial world. And coupled with the downturn in the US, Chinese people here became more interested in opportunities at home.”
Chinese professionals, particular those in Chicago, traditionally broke into the US job market via futures, trading and investment positions. “They mostly came from a science or IT background and transitioned over time into financial services, especially in areas like high-frequency trading, where they put their technical skills to work on building algorithms, for example.”
Lin Thurston took a less techie career track: while her final degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was a Master of Science, she majored in finance and developed a passion for fundamental investment. She rose up the ranks during her 13 years at UBS, eventually becoming an executive director and senior investment analyst in the US equities group before joining Mesirow Advanced Strategies, a multi-product money manager, this August.
“You didn’t always see many Chinese go into this type of trading, but now a few more do – it’s become easier for them. More Chinese are taking business majors and studying MBAs, not just science. This is setting them up for jobs like portfolio management.”
Chinese people are becoming more “mainstream” within the US financial industry. “It isn’t just ‘oh, the Chinese are only good with numbers, but they can’t communicate well, so they’re not suitable for most roles’. There’s more diversity now in the type of work they are doing.”
This is partly due to improving standards of English as more Chinese go to colleges and even high schools in the US, adds Lin Thurston. A post-graduate qualification from an American institution remains a prerequisite for finding work. “Directly hiring people based in China is almost unheard of. With a US education, the language, cultural and training barriers are so much lower.”
Chinese nationals will pick up better roles and have a bigger impact on US financial services in the near future, she says. “More of them will become traditional portfolio managers, calling more of the shots than they do today. This trend is already happening; I know of several emerging-markets hedge fund managers who are Chinese. And China itself is a more attractive investment opportunity for Western firms, so they need to hire people who know that market.”
Moving (and staying) motivations
Not every Chinese professional is on a clear path to career success in America. Those who aren’t making investments decisions are more prone to returning home, says Lin Thurston. “The hurdles to getting an investment role are still higher in the US.”
The CFAA once focused its networking efforts only on Chicago, but is now active in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Hong Kong, as well as New York and Boston. Lin Thurston uses the example of one of its China-based members – who moved from the US to a job in Beijing’s burgeoning private equity sector – to show that returnees will only move for a significant step up the career ladder. “He was in a consulting-only role here, but now he’s making investments decisions. It made sense for him to return.”
Yet with a growing talent pool to choose from, Chinese firms can afford to be picky about the returnees they hire; US experience in itself doesn’t secure the job. “There are more Chinese professionals in the US these days and more of them want to return. In addition, lots of Chinese have jobs in Hong Kong and they are more in touch with the mainland market than American returnees. So there’s more competition on the supply side.”
Men, she adds, are generally more willing to relocate than women – Lin Thurston herself turned down such a move while at UBS. “I think we tend to care more about quality of life. In terms of things like clean air, kids’ education and healthcare, it’s better here than in China.”
Lin Thurston also reckons many Chinese firms remain male bastions, which can stifle women’s attempts to gain promotion and recognition. “Also, in my experience, men are greater risk takers, and returning to a less-developed market is risky from a career perspective.”
Returnees of both genders often face cultural barriers when readjusting to Chinese workplaces. It’s the incessant job hopping that would bother Lin Thurston. “I wouldn’t enjoy an unstable environment where my colleagues were always changing. People in China move frequently for more pay, which is a reflection of society there – the short-term quick-money culture.”